U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who died Thursday at age 68, was a longtime champion of civil rights for all, including LGBTQ people.
Cummings was in his 13th term representing the state’s Seventh Congressional District, based in Baltimore, after having first been elected in 1996. He died at that city’s Johns Hopkins Hospital of complications from various illnesses, the nature of which was not disclosed, The New York Times reports.
As a Democratic congressman, Cummings spoke out for marriage equality and against “license to discriminate” legislation. He was also a thorn in the side of Donald Trump, and Trump struck back by calling Baltimore “rat and rodent infested.” Recently, as chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, he was deeply involved in the investigation that could lead to Trump’s impeachment.
Cummings first voiced public support for marriage equality in 2012, as Maryland was holding a voter referendum on whether to retain the state’s marriage equality law. “I respect and support the decision of the Maryland legislature and will vote in support of Question 6,” which was a vote to uphold the law, Cummings told the Washington Blade shortly before the election.
He was the last member of the Maryland congressional delegation to come out in support of the measure (it was a vote he was making as a citizen of the state, not in Congress). He admitted that his views on the issue had to evolve. “I’m the son of two Pentecostal ministers,” he told the Blade. In my home, women putting on makeup was considered a sin. That’s the kind of house I grew up in. And so you can imagine some issues are very, very difficult.” But, he noted, “I said to myself, How would I feel if somebody told me that I could not marry my wife for a lifetime?”
In 2015, after the Supreme Court ruled for nationwide marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges, he released a statement of praise: “I am elated about today’s Supreme Court decision. It so clearly and rightly upholds the principles of freedom and equality under the law that our nation embodies. I congratulate Mr. Obergefell and all of those who have fought so hard for this decision these many years. Today, our nation celebrates with you. Your courage and determination to defend your civil rights should be an example to us all as we work to protect and defend people’s rights across this great nation.”
The following year, he spoke out strongly against the First Amendment Defense Act, a deceptively named bill that would prevent the federal government from penalizing individuals, businesses, or organizations that discriminate against LGBTQ people or others to whom they have religious objections. At a congressional hearing on the legislation, which has never passed, he challenged witnesses to raise their hands if they thought it was acceptable to discriminate against people who are married to a member of the same sex. No one did, not even those who supported the bill.
He also questioned the timing of the hearing, which occurred exactly one month after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, a gay bar in Orlando, that took the lives of 49 people. “It is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate day to hold this hearing,” he said, as The Hill reported at the time. “Even if you truly believe that being gay is morally wrong or that people should be allowed to discriminate against gay people, why in the world would you choose today of all days to hold a hearing on this discriminatory legislation?”
At the hearing, Cummings, a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, wondered how fellow lawmakers could justify anti-LGBTQ discrimination if they oppose racial discrimination. “For centuries in our nation, black people and white people could not get married,” he said. “Those in power justified this doctrine on religious grounds, and they codified it in our laws. … Now we have a similar situation with same-sex couples.”
The congressman was a supporter of funding for HIV treatment and prevention measures, and he backed needle-exchange programs. He consistently received high scores, often 100s, on the Human Rights Campaign’s Congressional Scorecard. HRC President Alphonso David tweeted a tribute to Cummings: