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Sen. Tammy Baldwin Looks Back On Being 'The First' Throughout Career

Senator Tammy Baldwin

Senator Tammy Baldwin has made history throughout almost every stage of her nearly four-decade career.

Along with being the first out LGBTQ+ woman elected to the House of Representatives in 1999 (where, with Barney Frank, she co-founded the Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality Caucus in 2008) and the first out LGBTQ+ person elected to the U.S. Senate in 2012, Baldwin was also the first woman from Wisconsin to serve in each of those roles. 

And yet, when she was first elected to political office at the age of 24, Baldwin's sexuality was not a history-making event. "I was the third gay person elected to the Dane County board," she says on this week's LGBTQ&A podcast. "I look back sometimes at that experience and wonder would I have had the courage to be 'The First', if I hadn't have had these incredible role models who had at least paved the way for me." They encouraged Baldwin to be open about her queerness and gave her real, tangible examples of what an out LGBTQ+ politician looked like — a rarity in the mid-80s. 

In honor of LGBTQ+ History Month, Senator Baldwin stopped by the LGBTQ&A podcast to talk about her historic career, what she's doing to make sure the Equality Act is passed, and to reflect on the current state of LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S.

"It is a new world and that is pretty amazing to have witnessed in a short period of time. But we still have a long way to go."

You can read an excerpt below and listen to the full interview on Apple Podcasts

JM: Early in your career, were you known as "The Gay Congressperson", "The Gay Senator"? How much was that a part of your identity in the public's mind?
TB: That's so interesting because the first office I ever ran for, was the Dane County Board of Supervisors. And I was the third gay person elected to the Dane County board. I look back sometimes at that experience and wonder would I have had the courage to be "the first", if I hadn't have had these incredible role models who had at least paved the way for me.

I had had these incredible role models and it's hard to be it if you can't see it. And so I remember just seeing their leadership, and they also encouraged me to run out and sort of said, "You're not going to be in the closet. You have company here."

When I was running for the state legislature, every story written about my candidacy was,
"Can a gay woman win? Are the voters ready?" It was also the year of women in politics... remember 1992? Everyone was running for office. So I got asked a lot about being the first woman, the first out lesbian. And I finally sort of had a conversation with some of the reporters locally who were going to be covering me for the whole race. I said, "It's fair to write that story once, Can the gay person win? What's your gay agenda? Whatever it is, but it's not fair to write it every single time. And I'm running to be a representative for all my constituents. And I have a very broad, a very progressive agenda that has to do with jobs and health care and quality childcare and mental health services and all sorts of things I work on to this day."

And I think they did get better at it. Each of the reporters who was sort of covering me realized that that was a fair request.

JM: That's interesting that you were the third out gay person elected to the County Board because I had been wondering if you'd considered not being out at that time. 
TB: Well, here's the issue. When I was campaigning, my campaign literature said where I stood on local issues affecting the LGBTQ community, but nobody when I knocked on their doors and said, "I want you to vote for me. I want you to elect me to the County Board. I'm working on this and all of these things." Nobody ever said, "Are you gay?" It just doesn't necessarily come up in conversation. The reporters, the media covers it, but not necessarily the average voter who you're having a conversation with.

JM: There's a script for politicians where they acknowledge their husbands or wives at events. Were you doing those things as well?
TB: Well, no, I was single at the time I was running for the state legislature, so sadly no. But yes, I certainly acknowledged when I was partnered. I certainly acknowledged the support and in the context of introducing my whole family.

JM: It was such a different time and didn't know if there were discussions about not having you kiss your partner onstage or things like that.
TB: No. I wouldn't. I just am who I am. Right?

JM: How optimistic are you that we'll be able to pass the Equality Act? 
TB: Well, I'll tell you a couple of things. One is right now, the rules of the Senate provide that to pass substantive legislation like the Equality Act, we need 60 votes. And we only have 50 Democrats, 49 of which are signed onto the Equality Act. So we'd need either all 50 Democrats plus 10 Republicans or maybe 11 Republicans and that one Democrat doesn't vote yes. I don't know, but that's the current rules. And that's what all of us as advocates are working to achieve.

And I've been meeting one-on-one with Republicans who have either a track record of having supported ENDA [Employment Non-Discrimination Act] in the past and might look at a broader bill, which is necessary because of the lack of protections in the states. I think if we could even get five, frankly, I think there'd be some momentum of OK, I wouldn't be alone in supporting this.

Now, then there's the other prospect. The other track is there's a number of bills that are being stymied right now because of the filibuster and the 60 vote requirement. And the question is, are we going to confront that? I, for one support getting rid of the filibuster, getting rid of that 60 vote majority or creating reforms that don't allow the minority party to prevent forward progress. So we will probably end up having that debate maybe sooner rather than later. And it might not necessarily be around the Equality Act. It may be something else, voting rights or the debt ceiling or who knows? But we're going to get to it.

JM: Will that happen this year? 
TB: In terms of the filibuster, I think we'll start. We'll have to.

JM: With the Equality Act, are you optimistic that it could pass in President Biden's first term in office?
TB: I wouldn't describe myself as optimistic. I'd just describe myself as hopeful and working really hard to get there.

JM: Policy disagreements are one thing, but when someone is lying about the results of the presidential election, how do you ignore that in order to get anything else done with these politicians?
​TB: You don't ignore it. It's very serious. Part of leadership is truth-telling. Part of leadership is also pointing out when there is a big lie and it's being perpetrated. And I would say it's not insignificant the amount of time I spend trying to either tamp back at conspiracy theories around the coronavirus pandemic or the big lie about the last elections. We have got to rely on facts, and we have to push back when misinformation is flying around.

JM: Does working across the aisle feel less feasible now compared to when you first joined the Senate? 
TB: It varies so much from issue to issue. I'll tell you the one thing I would say is that over the course of time where I've seen ramping up of partisanship, it seems like there are more issues and more legislative measures that say Mitch McConnell and the Republicans want to say "This issue is what divides Democrats and Republicans. We must stop it." But as we saw on infrastructure, as we saw on a number of other pandemic responses under the Trump Administration that Congress worked together on, there are things we can work together on.

But it almost rests on Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy not saying "This is the dividing line between Democrats and Republicans." And so you're seeing that right now on the continuing resolution will keep the government open and raising the debt ceiling. These are things we all did together in a different era.

JM: We're seeing how fragile things that we take for granted are, like the right to abortion in Texas. How worried should we be that we'll go backward on the recent advances we've made like marriage equality and the LGBTQ+ employment discrimination protections in Bostock v. Clayton County? 
TB: We always have to be vigilant, but I feel as though with regard to marriage equality, that all of the predicted ways in which the sky would fall... think of all the arguments we were hearing during the efforts to get marriage equality. None of the doomsday situations that people talked about have come true. And that's why I think it's probably under less threat than some of the other advances that we've seen.

JM: When Barack Obama campaigned for president, he was opposed to same-sex marriage and now it's unthinkable that any Democratic politician wouldn't support it. Were there indicators in Washington that you saw that such a swift change was on the horizon?
TB: I remember when I first came into the House of Representatives, there was not a single federal statute that referenced the community. And I remember vividly coming back from the White House on the day that President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And I was doing a little social media video and I said, "It's hard to fathom that this is the first time that our community is now reflected in federal statute." And after we finished recording, the staff person said I think you made a mistake — then it was Congresswoman Baldwin — "I think you made a mistake, Congresswoman. I think it's the first time this president signed something into law that mentioned the LGBTQ community." I said, "Nope. It just happens to be the first time ever."

Think how far we've come since then. Then we did hate crimes. We did the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. And now we have at least a part of the Equality Act enshrined in case law, dealing with employment. And so all of those things, it's such great strides and partly through legislation, partly through court cases, but it is a new world and that is pretty amazing to have witnessed in a short period of time. But we still have a long way to go.

Listen to the full podcast interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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