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The Lesson of Danny and Marilyn


Consider the tale of Danny and Marilyn. State representative Danny Carroll of Iowa and Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado were extremist right-wing politicians, spewing hatred without fear of retribution. Although Danny and Marilyn once attacked gay people at every turn, this tale has a happy ending.

As an Iowa Republican leader, Danny was a rising star who used his opposition to LGBT equality to rally his base and fill his campaign coffers. Danny blocked every piece of pro-LGBT legislation and sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality. Something had to be done to stop him. Enter LGBT and progressive Iowans who joined together during the 2006 election to take out Danny and others and replace them with pro-equality legislators. They teamed up to lay a new political path for Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, and defeated Danny and his cohorts. Fast-forward to today. Iowa now has statewide safe school and inclusive nondiscrimination protections and is the first heartland state with marriage equality. This tale could have had a very different ending, but it didn't thanks to a comprehensive, multiyear electoral and legislative strategy.

And what about Marilyn? Marilyn was what Danny could have become had he not been stopped at the state level -- a member of the U.S. Congress. As the proud sponsor of the vicious antifamily Federal Marriage Amendment, Marilyn built a national reputation as a brutally anti-LGBT politician. And like Danny, she used her anti-equality message to assemble a war chest. While Marilyn made herself the poster child for anti-LGBT politics, donors and activists set their sights on her, growing savvier and more determined with each election to end her reign. Her margin of victory fell from 13 points in 2002 to six in 2004 to two points in 2006. The more Marilyn promoted her divisive political agenda, the more she lost track of issues that really mattered in her district. Finally, in 2008, she was voted out, joining the ranks of ousted U.S. senator Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum -- proving that persistence certainly does pay off and gay bashing does not. And the reward? A new Colorado congresswoman who has already voted for federal hate-crimes legislation.

This is the lesson of Danny and Marilyn: A focused, disciplined political strategy results in equality legislation and places former in the titles of anti-LGBT legislators. And though knocking out bad guys is sexy and fun, the work can't stop on Election Night. Lobbying for legislative action must begin the next day. Across the nation this strategy has changed the political landscape -- state by state and race by race. Five years ago only Massachusetts offered us the freedom to marry. In just the past year alone we added five more states to that list. Meanwhile, Colorado, Nevada, and Wisconsin have blazed trails on basic protections for same-sex couples even though they have state bans on marriage equality.

From women's suffrage to civil rights for African-Americans, history teaches that state victories come first and only later translate to federal change. Most politicians, especially at the federal level, don't lead -- they follow. And that means the first step in winning full federal equality is continuing to score meaningful state-level wins.

We learned hard lessons in the 1990s -- chiefly, that we cannot be passive bystanders expecting Congress and the White House to act on our behalf. We will not repeat those mistakes. Polling shows dramatic increases in public support, and we have a president who has promised action, but that's not enough. While there are differences between state and federal work, the focused approach that's winning on the state level will succeed if activated federally.

First, we expect legislative action, not just cocktail party invitations from Democrats and Republicans who want our votes and money. We should give political support and contributions only to candidates and organizations that deliver on the promises they make. Those who courageously lead on our behalf should be supported fully. That's why not a single state legislator -- of either political party -- who voted for marriage equality has lost his or her political office as a result. Similarly, we need to be "career counselors" to bad officials and help them find a new line of work! We should replace those who break their campaign promises or file anti-LGBT bills just as we have done with Danny and Marilyn.

Second, we should not push any one of us off of the equality train. Transgender Americans are often the most likely to face discrimination, and we must be united in this effort. If state legislators in Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Rhode Island can pass transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination bills, there's no excuse to divide our community when we fight for equality in Washington, D.C.
Third, the greatest hope we have for reaching full national equality is a new generation of activists. It's time we welcome and support new and unapologetic leadership into our movement. This new generation of LGBT and allied student leaders, elected officials, bloggers, protesters, community organizers, and LGBT parents is ready to take our movement across the finish line. That raw passion will only continue to grow in the federal battles ahead.

Fourth, if we ever want full equality, we need to become a more bipartisan movement. There's no such thing as a permanent majority for either party. And when control flips back, we must not be in the position of losing all our hard-won gains. Former vice president Cheney, John McCain's campaign manager Steve Schmidt, and conservative legal giant Ted Olson have all come out in support of marriage equality. We also need to respect the political diversity of LGBT Americans, including those who share conservative positions on taxes and foreign policy.

Fifth, we can't afford to live in political silos. We have an important voice in the ongoing debates over health care, education, energy, and immigration. Issues such as access to health care, HIV funding and prevention, and disparities in education cut across multiple demographics. Our allies will know whether we watch from the sidelines or engage in those battles. African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans continue to face significant economic and social justice issues. In addition to strengthening our own organizations serving people of color, we must support broader communities of color as partners in the equality movement, not just as a voting bloc in an exit poll. If we want their support on our issues, we have to be there for them.

And finally, we must stop arranging ourselves in a circular LGBT firing squad. There are better places to aim-and we've got a list. While it's important to hold each other accountable, every moment spent attacking ourselves and our organizations is a moment not focused on advancing equality. Progress in the states has come from a multifaceted approach utilizing hard-core electoral work, grassroots organizing, aggressive legislative lobbying, smart litigation, and direct conversations with the voting public -- tasks that require teamwork.

When we do this on the federal level, we will win.

We were honored to attend a recent LGBT White House event -- one of the cocktail parties we mentioned earlier. On that day President Obama said, "By the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration." We take President Obama at his word. And when the president and Congress take real action, our movement must be ready to provide substantive support and political cover to members of both political parties who stand with us. Here's a solid starting place for us to feel "pretty good":

1. Departments and agencies across the federal government should change administrative policy, immediately eliminating significant forms of discrimination against LGBT people. The Obama administration deserves credit for starting these changes by including LGBT families in the 2010 census, granting some benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, and beginning to lift the HIV travel ban.

2. Congress needs to end the federal logjam on LGBT-specific legislation with the immediate enactment of federal hate-crimes and fully inclusive employment nondiscrimination protections before the 2010 midterm election.

3. Following the Department of Justice's deeply offensive DOMA brief, the administration must work with Congress to overturn DOMA, especially section 3, to allow married same-sex couples to access the federal protections that come with marriage. In addition, the president should continue to expand federal workplace benefits that have been earned by LGBT employees.

4. As commander in chief, President Obama can and should lead by ending the discharge of our heroic and patriotic LGBT servicemen and servicewomen. And, working closely and thoughtfully with military leaders and members of Congress, the administration should end "don't ask, don't tell" for good.

These initial federal goals are realistic and attainable. But winning will require contributing to worthy campaigns, getting involved in grassroots lobbying, and making sure our actions match our desire for equality. Even in these tough economic times, we must keep donating politically to make change happen.
This is the vision we have for America. Full equality -- as soon as possible. It will take each and every one of us -- the young activist, the straight ally, the generous donor, and the courageous legislator -- to win. Working together, we can send the next Danny or Marilyn packing and make real gains that change the lives of LGBT people in this country. Now let's roll up our sleeves and get the job done on the federal level just as we are in states all across America.

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Patrick Guerriero