Political Notebook: Gay congressman criticizes Obama
by Matthew S. Bajko
Openly gay freshman Congressman Jared Polis , a Democrat from Boulder, Colorado, finds himself in the middle of his first gay brouhaha since being sworn into office in January. It is bringing him renewed national attention and his first tongue lashing from local gay blogger Michael Petrelis .
The controversy comes as Polis readies to hop aboard a red-eye flight from D.C. Friday, June 26 to be in San Francisco for the unveiling of the annual pink triangle installation atop Twin Peaks Saturday morning. He then will be flying home to Colorado later that day to take part in Denver's Pride parade this Sunday.
One of only three out members in Congress, Polis has received flack for his decision to attend tonight's (Thursday, June 25) fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee that is being boycotted by many LGBT people due to a derogatory brief filed by President Barack Obama 's Department of Justice defending the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act.
The handling of the court filing has led to vociferous outcries from the LGBT community and brought to the forefront Obama's paltry record on LGBT issues thus far in his first term.
Polis himself lashed out at the brief, saying in a statement on his Web site that he was "shocked and disappointed to learn that President Obama chose to defend DOMA in federal court, especially given his campaign promise to call for a full repeal of DOMA." He said he was particularly outraged to see his relationship to his partner, Marlon Reis , compared to incest in the court filing. He added that he had called on Obama to clarify his position on DOMA and was "disappointed in his lack of reply."
Nonetheless, Polis has refused to heed calls that he join in the boycott of the DNC fundraiser. He also received criticism from Petrelis for co-hosting a fundraiser honoring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) Wednesday night at a private home in the capital along with his out colleagues Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and Congressman Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts).
In a phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday, June 23 Polis once again defended his attendance at both events. While the Democratic Party has its faults, it is far better in terms of LGBT issues than the Republican Party, he said.
"I am a Democrat and a proud Democrat. Our party is not perfect but we need to make it better," said Polis. "There is an enormous difference between the Republican and Democratic Party on equality issues."
He said he still gives Obama the "benefit of the doubt" and understands that Congress and the White House's plates have "been full" due to the economy, the ongoing wars, health care reform, and bailing out the auto industry. Nonetheless, the next time he has a chance to talk to the president, "I will certainly bring up some of these issues with him."
He also had high praise for Pelosi, who meets weekly with the freshmen members of Congress and is "open" to hearing input from the group, said Polis.
"I think as a new lawmaker you have the same ability to get things done as someone who has been here a long time," he said.
The self-made billionaire won a bruising battle last year for Colorado's 2nd District congressional seat. He even swung through San Francisco for a fundraiser at dance club the Endup, and his trip this weekend marks the first time he has returned to the city since arriving in D.C.
He has been chronicling his first year on Capitol Hill for CNN with weekly video blog postings on the cable channel's Web site. He has also become a vocal advocate for the humane treatment of LGBT people around the world, particularly in Iraq.
He has visited the war-torn country twice now, and wrote to U.S. Embassy officials in April to look into reports that the Iraqi government was torturing and killing LGBT Iraqis. He also criticized the State Department's handling of the situation, writing that he was "disappointed" in U.S. officials' "unwillingness" to look into the matter.
His speaking out on the issue is what led Patrick Carney , the organizer of the pink triangle installation, to invite Polis to this year's unveiling ceremony. He said the persecution of LGBT people in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan mirrors what the Nazis in Germany did to gays during the 1930s, sending them to concentration camps and forcing them to wear pink triangles.
"He can shed light on the anarchy that has been created by our excursion into Iraq. That anarchy allowed clerics to kill gays indiscriminately without anyone stopping them," said Carney. "He will also be speaking about the disappointment many have with the Obama administration. Hopefully that is just a temporary disappointment and everything will be fine in the end and our hopes will be lived up to."
Polis said he has been particularly upset with the president's lack of movement on ending the anti-gay "Don't Ask, DonŐt Tell" policy that bans gay service members from serving openly in the military. He tried to attach legislation that would lift the ban to a military funding bill this week, knowing it would not pass, and pledged to continue to do so until the policy is ended.
"I would like to bring it to the floor as soon as we can. If we don't have the votes then we will need to find out who those lawmakers are and change their minds," said Polis.
He said he can't figure out why Obama, who supports ending DADT, has not done so and seems to be punting on the issue.
"Seventy percent of Americans want to repeal it. It is hurting our military every day," said Polis. "Clearly it is time to end this policy that is weakening our military and threatening our position across the globe."
Now that Frank has introduced a fully inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act into the House, the legislation will go through the House's Committee on Labor and Education, on which Polis sits. It is unclear if the votes are there to pass the bill (a similar measure stripped of gender identity protections passed the House in 2007.)
"I am optimistic we will be able to pass it and we can get it out of the Senate. This is the next step in the equality agenda," said Polis.
The pink triangle dedication ceremony will begin at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, June 27 near the Twin Peaks vista point/overlook parking lot. Actress Cloris Leachman, a Pride celebrity grand marshal, will tell the history of the pink triangle at the start of the ceremony followed by Polis.
This year the pink tarps will be lighted with eight searchlights panning the sky, and a laser light show will shoot off the hill to the Pink Saturday party below in the Castro.
Web Extra: For more queer political news, be sure to check the B.A.R.'s Web site Monday mornings for Political Notes, the notebook's online companion. To see which politicians are marching with each other in Sunday's Pride Parade, see www.ebar.com.
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Got a tip on LGBT politics? Call Matthew S. Bajko at (415) 861-5019 or e-mail mailto:.