Ask the lesbians in our country who endure the jokes about “corrective rape” and read them echoed in “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” commentary by a former Tennessee district attorney. Ask the lesbians in South Africa for whom this is an ongoing, daily reality.
As I listened to the pundits, their chattering faded into background noise as I thought about Elaine Noble, the first openly LGBT person elected to office, in 1974. Talking about Harvey Milk campaigning for San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she once reflected: “I think we both knew that [one of us was going to die]. You suffer enough bomb threats and craziness with people shooting through your windows and doing damage to your cars and it just escalates.”
And escalate it did. As Milk implored his community to give younger gays hope, within less than a year of his election, the verbal threats exploded in a final, physical attack.
After six terms, Rep. Tammy Baldwin, the first woman from Wisconsin and first non-incumbent openly LGBT person elected to Congress, is still picketed as she holds district meetings.
An angry group routinely holds signs with pictures of fetuses and refers to her as “lawbreaker,” hurling insults in hopes of capturing a response on video. One man even sat in the front row of such a meeting holding a “Terminate Unwanted Lesbians” sign. And yes, she’s received death threats since the beginning.
Georgia State Rep. Karla Drenner (D-Avondale Estates) also knows all too well about targeting, something I’ve witnessed her handle with grace and aplomb on more than one occasion.
At the height of the 2004 gay marriage debate, she walked from the Capitol toward a crowd voicing their views. Just as she started to realize who surrounded her, people started to recognize her. As they moved in closer, she and I locked eyes across the street.
Drenner’s tough, she’d heard it all — but this was different. By the time I reached her, she was shaking. Putting my arm around her to guide her to the Capitol, people pressed against us. Their anger was palpable.
Had there not been a police presence, would the crowd have prevented us from moving forward? If someone had added a physical punch to the verbal ones, would anyone have stopped them? I don’t know. Because when strangers are pushing and yelling that you’re excrement and should be treated accordingly, you don’t stick around to find out.
What amazes me is that none of these elected officials have scurried back into the closet. None of them have called for new laws making “language or symbols” against them a federal crime as Rep. Bob Brady is proposing. And none of them are walking around toting a gun as U.S. Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) are considering. No, they’re going for something much bigger than a band-aid on a symptom.
What inspires me — and can inform the conversation about actually changing our culture — is that they want to alter not just the tone, but the content of the conversation. They truly get that, to paraphrase Einstein, you can’t solve a problem on the level at which it was created. The paradigm must be shifted.
As an out lesbian, Rep. Noble changed the course of our country forever. She didn’t get to experience much of that change while in office, as she scraped from her desk the excrement colleagues had left or wiped the spit from her coat, but she set in motion a new way of looking at LGBT people while serving her constituents.
Congresswoman Baldwin is unequivocal: “We have to show them something different than what they expect from gay people — and from politicians. Especially with the cynicism that is out there, honesty and integrity is so valued. As we engage in this way, we clearly make a substantive difference.”
Yes, a difference: not only in voter perceptions, and not only in the way their colleagues vote. Rep. Drenner puts it this way: “By genuinely offering them love and light, by letting them know us for who we really are, it changes them. It actually makes them more human.”
Much in the same way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi taught, these openly lesbian elected officials are going for real change — from the inside out.
They personify Marianne Williamson’s comment that “wherever we are and whoever we are, we can participate in de-escalating the violence of our society by de-escalating the violence in our hearts.”
Maybe their non-LGBT colleagues could follow their lead on this one.
Cindy L. Abel is an Atlanta-based filmmaker and former board co-chair of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. She is currently directing “Breaking Through,” a documentary in which LGBT elected officials share their stories and show it is possible to live a fulfilled life regardless of anti-gay messages claiming otherwise. The film is online at www.BreakingThroughMovie.com.
Top photo: In the wake of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the nation can learn from how LGBT elected officials like openly lesbian Rep. Tammy Baldwin have responded to hate. (Photo courtesy U.S. House)