In Maine, a congressman running for governor came out as gay. In Illinois and Hawaii, lawmakers voted to legalize same-sex marriage. And in the U.S. Senate, 10 Republicans joined Democrats in a landmark vote on banning workplace discrimination against gay, bisexual and transgender Americans.
From one end of the country to the other, the overlapping developments during the past week underscored what a historic year 2013 has been for the U.S. gay-rights movement — “the gayest year in gay history,” according to Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign, the movement’s largest advocacy group.
Yet each of the week’s developments, while heralded by activists, revealed ways in which the gay-rights debate remains complex and challenging for many Americans.
Republicans, for example, are increasingly split on how to address gay-rights issues — some want to expand their party’s following, while others want to satisfy the religious conservatives who make up a key part of the GOP base. More than 40 percent of Americans remain opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage. And even some prominent gays remain uncertain whether they should make their sexual orientation known to the world at large.
Mike Michaud, the Democratic congressman from Maine, said he came out to dispel “whisper campaigns” about his sexuality as the three-way race for governor began to take shape. Through his six terms, he’d never before spoken publicly about his sexual orientation, and he broke the news to his mother only hours before releasing his statement.
In Hawaii, an out lesbian representative was among those who voted “no” on marriage equality.
And in Washington, even as gay-rights supporters celebrated the Senate’s approval of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conveyed his opposition and indicated that the GOP-controlled House would not even vote on the bill, known as ENDA.
Boehner “believes this legislation will increase frivolous litigation and cost American jobs, especially small business jobs,” said his spokesman, Michael Steel.
Richard Socarides, a former Clinton White House adviser on gay issues, said he was on the Senate floor in 1996 when an earlier version of ENDA lost by a single vote.
“It’s poignant for me that it’s taken 17 years to get another vote on something as basic as workplace discrimination,” he said.
“Even though we’re making rapid progress on marriage equality, and the entire movement seems unstoppable, there are still big pockets of resistance,” Socarides added. “It’s going to cost a lot of money and require a lot of work to get us to where anti-gay discrimination no longer exists.”
Current federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race and national origin. But it doesn’t stop an employer from firing or refusing to hire workers because they are lesbian, gay bisexual or transgender. The bill would bar such discrimination by employers with 15 or more workers.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have approved laws banning workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 17 of them also prohibit such discrimination based on gender identity.
Sainz, a vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, said the most striking aspect of the ENDA debate was the division surfacing in the Republican Party — with several prominent GOP senators supporting the bill and yet Boehner signaling his opposition even before the Senate vote had been held.
“There is no doubt that the American public is changing on this issue very quickly,” Sainz said. “That’s what makes what Boehner did today such a head-scratcher.”
The Senate vote on ENDA was among a series of major victories for the gay-rights movement this year, highlighted by two Supreme Court decisions in June. One ruling cleared the way for ending a ban on same-sex marriages in California; the other struck down a 1996 law passed by Congress that banned federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Gay marriage is now legal in 14 states and the District of Columbia, and this week Illinois — and probably Hawaii — were added to that group.
If the House does indeed balk at passing ENDA, it could increase pressure from gay-rights activists on the White House to issue an executive order on barring anti-gay workplace discrimination by federal contractors. Gay rights groups have criticized President Barack Obama for refusing to take that step; he has been saying that congressional action would be preferable.
In Maine, Michaud made his disclosure by means of a written statement provided to The Associated Press, the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News. He referred to “whisper campaigns, insinuations and push-polls” aimed at getting voters to wonder whether he’s gay.
“Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: ‘Yes I am. But why should it matter?’” he wrote.
“That may seem like a big announcement to some people. For me, it’s just a part of who I am, as much as being a third-generation mill worker or a lifelong Mainer. One thing I do know is that it has nothing to do with my ability to lead the state of Maine.”
Michaud is in a tight three-way race with Paul LePage, the Republican incumbent, and wealthy independent Eliot Cutler.
MaryEllen FitzGerald, a pollster from Critical Insights in Portland, predicted Michaud’s announcement would have little impact on the race for governor.
“He is a politician who has been in the public eye for a significant amount of time,” she said. “I don’t think his sexual orientation is generally going to be a factor.”