Navigating Senate culture, steeped in history and tradition, can be hard for any newcomer to Capitol Hill. For staffers who identify with the LGBT community, a group still working for acceptance across the country and within the halls of Congress, the endeavor can be even more challenging.
The Gay, Lesbian and Allies Senate Staff Caucus, a group of LGBT and LGBT-friendly Senate staffers who seek to help each other grow professionally on Capitol Hill, recognized those challenges and launched a mentorship program this month to help LGBT staff make a smooth transition to a successful career on the Senate side of Capitol Hill.
“The Senate is a very strange place; it has different rules than any other place,” said Jeffrey Levensaler, deputy chief of staff for Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and a co-founder of the GLASS Caucus. “So being able to go to someone to get guidance in navigating those rules when you first get here is important. But … if you’re an LGBT person, to be able to go to someone who’s also LGBT who shares that common history, at some point they had to come out, it adds an extra level of comfort, and I think it’s really important to have that resource for people.”
The Culture of the Senate
The mentorship program was the idea of Annie Walden-Newman, a legislative aide for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and the first straight board member in the GLASS Caucus. The program will pair experienced LGBT or LGBT-friendly Senate staffers with LGBT staffers just starting their careers to help teach the newbies the ropes of the wonky Senate rules.
“The Senate is very traditional in its institution, and I think new, young LGBT staff might not know about that,” said Jake McCook, communications director for the GLASS Caucus and a staff assistant on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “And I think it’s important for them to have people they can go to, to understand the culture of the Senate and how to be comfortable with their office, with themselves and with the greater Senate community, and that’s one thing that we can offer that no other organization can.”
Interested mentors must be dues-
paying members of the staff association ($20 per calendar year) and have at least two years of experience working on Capitol Hill. Mentors need not identify as LGBT, but they must be LGBT-friendly.
Interested mentees should be either new to the Senate, or have worked on Capitol Hill for fewer than two years. Interns are welcome to participate for free.
Those who wish to participate must submit an application by July 1 on the GLASS Caucus’ website (glasscaucus.org).
Creating a Lasting Community
Launched in 2004, the GLASS Caucus was the first LGBT staff association on the Senate side. Members seek to help one another navigate their professional careers; the group does not get involved in policy or advocacy.
Since it got off the ground, the group’s activity level has ebbed and flowed, Levensaler said. It has held periodic events such as the “Lunch and Learn” series, where LGBT-friendly Members of Congress and other leaders in the LGBT field talk to GLASS caucus members over lunch, and happy hours off the Hill.
But recently, the group’s board has wanted to ramp up its activity level to create a larger, more active and more inclusive organization and has done so with the launch of both the mentorship program and a new website to allow staffers interested in the group to find out what resources and events the organization has to offer.
Members also attend community events together, such as the annual AIDS Walk and the Pride Parade.
“It’s gone through lulls; it’s been quiet,” Levensaler said of the organization’s eight-year history. “But this is a very, very involved and active and committed group that we have right now, so I think that the steps that we’ve taken with the new website and the mentorship program is kind of a giant step from just doing social events and the occasional Lunch and Learn.”
Walden-Newman stressed that members can be as active as they wish and added that confidentiality and privacy is one of the group’s top concerns.
“We’re here, here are our resources, here is this safe space that you’re more than welcome to come to, we’re ready to have you, and we’re excited to have you,” Walden-Newman said.
Looking to the future, Levensaler said the main goal is to sustain an active and inclusive membership on Capitol Hill.
“I think the ultimate goal is for it to sustain,” Levensaler said. “To be not just a resource but a sense of community just for folks to be able to connect on a professional level, and I think we’ve done a great job with that, and I would be happy for it to just continue to be that.”