Even as corporate America becomes a more gay-friendly place, gay and lesbian employees on Capitol Hill say they still worry about a lack of legal protection against discrimination, vulnerability during heated political battles and whether to be open with their co-workers about their sexual orientation.
To deal with these issues, a group of gay staffers restarted the LGBT Congressional Staff Association last year after it had been dormant for the past few years.
The group has 71 members, but many choose to keep their participation confidential. Although it’s officially bipartisan, membership skews toward Democrats, and most are men. Of the handful willing to talk with a reporter, only one was a Republican.
“[I have] never felt excluded. In fact, because I am maybe the only, or one of a few, Republican members, they have been even more welcoming,” said Andrew Powaleny, deputy press secretary for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “They have been excited to have Republican support in the group.”
At the same time, Christopher Hoven, administrative assistant to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), says he has faced verbal taunts on the Hill since coming out in 1989.
Members of the group say they’ve seen some progress. There are now four openly gay Members of Congress: Democratic Reps. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), David Cicilline (R.I.), Jared Polis (Colo.) and Barney Frank (Mass.). While Frank, the first Member to come out willingly, is retiring at the end of the next session, Polis recently became the first gay Member to become a parent and Baldwin is now running for the Senate.
A primary concern for many gay staffers is that they are not protected by anti-discrimination laws. The Office of Compliance protects Hill staffers against discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age and disability, but not sexual orientation, said Debra Katz, an attorney who focuses on employment discrimination.
Judith Glassgold, senior policy adviser for Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) and a member of the association, noted that she had more protection when she worked as a clinical psychologist and professor at Rutgers University.
“Here on the Hill, we have fewer protections than I did in New Jersey,” Glassgold said.
In almost half of the states, private-sector workers are protected against sexual-orientation discrimination.
Staffers who work for the executive branch also have more protection than their Hill counterparts under the Office of Special Counsel.
During the George W. Bush administration, Special Counsel Scott Bloch interpreted the civil service law to protect employees’ off-duty conduct but not to offer legal protections based on sexual orientation as a class.
Under the Obama administration, the OSC has reverted to an earlier interpretation that protects employees based on sexual orientation. The office has fielded 20 complaints of discrimination since 2009.
Glassgold said she knew about the lack of legal protection when she came to work on the Hill and made sure she chose an office that was accepting of her personal life.
“The Hill is a strange place,” she said. “I feel for my Republican colleagues whose Members may not be supportive of gay rights and [in] whose districts there might be tensions around those issues.”
Powaleny said that concern is misplaced.
“As far as being gay on the Hill, it has not even been an issue at all,” he said.
The Republican Party is a “big tent” that welcomes gay and lesbian voices, Powaleny said, arguing that there is no political reason why more GOP staffers are not open about their sexual orientation.
“I’d suspect that the reason someone doesn’t come out sooner has more to do with a personal decision rather than political affiliation,” he said.
Chris Fisher, legislative assistant for Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), said it is those personal questions that plague staffers the most.
“How is my boss going to react when my boyfriend shows up at the Christmas party?” he said. “Is that going to be OK with the chief of staff? What if I have [a legislative director] that isn’t comfortable with members of the community?”
Still, he and others say that while coming out might be personally difficult, it benefits the broader gay community by helping break down barriers.
Ken Mehlman, campaign manager for President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and former Republican National Committee chairman, came out after leaving the political world. In interviews, he later said he wished he had come out sooner, as it may have helped push his party in another direction on some LGBT issues.
Fisher said he hopes all gay and lesbian staffers will one day be able to be open about their personal lives at work.
“In my exit memo, should I ever leave this office, I would say to staffers, ‘You know it’s OK to bring your significant other to the Christmas party, it is OK to come out to your boss,’” he said.
Correction: Dec. 19, 2011
An earlier version of this article quoted Christopher Hoven, administrative assistant to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), as saying he has faced discrimination and verbal taunts on the Hill since coming out in 1989. Hoven said he had faced verbal taunts, but not discrimination, on the Hill.