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It’s Still Difficult to Be Gay on the Hill

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Christopher Hoven (left) said he’s experienced verbal taunts on Capitol Hill since coming out in 1989. Andrew Powaleny said he’s never felt excluded in the LGBT Congressional Staff Association and that the group is excited to have a Republican member.

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.

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