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“We’re losing Barney to retirement, and we’re losing Tammy, hopefully, to the United States Senate,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is openly gay and faces a tough re-election battle of his own. “But I think it’s very important to continue to have members of our community in government at all levels. I’m fond of saying if we’re not at the table, we’re on the menu.”
Even with a record number of openly gay candidates running for office this cycle, the caucus of openly gay Members in the 113th Congress could fall to just one: Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who doesn’t face a competitive race in November. But given the crop of candidates on the ballot, Polis is likely to have openly gay colleagues next year.
And political observers expect the field of non-heterosexual candidates to continue to grow each cycle.
“Thirty years ago, people thought they didn’t know anybody gay. They had kinds of stereotypes. Now they’re finding out that their brother, son, their cousin, their friend, whoever” is gay, explained Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a strong supporter of LGBT rights.
“The idea of being gay is losing the fear factor, the strangeness factor and people are realizing, they are just ordinary people, good bad or indifferent, like anybody else,” the New York Democrat said between votes Friday.
“That being the case, of course you’re going to see more gay candidates,” he added.
The presence of so many openly gay candidates on the trail this year, including a Republican, is emblematic of the watershed cultural shift that has occurred in Americans’ views of gay people and gay marriage during the past few years.
In 2004, Republicans used ballot initiatives against gay marriage as a wedge issue. Then, 54 percent of Americans believed gay and lesbian relationships were “morally wrong,” according to Gallup polling data. Today, the majority of Americans not only believe that gay and lesbian relationships are “morally acceptable” but that gay marriage should be legal.
Pollsters have been amazed by the speed with which acceptance of gay relationships and gay marriage has grown across most demographic groups.
“Attitudes toward gays in general, toward gay rights, toward gay marriage are all evolving at a much faster rate than really any other issue that we’ve seen in the history in polling “ influential Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
Mellman explained that the shift was likely the result of a combination of factors, rooted in the larger number of people who come out as gay. “More people know people who are gay, and as people know more people who are gay, they become much more acceptant,” he said.
Gay rights groups hope to see that acceptance permeate Congress more and more as the number of openly gay Members grow.
“The more openly LGBT Members we have in Congress, the more their colleagues will see that our lives are similar to everyone else,” said Paul Guequierre, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign. “When they are voting on matters of equality, they will see firsthand how those matters affect people.”
Frank has been surprised by how fast attitudes have shifted.
“Things have moved much more quickly than I thought” they would, he said.