In 2004, during the debate for the now-defunct Federal Marriage Amendment, tensions on Capitol Hill for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community had reached unprecedented levels. Gay staffers were being singled out in an aggressive "outing" campaign, with hostile phone calls to their homes and offices, and even personal confrontations. Four staffers decided to take action, forming the Gay, Lesbian and Allies Senate Staff Caucus. "It was imperative for the LGBT community to have a safe space,” said Jeffrey Levensaler, one of the founders of GLASS and currently deputy chief of staff to Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
“People both on and off the Hill were just looking for someone to talk to,” said Lynden Armstrong, a GLASS co-founder who now works as director of communication and technology integration for the Senate sergeant-at-arms. "It was our first very public opportunity to support our community," said Armstrong, who worked for Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., at the time. In the 10 years since, the LGBT community on Capitol Hill has seen drastic changes: the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell;" the Supreme Court's United States v. Windsor ruling, which led the Senate Disbursing Office to extend employee benefits to married same-sex spouses and their families; the election of the first openly gay senator (Baldwin) and sweeping changes in public opinion on same-sex marriage.
GLASS focuses much of its energy on professional development with a mentoring program. The organization is nonpartisan, and part of its mission is to raise awareness about issues affecting the LGBT community. “Many of the staff in the Senate who work on LGBT issues happen to be straight,” said Michael Thorning, a legislative correspondent for Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and chairman of the GLASS Caucus. “We can be a resource in helping them understand the experience of those who are not."
In a lightly edited Q-and-A, Levensaler, Armstrong and Thorning weigh in on GLASS' founding and its future.
Q. Ten years ago GLASS came into being. What was your role in its creation? Armstrong: I was one of the four founding members of the GLASS Caucus in 2004. At the time, I worked for a Republican senator who I had been out to since 1997. It was never an issue in my office, [in] which I was very fortunate. This was certainly not the case for many gay and lesbian staff who worked in Republican offices. It was also a misconception that just because a staffer worked in a Republican’s office, they were also a Republican. Many of us worked for states we were from and a member who did such great work for it. This is something that is still lost by some.
I went in to the senator’s office to talk to him about starting the organization and the publicity that would come from it, not a whole lot of it would be good. I assured him it was not a political activism but a group that would provide support in a rather volatile environment. He simply said that if it is something I felt strongly about, I had his support.
Levensaler: I was another one of the founding members of GLASS. I worked for [New Jersey Democratic Sen.] Frank Lautenberg at the time and he enthusiastically agreed to be our sponsoring senator. I was surprised at the large number of LGBT staff in the Senate when I first came here in 1994, yet there had never before been any LGBT staff organization.
Q. What has changed over the past 10 years for LGBT staffers? What has stayed the same? Levensaler: So much! I personally have gone from being told in 1995 to take down the ’93 LGBT March on Washington poster that hung in my office because it was “creating a hostile work environment” to opening the first out member’s office.
The Windsor ruling was huge, but I think that any time our basic civil rights are affirmed, it has a positive effect for GLASS and LGBT Americans everywhere. The repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" was also a milestone. I remember in GLASS’ early days, we did a lunch and learn with [Servicemembers Legal Defense Network] where Soldier of the Year Jose Zuniga come to speak and "Dateline" came to cover it. We put up signs warning that there were cameras in the meeting so that anyone who did not feel comfortable being “outed” at a GLASS event would not be caught unawares. Now DADT is history and that feels like huge progress.
With the momentum of LGBT rights, especially in the past 10 years, LGBT staff has gained more equality in benefits, and I think greater acceptance and recognition of their talents. Unfortunately, there still exists repression and homophobia. I hope that GLASS has contributed to alleviating that, but it definitely still exists.
Armstrong: It’s a much more open environment for all staff. I believe there is a lot more openly gay staff across the board. However, we work in a political environment, which does have an impact on some that may work for a member that doesn’t fully support LGBT causes. I don’t see that changing in the immediate future. I do think that as the country progresses, that members will reflect the changes happening. Staff will be able to work on the issues without any criticism for working for a member that doesn’t support or at least not actively work against LGBT rights.
Thorning: There was a time when some Senate offices were known for discriminating in hiring and/or firing based on sexual orientation and gender identity. I think that’s improved significantly, although, I don’t know if we can say for certain that it no longer happens. In today’s Senate, I think most members and offices know that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity have nothing to do with their ability to do their job.
Q. How has membership grown in the past 10 years? Levensaler: With the advent of digital media, we have a much easier way to organize and reach out to people. We are at almost 300 members that have joined the Facebook group. Staff is definitely younger ... or perhaps I am just older!
Thorning: We draw members from both sides of the aisle and many different political views. More recently, GLASS has shifted from considering itself bipartisan to being non-partisan. The organization is open to all Senate staff whether employed by a member, committee, the sergeant-at-arms, the secretary of the Senate or another non-legislative role. For many staff members, their job has little or nothing to do with political parties, and we want them to feel welcome.
Although partisan bomb-throwing may be a daily part of congressional work, it’s not a part of what we do in GLASS. There’s nothing partisan about having a drink at Union Pub or organizing a mentorship program. It’s that simple.
Levensaler: One of the strange things about working in the Senate as a career is that the majority of the staff seem to stay in the 20- to 30-something age range while you, well, don’t. More women and more straight allies becoming involved not only in the general membership but also on the steering committee.
Armstrong: The new mission of focusing on professional development has seemed to really increase the younger staff coming to the Hill participating in the program.
Q. Has the mission of GLASS changed from what it was 10 years ago? Levensaler: It hasn’t changed so much as it has matured. Our intent was always to be a place for staff to network and grow. Our lunch and learn series, professional development workshops and the mentorship program are all great examples of how GLASS has matured into a better version of its original self.
Thorning: Our mission statement is almost exactly what it was 10 years ago. We’re here to raise awareness of issues affecting the LGBT community, increase visibility and promote the welfare and dignity of LGBT Senate employees and provide a safe environment for social interaction and professional development. While the way we pursue that mission may have changed, those principles are still reflected in everything we do.
Q. GLASS is not an advocacy organization, but has there been any discussion about taking on a more activist role? Thorning : No. In this area, GLASS is constrained by Senate rules governing staff associations. At the same time, as we always have, we try to educate our members and the Senate as a whole about issues affecting the LGBT community. Last year, we held a briefing on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to explain what the bill would do and what its impact would be. We also had a briefing with LGBT refugees from around the world seeking asylum because they face persecution in their home countries. That was a great way to draw attention to an important issue for staff.
Q. Aside from educating young staffers on Senate rules and procedure, how do the GLASS mentors advise fellow LGBT staffers? Thorning: The GLASS mentorship program was actually an idea that came from our first ally on the Steering Committee, Annie Walden-Newman. The program was started to help our members navigate the unique issues that members of the LGBT community confront in their careers both in the Senate and elsewhere. Congress, in some ways, is a different place to intern, get hired, and progress professionally than most others. Mentors help mentees understand the nuances and idiosyncrasies of working here.
It’s also helpful to have LGBT role models to look up to professionally. I didn’t participate in the program when I first came to the Senate, but I had individuals to look up to and to show me that you can make it in the Senate no matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is. That in itself is empowering, and we want more people to know that.
Levensaler: I help my mentees navigate Senate rules, write résumés and develop interview skills through practice interviews. Seeing the talent and commitment in the young people that come through that program gives me great hope for the future.
Q. Where does GLASS go from here? Thorning: We hope that GLASS will continue pursuing its mission of supporting LGBT staff, and raising awareness of and educating staff about issues that affect our community. I’d also like to see us develop resources for Senate staff working in state offices all across the country. They are a part of this community as well, and they should and do have our support.
Levensaler: There is so much energy, enthusiasm and talent in the current membership. I hope that GLASS will continue to be a vibrant part of the Senate community and continue with the programs that are currently in place. I also look forward to seeing what new ideas the recently elected steering committee comes up with. It has been incredibly rewarding to witness this idea we had 10 years ago take hold and grow. I’m excited to see what comes next.
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.