Openly gay legislators often fight solitary battles

From: Kristen Gelineau

Some say it’s a challenge to be a voice for gay rights legislation while still

representing all their constituents. «I represent 125,000 people, except, at

some level, I also represent all the gay people,» said New York assembly-

man Daniel O’Donnell, whose sister is comedian Rosie O’Donnell. «So

it becomes a harder line to balance those different interests, because those

interest groups didn’t elect me.»

At the same time, however, openly gay legislators struggle not to be pi-

geonholed as one-issue candidates. «That’s been the most disheartening

thing,» said Karla Drenner, the only openly gay legislator in Georgia and

an advocate of environmental legislation. «I traded in the title of ‘repre-

sentative’ for ‘lesbian legislator.»’ Drenner said it has been a lonely expe-

rience. «I don’t really fit in anywhere. I’m still an outcast,» said Drenner,

adding that some people refuse to ride in the elevator with her. «And I

think it’s especially hard in the South.» Still, advocates say openly gay

lawmakers can put a face on their cause, as Ebbin has done in Virginia.

«He brings a real voice and face for our community to the general as-

sembly, and that is invaluable,» said Dyana Mason, executive director of

Equality Virginia. «I believe it does change the debate for some people.»

The 2005 session, which ended February 27, gave Ebbin plenty to speak

out about. The house of delegates passed measures that would make it

difficult for same-sex couples to adopt children and that would authorize

license plates celebrating «Traditional Marriage.» The adoption bill was

later rejected by a senate committee, and the license plate measure wi-

thdrawn by its sponsor. But the house and senate passed a bill that would

write a ban on same-sex marriage into the state constitution. «While

Massachusetts and Vermont are entering the 21st century, Virginia is still

struggling,» Ebbin said.

In the socially conservative South, Ebbin, Drenner, and Scorsone are

joined by only one other openly gay lawmaker, Sen. Julia Boseman

in North Carolina, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a

Washington political action committee that supports and tracks the suc-

cess of out gay candidates nationally. Out of roughly 7,400 state legisla-

tors nationwide, 54 are openly gay, according to the group’s latest count.

Times and presidents may have changed since that day, but Ebbin is still

fighting to have his voice heard–no small feat during what some consider

the most antigay legislative session in Virginia’s history. «People say,

‘Isn’t it discouraging?’…and I disagree totally,» said Ebbin, a Democrat

from Alexandria, in suburban Washington, D.C. «I know that any time

that people are going to tell lies about gays and lesbians on the House

floor, that I can grab my mike and speak–and that’s really empowering.»

Ebbin is a rare openly gay legislator in the South and part of a small na-

tional fraternity of lawmakers who have publicly declared that they are

gay or lesbian.

As the debate over same-sex marriage reaches legislatures across the

nation, gay lawmakers are confronting legislation that personally affects

their lives–including adoption by gay couples and other issues. «It’s very

difficult to sit in a legislative body, watching them putting their stamp of

approval on discriminatory laws,» said state senator Ernesto Scorsone,

who came out to his colleagues two years ago after 18 years in the Ken-

tucky legislature. «But as in any other civil rights struggle, it’s a long road,

and we’re going to have some bumps in the road.»