Four Walk Out of the Closet And Toward the House
By Erika Niedowski, CQ Staff Writer
(CQ, April 25) -- Earlier this month, just a few weeks after she announced
her candidacy for Congress, former Massachusetts state Rep. Susan Tracy got a
call from Elsie Frank, an 85-year-old activist in the state's 8th District.
"I want to help you out," Tracy recalled Frank saying.
It was a convergence of natural allies. For years, Elsie Frank had been
active in the local senior citizens community, and Tracy was making issues such
as Social Security a key part of her campaign. But there was another reason
Frank was interested in helping: She is the mother of Rep. Barney Frank, and
like the 4th District Democrat, Tracy is gay.
There has never been a woman in Congress who has publicly stated she is gay.
In fact, there has never been a gay candidate, male or female, elected as a
non-incumbent. Homosexual members such as Frank, GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona,
former Democratic Rep. Gerry E. Studds of Massachusetts (1973-97) and former GOP
Rep. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin (1981-97) disclosed or acknowledged their
sexual orientation after they were in office.
With candidates such as Tracy, who is running for the open seat of retiring
Democratic Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, that could soon change. Four gay
candidates, all of whom are Democrats, are waging competitive campaigns for the
House this year.
Two are from states that have had gay members in their delegations before,
Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and three of the four have been elected to state or
"We do have a good chance now to make some history," said Mindy Daniels,
executive director of the National Lesbian Political Action Committee, which was
formed in 1996.
In the current political climate, where many Americans seem to draw
distinctions between politicians' public lives and their private ones, some
observers say sexual orientation may not matter on the campaign trail as much as
it once did.
In 1997, there were 132 gay elected officials across the country from 27
different states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Gay and
Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.
But although these women wage campaigns no different from other candidates,
focusing on issues such as education and taxes, that is not to underestimate the
challenge they likely will face.
Even before retired Army Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, who is a lesbian,
officially announced her candidacy against GOP Rep. Jack Metcalf in Washington's
2nd District, one local woman sent off a scathing letter to the Skagit Valley
"We have all heard of strange bedfellows," she wrote, "but we do not intend
to get in bed with such characters at the voting booth."
Rep. Frank said the most difficult part of running as a member of any defined
minority is convincing voters that you will not disproportionately focus on that
"The danger is they [the candidates] spend all their time talking to gay
groups," he said.
The issue is potentially inflammatory in Ohio's 1st District, where
Cincinnati Mayor Roxanne Qualls is running against GOP Rep. Steve Chabot. In
1988, Qualls, then running for city council, spoke at a rally attended by gay
candidates and sponsored by the gay rights group, Stonewall Union. The
appearance prompted the Columbus Dispatch to describe her as gay, a label Qualls
apparently never refuted.
Subsequently, Qualls, who has been a vocal defender of gay rights, has
deflected questions on the issue. In 1993, following her appearance at a gay
rights rally at which she reportedly declared "We are wonderful," Qualls said
that questions about politicians' private lives were "really inappropriate."
Qualls did not return repeated telephone calls by Congressional Quarterly for
an interview and her staff declined to comment on the record.
Cincinnati has struggled with the issue of homosexuality. In 1990, city
officials prosecuted a local art gallery and its director for displaying Robert
Mapplethorpe photographs picturing homosexual acts. The gallery and its director
were acquitted. The same year, two men were arrested for holding hands in a
parked car (the charges were later dropped).
Qualls' sexual orientation has never been an issue in her campaigns before,
and it may not be this time.
Feminist of the Year
Wisconsin's 2nd District may be more receptive than Cincinnati. State Rep.
Tammy Baldwin, who became the first gay member of the Legislature in 1993, is
running in a competitive Democratic primary for the open seat of Republican
Rep. Scott L. Klug.
Slated to be named "Feminist of the Year" on April 26 by the state chapter of
the National Organization for Women, Baldwin has demographics on her side: The
2nd includes Madison, a liberal bastion, and the district overwhelmingly backed
President Clinton in 1996.
Baldwin also has the endorsement of gay and women's groups such as The Human
Rights Campaign and EMILY's List, a political action committee for Democratic
women who support abortion rights.
Rep. Frank and his partner, Herb Moses, hosted a February fundraiser for
Baldwin in Milwaukee, where Moses' parents live. The event brought in about
Baldwin, who has outraised every candidate seeking Klug's seat, finds her
"While there will always be a handful of people who might not vote for a
woman or who might not vote for someone because they are gay or lesbian," she
said, "the vast majority will make their decision based on competence and
Which is why launching her campaign for Congress from a seat in the
Legislature makes her a more viable candidate than if she had never run for
San Diego City Councilwoman Christine Kehoe, the likely Democratic nominee
against GOP Rep. Brian P. Bilbray of California, has twice been elected to the
council as a homosexual, the last time with 79 percent of the vote.
"I run as who I am," said Kehoe, who outraised Bilbray by $125,000 in the
quarter ending March 31. But "[being gay] is not what I'm running on. Education,
choice [on abortion], environment, handgun control; all these issues are the big
issues for the voters of the 49th Congressional District."
Cammermeyer is arguably the most high-profile homosexual to run for
A divorced mother of four and grandmother of five, she was discharged from
the military in 1992 after revealing her sexual orientation in an interview. In
1993, she testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee at a series of
explosive hearings on the military's policy toward gays. Her book, "Serving in
Silence," was made into a 1995 made-for-television movie produced by Barbra
Streisand and starring Glenn Close. (1993 Almanac, p. 454)
But Cammermeyer resents the fact that she is best known not as a female
candidate or a Democratic one, but as a lesbian.
"Labels have a way of stirring up every individual's stereotypes," she
With the help of Frank, who hosted a fundraiser for her in Boston, and gay
rights groups as far away as Indiana, Cammermeyer posted more than $200,000
in the bank at the end of March, nearly twice as much as Metcalf. He won
re-election in 1996 by just 1,900 votes.
But as Cammermeyer tries to position herself as a moderate, even some
Democratic groups have questioned her electability, especially in a year that is
expected to ratify the status quo.
EMILY's List, for instance, has not endorsed her. And Cammermeyer knows that
her sexual orientation could become an issue in the swing district that includes
Puget Sound and defense-related businesses.
"Sometimes there are subtleties that are brought into a debate or you see in
the literature that's being sent out," she said. "My job is not to get caught up
in their rhetoric but to talk to the constituents."
Metcalf has said he does not intend to delve into Cammermeyer's personal
life, but notes that her record on gay rights is fair game. Cammermeyer, who has
a little-known primary challenger, suspects that some special interest groups
will take it further and run independent expenditure ads against her.
Indeed, as gay and lesbian candidates become more well-known and increasingly
win their parties' nomination, it is likely that grass-roots conservatives will
become more involved in trying to defeat them.
"Special rights for homosexuals is one of the issues that we do highlight on
a regular basis, and I would expect that we would highlight it in those
districts," said Arne Owens, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition.
In the last election cycle, two of the five gay candidates seeking their
party's nomination won it. They fell short in the general election. Democrat
Rick Zbur lost to Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., by 10 points; Democrat Paul M.
Barby lost to Rep. Frank D. Lucas, R-Okla., by nearly 30 points.
With term limits forcing state and local legislators out of office at a
faster clip, though, it is likely that more gay elected officials will run for
Congress in the coming cycles. Gay rights groups seem to be making inroads every
year: The Human Rights Campaign's political action committee contributed more
than $1 million to candidates in the last election cycle.
With support from such groups and a patchwork of other politically active
blocs, Tracy, the former Massachusetts state representative, hopes the public is
ready to make history.
"This is a district that paved the way for the first Catholic to become
president," she said, referring to John F. Kennedy, who represented the
Boston-based district from 1947 to 1953. "And maybe this is the district that
could pave the way for the first person who happens to be gay to be elected to
© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All Rights Reserved.