In June 2008, Reps. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., and Barney Frank, D-Mass., established the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. That same year, Rep. Jared Polis
, D-Colo., was elected to Congress, becoming the first openly gay male elected as a freshman congressman.
Rep. Polis, co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus joins Paul Lisnek to reflect on what sparked his run for office a decade ago, and the work of the Caucus today.
Lisnek: In 2008, Jared Polis of Colorado was elected to Congress -- the first openly gay man elected as a freshman Representative. Three years later, Representative Polis, who is co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, became the first openly gay parent in the US Congress. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I´m Paul Lisnek, and joining me to discuss the work of the LGBT Caucus is Congressman Jared Polis, Democrat from Colorado. Congressman, welcome. Good to see you.
Polis: Good to see you, Paul.
Lisnek: Your story is an amazing one. These days, it might be maybe not so surprising if somebody was openly gay when they first ran, but at the time you did it, it was unusual. What led you to take that step?
Polis: It´s amazing how far we´ve come in 10 years. It´s certainly not there, and, as you know, gay and lesbians still face a lot of discrimination across the country, but 10 years ago, it was a first, and I´ve just never let it hold me back. My sexual orientation is something that is, you know, a component of who I am, but it´s not all of who I am. You know, I´ve started businesses. I´ve started schools. I´ve worked hard in our community to make it better, and when our previous congressperson left, I said, "Well, why shouldn´t I be able to run for Congress and serve our country?"
Lisnek: And it looks like Colorado has moved along in the progressive line, as well.
Polis: I think the whole country has. I mean, I think really most people in the country now are willing to look past, you know, who you love and say, "Well, what´s the value of your character, and what are you doing?" But, you know, there´s a lot of gay and transgender people across the country that still face a lot of discrimination. It could be in the workplace, at school. So it´s a challenge to overcome. It´s not insurmountable, but you always have to, you know, try to keep the best positive face on it.
Lisnek: You´ve also tackled those areas you just talked about -- I want to talk about them -- and you´re doing a lot of this through the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. Talk about the mission, what it is, and the change you´re trying to make through the caucus.
Polis: Well, when I was first elected, there wasn´t much of a caucus because there weren´t very many out members. Now we´ve been up to six and seven the last couple sessions, and then we have many others who joined who are straight allies that support equality. And it´s really become the center in Congress, after we started it, of the LGBT equality movement in Congress, meaning we communicate on amendments, on bills to help make sure that our hundred or so members are not only voting the right way but also leading on equality issues.
Lisnek: You know, the country is founded on the principles of equality, acceptance, but, look. Even President Obama kind of got yanked out by Vice President Biden. We know he was, you know, certainly supportive of gay marriage and those causes. What do you think -- What is it that makes it difficult for some people to just be who they are and/or accept?
Polis: Certainly one of the highlights of my time in Washington was being at the steps of the Supreme Court when that decision came down that allowed gay Americans to marry who they love. You know, again, I think people are beginning to understand what it means to be a part of the LGBT community. There´s still a lot of kids who have trouble with coming out to their parents, particularly if their parents are very religious or don´t approve. It´s never easy because there´s just an assumption that you´re straight growing up, and so, you know, straight people don´t have to come out, but gay people still do. It´s not something they necessarily want to have to do, but at some point, it´s seen as making a statement, even though it´s no more making a statement than whether you´re left or right-handed.
Lisnek: Making a difference for kids is probably where this stuff ought to start, making a difference in schools, and I know you introduced the Student Non-Discrimination Act. 8 out of 10 LGBT students say they´ve been harassed. Give me a progress report.
Polis: So it´s a big problem in our schools, I mean, especially in more conservative areas of our country. Many kids still remain closeted. Others who do come out can be teased or taunted by their peers, and sometimes, they don´t even know who to talk to in their school because there could be homophobic rhetoric even coming from teachers or administrators in the school. What our Student Non-Discrimination Act would do is make it clear that anywhere in the country, no students can be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, so it makes sure that we´re there to look out for the civil rights of all students because school should be a safe learning place for every student.
Lisnek: And, of course, recent attention, because the president has taken some steps when it comes to transgender serving in the military. You´ve got the first-ever congressional Transgender Equality Task Force. That´s tough under the current administration principles.
Polis: You know, it´s really disappointing that the president is trying to kick people out of our military just based on their gender identity. I mean, these are people who have been trained, who are capable. They´ve met every performance ratings that they´ve had, and just because of their gender identity, they´re gonna throw away their service to our country. I mean, I am, you know, just so proud of every person who is willing to serve in our nation´s uniform and put their life on the line to defend our freedom, and it really shows disrespect to our transgender service members to somehow say, "You´re not good enough."
Lisnek: And, Congressman Jared Polis, thank you for your time, Democrat from Colorado. And thank you for joining us, as well. You want to see more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the country, just visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I´m Paul Lisnek. Bye-bye.