The Republican senator was blunt.
“Because she’s a damn lesbian,” Senator Jesse Helms snapped, explaining to the Washington Times why he would vote against Roberta Achtenberg, then-US president Bill Clinton’s nominee for assistant housing secretary.
Later, he clarified, calling her “a militant, activist, mean lesbian.”
That was in 1993. On Saturday, another North Carolina Republican, Senator Richard Burr, stood on the Senate floor and surprised gay rights advocates by voting to repeal the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Burr said repeal was “generationally right” given that most Americans have grown up in a time where “they don’t think exclusion is the right thing for the United States to do.”
The two votes, 17 years apart, would suggest a kind of “We’ve come a long way baby” moment. However, while public opinion has changed in favor of gay rights over the past two decades, those attitudes are often not reflected in public policy, because the views of lawmakers, polls suggest, lag behind the public, and not just among social conservatives who have long opposed elements of the gay rights agenda on moral grounds.
Polls show the public is broadly supportive of equal rights for gay men and lesbians on several issues — with the exception of the right to marry. The vast majority of Americans, nearly 90 percent, favor equality of opportunity in the workplace. More than 60 percent favored overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell” — a figure that has stood steady at least since 2005, according to the Gallup Organization, which tracks public sentiment on gay rights.
Yet the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, first proposed in the Clinton years, remains stuck on Capitol Hill, in part because lawmakers are squeamish about language in it that would protect transgender employees. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal bill nearly died the week before it was passed.
Same-sex marriage is even trickier for politicians. Fewer than half of all Americans support it, which puts even supporters of gay rights, like US President Barack Obama, in a political bind. Obama supports civil unions, but has opposed same-sex marriage, although he recently said that “attitudes evolve, including mine” — a hint that he might change his position.
“There have been enormous and important shifts in public attitudes, and those are a hopeful sign,” said Tobias Wolff, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania who advises the Obama White House on gay rights issues.
However, Wolff speaks of a “political gay panic,” saying: “Even when the public is so strongly behind equality, so strongly behind the right thing, politicians are hyper-cautious.”
Achtenberg, who was ultimately confirmed as Clinton’s assistant secretary for housing — after a protracted debate — agrees. She became the first openly gay appointee to win Senate confirmation at just about the same time Clinton put forth the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. She said she watched the Senate’s vote on Saturday at home in San Francisco and cried.
“It feels like 17 years of unfinished business,” she said.
Now that Republicans have won control of the House and increased their numbers in the Senate, many in Washington expect the political climate for gay causes to worsen. Some advocates of gay rights say their efforts will shift to the states; Maryland, New York and Rhode Island, for instance, are all contemplating legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.