Openly gay staffers on Capitol Hill could find new opportunities to network and advance pro-gay legislation now that an LGBT staff association has returned following a period of dormancy.
The group, named the LGBT Congressional Staff Association, seeks to facilitate communication among LGBT staffers working for members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Scott Simpson, deputy press secretary for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), officially took the reins of the organization Monday after dues-paying members voted him and other new board members into leadership roles.
In a Blade interview, Simpson, who’s 26 and gay, said the organization plans to take a low-profile approach to advance the needs of LGBT staffers and advance pro-LGBT policy in Congress.
“We’re uniquely positioned to work with a targeted audience and work with however many hundreds of Hill staffers we can find,” he said. “We’re not going to be out there trying to get the [Washington] Post to quote us or anything; we’re going to be building relationships.”
The group’s re-launch comes after an earlier version of the organization was founded about 15 years ago.
Simpson said the group — previously known as the Gay & Lesbian Congressional Staff Association — was founded to draw attention to the presence of LGBT staffers on the Hill.
“It was a very big deal, at least for us, on the Hill when it got started,” Simpson said. “It did a lot of good stuff for visibility at the time when there were some congressmen who outright said, ‘We would never hire a gay staffer.’”
Simpson said the LGBT Congressional Staff Association responded at the time by having press conferences to “show that there are actually LGBT people” who work on Capitol Hill.
In recent years, Simpson said the organization had the appearance of being dormant because it was continuing a commitment made when it was founded of protecting the identities of members who weren’t openly gay.
“They wanted that soft influence on policy and they wanted to protect the identities of their staffers, and that doesn’t lend itself to being the most vocal organization,” he said.
But Simpson said LGBT staffers on the Hill in recent months wanted to give new life to the organization, to make it more open and “continue on with the legacy of breaking barriers” that emerged when the association was founded.
Simpson said the group has been in the process of being reinvented for the past three to six months and, as part of its re-launch, tweaked its bylaws and took on the LGBT Congressional Staff Association name.
New goals for the organization include developing a web site and forming a women’s caucus that will have its own specific programming.
The organization’s membership varies widely depending on how it’s counted. Simpson said there are about 50 dues-paying members, but 400 are registered on the group’s e-mail list. One task the organization is considering, Simpson noted, is some type of “census” to determine how many LGBT staffers work on the Hill.
Simpson said the number of LGBT people working as Capitol Hill staffers might surprise those living outside the Beltway. He also noted that LGBT staffers “don’t line up with any particular caucus,” and can be found working with either Democratic or Republican members.
“There are a lot of LGBT staffers on the Hill and that’s a strength that we can tap into,” he said.
Some established and notable LGBT staffers comprise the LGBT Congressional Staff Association board. Diego Sanchez, who’s transgender and senior legislative adviser to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), will serve as policy director for the organization.
In a statement to the Blade, Sanchez said he’s honored to be the first openly transgender board member of the re-launched organization.
“The new bylaws and my corporate career expertise in diversity management will let me lead and work with my staffer colleagues to fortify how current laws and issues affect us and to repair any gaps to enrich the lives and careers of current and future LGBT people working on the Hill,” he said.
Group will work to influence LGBT policy
Simpson said the organization would work to influence LGBT policy matters related to bills on Capitol Hill, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
He said he wants to network with LGBT staffers to educate them on the issues and expand the number of co-sponsors on those bills.
“We’re going to be doing training and education on that,” he said. “We want to make sure that we are connecting and networking as many of these gay staffers in every office, in every party across geography to know what’s up.”
Simpson said one bill his organization is particularly pushing is the Domestic Partnership Benefits & Obligations Act. The legislation would make same-sex partners of federal workers eligible for the same benefits available to the spouses of straight workers, including health and pension benefits.
Repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, a move that would allow the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages, is another issue in which Simpson said his organization would be involved. With same-sex marriage now legal in D.C., he noted that many LGBT staffers are able to marry and want the federal benefits associated with marriage.
“Those directly affect our members because the federal government is prohibited from recognizing the validity of our relationships,” he said.
Additionally, Simpson said a goal of the organization is advancing the careers of LGBT staffers so they can serve in positions that give them more influence to move pro-LGBT legislation through Congress.
“If a job opens up that someone wants, we’re going to get together to use our network as a group to figure out how we can best get the person in this position, if they’re qualified for it,” he said.
But group activities won’t be all work. Simpson said networking opportunities would also include recreational events, such as happy hours.
“A lot of it is getting together and going to happy hours, just meeting and greeting, even in a non-drinking setting, believe it or not,” he said.
Elected officials have been helping re-launch the LGBT Congressional Staff Association. The openly gay members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) — have sponsored the organization as an official staff group.
In a statement, Baldwin said she’s proud to sponsor the organization because LGBT staffers work in many capacities on the Hill for members of both parties.
“I’m very pleased to support this new iteration of the LGBT staff association,” she said. “In addition to serving as a networking and social group, this organization will help us advocate for more equitable policies in and out of government.”
Simpson said the out members of Congress aren’t technically eligible to become members of the organization because they aren’t staffers. Still, he noted that their sponsorship makes the group able to use the U.S. House web servers and e-mail system.
“If not for them, the organization wouldn’t exist,” he said. “If we need anything, we go to them because they’re our members.”
Simpson said he expects the LGBT Congressional Staff Association to have a collaborative relationship with the Gay, Lesbian & Allies Senate Staff Caucus, the affinity group for LGBT staffers working in the U.S. Senate.
Among the events in which both groups would plan joint participation are social and educational activities as well as marching in the same contingent next month during the Capital Pride parade.
“I’ve been talking with them,” Simpson said. “They’ve been helping us organize this newer reinvention for a while, so we’ve been very close.”
Alex Levy, co-chair of GLASS and legislative aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), said his organization is “thrilled” to have the opportunity to collaborate with another LGBT group.
“They have lots of energy and it looks to be a dynamic leadership team, and we intend to work collaboratively with them to work for the interests of LGBT Hill staffers,” Levy said.