Mitch McConnell has a record on LGBT issues that could accurately be described as dismal, but that isn’t stopping LGBT groups from extending an olive branch in hopes he’ll work with them in his role as majority leader of the U.S. Senate.
Last week, the Senate Republican caucus unanimous voted to elect McConnell as Senate majority leader when they assume control of the chamber at the start of the 114th Congress.
“We’ve assembled a great leadership team that will focus on getting the Senate working again, and passing legislation to help create jobs, improve the economy and continue moving our nation towards energy independence,” McConnell said in his statement. “We are eager to work towards bipartisan agreements and to implement real legislative accomplishments.”
What these “real legislative accomplishments” will be remains to be seen. LGBT advocates will likely be pushing for a comprehensive non-discrimination bill with protections in employment, housing, credit, education, federal programs and public accommodations, while anti-gay groups may push religious liberty legislation to provide carve-outs in civil rights law for people and businesses objecting to same-sex marriage.
Groups that work on LGBT issues say the extent to which they’ve met with McConnell has been minimal in the eight years that he’s led the Republican caucus in the minority.
Chris Hartman, executive director of Fairness Kentucky, said his organization met once with McConnell staffers in 2011 for about 30 minutes on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
“We were hoping the senator would respond to his constituency’s desires, which is to have legal discrimination protection for LGBT people, but, of course, he has not done so,” Hartman said.
Hartman said his group hasn’t made an attempt to meet with staffers beyond that initial meeting, but, by casting a vote against ENDA last year, added the senator “has been clear on his stance toward non-discrimination protections.”
“I hope that he’ll soften his stance on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act,” Hartman said. “The simple anti-discrimination law is bipartisan; there are supporters on both sides of the aisle. In Kentucky, 77 percent of registered Republicans support anti-discrimination protections. There’s no reason the senator shouldn’t be leading the nation toward greater and fuller acceptance of all people, and especially Kentuckians who lack those protections.”
Gregory T. Angelo, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, said interaction between his organization and McConnell’s office has “been minimal” because previously Democrats have controlled the Senate, but he expects that to change.
“Any communication with his office will only occur after gay advocates and allies achieve some form of consensus on ENDA or similar civil rights legislation, as I would not want to present mixed messages on this critical issue given the importance of GOP support in any potential vote,” Angelo said.
Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesperson, said he doesn’t handle the senator’s scheduling, but his office “has had regular meetings with Kentuckians representing the LGBT community.”
McConnell scored a “0” on the Human Rights Campaign’s legislative scorecard for the 113th Congress. Some highlights over his career in the Senate: Voting in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment and against hate crimes protection legislation, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
In addition to voting in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, McConnell signed a friend-of-the-court brief in 2013 urging the Supreme Court to uphold the law.
Given his record, one question that has emerged is whether McConnell will bring up anti-gay legislation now that he sets the schedule for the Senate floor.
Hartman said he thinks that would be unlikely given Republican reluctance to take on such issues in recent years when they were in charge of one-half of Congress.
“I can’t imagine it would be one of the Senate’s priorities given the economic work they have to do, addressing student loan debt, certainly they’re all going to be grinding their gears on the Affordable Care Act,” Hartman said. “I just can’t imagine taking away LGBT rights would be a Senate priority for the new majority leader.”
With respect to controlling the way his Republicans voted on LGBT issues, McConnell has a mixed record. The Republican leader whipped at least one of the votes on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, urging his members to reject open military service. But there’s no evidence McConnell whipped the Senate vote on ENDA, when 10 Senate Republicans voted in favor of the bill.
David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said despite McConnell’s record, his organization holds out hope he’s willing to work on LGBT issues.
“LGBT equality should be a bipartisan issue,” Stacy said. “Although Sen. McConnell has had a long record opposing LGBT equality, times are changing, his caucus is changing, and most importantly the consensus view of the American people now supports full equality for LGBT Americans. As majority leader, Sen. McConnell has both an opportunity and a responsibility to lead the Senate in a way that reflects the views of the majority of Americans. We hope he will rise to that challenge.”
Another question that arises when examining McConnell’s relationship with the LGBT community: Is he gay? Twice married, McConnell divorced his first wife in 1983, and is now married to former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
McConnell was the subject of an investigation by Mike Rogers, a gay activist and blogger known for outing anti-gay politicians. In 2008, Rogers made public his six trips to the state and called on the senator to answer questions. Rogers declined to comment for this article.
At issue is McConnell’s discharge from the Army after less than a year of military service in 1967, which Rogers has suggested took place because of homosexual conduct. While McConnell was ostensibly discharged for an ocular condition, Rogers said in 2008 that the senator’s military record information under “Transcript of Court Martial” was marked “not on file,” when other sections were marked “n/a.” Rogers also said records show a flurry of calls from the office of the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky in the days immediately preceding McConnell’s discharge, but those calls stopped abruptly afterward.
Hartman said “the senator hasn’t said anything to me” about his sexual orientation, but in the end it shouldn’t matter.
“In the LGBT movement, we’re pretty clear that folks are who they say they are, and they are the sexual orientation and gender identity they say they are,” Hartman said. “If nothing else, having been in politics and in the Senate for so long, I’m certain the senator knows what bullying looks like and what marginalization looks like, and I would hope that creates a sense of sympathy and empathy for those who are marginalized based upon who they are, or whom they love or what they fight for. I think the senator would want to try to protect all of those folks.”