March 2, 2015 at 6:36 pm EST | by Kevin Naff
Not so fast, Mikulski fans
Barbara Mikulski, Democratic National Convention, Democratic Party, Washington Blade, gay news

Sen. Barbara Mikulski announced Monday that she will not run for re-election in 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

As usual, when a prominent Democratic politician or public figure makes headlines, LGBT advocacy groups develop a case of amnesia about that person’s record.

Today’s example: Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the iconic Maryland Democrat who has indisputably blazed a trail for women in the U.S. Congress.

But her record on LGBT issues is far from heroic, though you wouldn’t know it from the barrage of press releases today hailing her supposedly long record of support.

“Sen. Mikulski’s work has improved virtually every facet of life for LGBT Americans,” HRC trumpeted.  “… the LGBT community will miss working with her.”

For a more complete, rounded view of her legacy, consider that she voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. She spent her entire life hiding in the closet and refusing to answer questions about her sexual orientation, even as she was casting horribly anti-gay votes. And the tales from her staffers about the abusive environment she cultivated in the office would make Anna Wintour blush.

The rumors about Mikulski’s sexual orientation go back to the 1980s, when Linda Chavez described her as a “San Francisco-style Democrat” while running against her for the Senate. Mikulski’s relationship with congressional aide Teresa Mary Brennan — the two briefly lived together — also raised eyebrows. After her vote for DOMA, Mikulski was ambushed in New York while on a book tour by LGBT activists who rightly demanded to know how she, as a closeted lesbian, could support DOMA and come to the heart of the city’s LGBT community to plug a book. She refused to answer their questions about her sexual orientation. She was similarly targeted by activists in other cities and always ran for cover, refusing to engage.

In 2004, as Congress prepared to vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have barred same-sex marriage, Mikulski’s position was unclear. It was a stressful time and bloggers and LGBT media outlets, including the Blade, were working to out hypocrites on Capitol Hill.

I confronted Mikulski at a Baltimore event in 2004 and asked her directly about her intent with regard to the FMA vote and whether or not she’s gay. Per usual, she ducked the questions and scurried to a waiting car.

The FMA failed and Mikulski ultimately did the right thing and voted against another marriage ban effort in 2006. She finally came around on LGBT issues and co-sponsored the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, ENDA and a repeal of DOMA.

All of that is good and appreciated but truly supportive and courageous politicians stand up before it’s safe and popular, as some of her colleagues did in opposing DOMA in 1996.

The mindless praise of politicians like Mikulski by HRC and others ignores history and does a disservice to LGBT people. Now that she’s freed from having to run another campaign for re-election, perhaps Mikulski will sit down and finally answer all the questions about her long career and not just the self-serving ones. No one disputes Mikulski’s great achievements, especially the work she’s done on behalf of her Baltimore constituents and her role as the “Dean of the Senate Women.” But there’s more to the story and so far it’s not being told.

Kevin Naff is the editor and a co-owner of the Washington Blade, the nation’s oldest and most acclaimed LGBT news publication, founded in 1969.

  • Thank you so much for telling the truth!

  • Thanks, Kevin. I'm very happy to have you document our confrontation with Mikulski at the Chelsea Barnes & Noble shortly after her DOMA vote. She ran out of the room. Her co-author, Marylouise Oates, member of the HRC board and married to Bob Schrum, stayed behind to yell at us. By the way, we were virtually the entire audience at the book signing.

  • No offense whomever she sleeps with is none of your damn business. Confronting her on the other issues is understandable.

  • It seems to me that whatever she's done/not done–it's been effective. Sometimes one has to be strategic in one's public commentary in order to retain effectiveness and work across all groups to create change. Change comes slowly. It's brought by two key elements: Those in high places working carefully and strategically (i.e., not bringing in personal issues that could hinder their broader effectiveness); and the rest of us in the streets developing and demonstrating public support via special-interest groups and the broader population. A lot of people voted for things like Don't Ask, DOMA, etc., who did it strategically–not because it was what was in their hearts. Remember–elected leaders have two jobs: to represent the will of their constituencies (on all issues, not just focus on one issue), and to work to mold that will, gradually and strategically. Mukluski has been incredibly effective, and that's the only thing that counts. Dredging up one vote or a some dodged questions needs to be tempered by the overall result. And the results of her work have been dramatic. In her job, strategy counts, not brashness. I applaud all she's done, and I try to understand those few things I see as "wrong" in the light of the times and the situation. Don't you think we all owe her at least that level of understanding?

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