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EXCLUSIVE: Outgoing Rep. Cicilline on future of LGBTQ rights and life after Congress

Gay congressman departs office this week; led major LGBTQ legislative victories

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Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Speaking with the Washington Blade by phone on Tuesday from Rhode Island, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) was optimistic about the outcome of the debt ceiling negotiations that have roiled Capitol Hill, the White House, and Wall Street for weeks.

“My sense of it is there are enough Democratic and Republican votes to get it to the president’s desk,” said the congressman, who would fly back to Washington in the evening with the expectation that a vote would be held the following day.  

Even amid the chaos and back-and-forth travel this week, Cicilline was ready to look back on the landmark legislative accomplishments of his distinguished career in politics, which have included groundbreaking advancements for LGBTQ rights.

And despite the ascendancy of anti-LGBTQ attacks from the right, including from much of the Republican caucus, he told the Blade there is ample reason to be optimistic that the chamber’s pro-equality work will continue in his absence.

As announced back in February and effective on Thursday, Cicilline will retire from Congress to lead his state’s largest philanthropic organization, the Rhode Island Foundation, having represented its 1st Congressional District in the U.S. House since 2011.

A former attorney, Cicilline was tapped to lead the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law as well as the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism.

Particularly in recent years, the congressman became one of the most powerful House Democrats, elected to leadership in 2017 as a co-chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and picked in 2021 by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to serve as one of the nine members tasked with managing the House’s second impeachment of former President Donald Trump.

Among other legislative achievements, Cicilline is widely credited with leading the House’s passage, twice, of the biggest civil rights bill since the 1964 Civil Rights Act – the Equality Act, which would prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination in areas from education and housing to employment and public accommodations.

While the Senate failed to pass the Equality Act, Cicilline said, “I’m handing that work off to [U.S. Rep.] Mark Takano [D-Calif.], who I know will take it over the finish line” once Democrats win control of the House again.

The congressman told the Blade that he hopes his leadership on this bill will be remembered as a key part of his legacy – and was adamant that its passage through both chambers is now a question of “when” rather than “if.”

“The majority of Americans support the Equality Act, and a majority of voters in every single state support nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people,” so “this is about the Republican conference in Congress catching up with the American people,” Cicilline said.

Congress is beginning to look more like America in at least one respect, though. After his first election to the House, Cicilline was one of only three openly LGBTQ members serving in Congress (having already made history in 2003 as the first openly gay mayor of a state capital, Providence, R.I.).

Today, “I’m leaving with 10 colleagues in the House and two in the Senate,” he said, “so that’s great progress.”

“The calvary has arrived” with “young new members who are going to lead the next wave of this fight” such as openly LGBTQ U.S. Reps. Robert Garcia (Calif.), Becca Balint (Vt.), Eric Sorensen (Ill.), and Ritchie Torres (N.Y.), Cicilline said.

Echoing comments from his final speech on the House floor last week, the congressman also expressed his faith and confidence in party leaders with whom he has worked closely, including Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.)

Hopes and expectations for the current Democratic conference’s ability to deliver on behalf of LGBTQ Americans were buttressed late last year by passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, legislation co-led by Cicilline that codified fundamental rights for same-sex couples that might otherwise be erased if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns or weakens its constitutional protections for marriage equality.

How to combat the rightwing crusade against LGBTQ and especially trans Americans

However prepared Cicilline believes his colleagues are to meet the moment, the congressman is also up to speed on the unprecedented challenges presented by the current political climate with respect to LGBTQ rights.

This year, state legislatures have introduced hundreds of bills targeting trans Americans, which endeavor to restrict their access to everything from lifesaving healthcare to public bathrooms. At the same time, anti-trans rhetoric has escalated to such an extent that a rightwing pundit speaking at CPAC said “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely,” which some interpreted as a call for genocide against the community.

Legislatively, Cicilline said it is all part of a cynical political strategy adopted by Republicans. Having concluded that their crusade against same-sex marriage was no longer winnable, the party sought another way to fight against LGBTQ rights, eventually polling anti-trans positions and messaging that successfully motivates “the most extreme parts of their political base,” he said.

“Our Republican colleagues have weaponized the trans community in such a way that they think it’s politically advantageous to attack even trans kids,” which is “really horrific” especially considering the potential for tragic real-world consequences, including targeted violence against the trans community, Cicilline said.

“I hope people who are seeking public office will be conscious of that and will be responsible, but unfortunately, I think there are some who are so driven by their desire for power, that they’re prepared to do almost anything to get there,” the congressman added.

Some conservatives hope their polarization of and fear mongering about trans issues will drive a wedge, providing sufficient incentive or a permission structure for LGB Americans to turn their backs on the trans community, Cicilline said, but “That’s not gonna happen.”

“We are standing in lockstep with our trans brothers and sisters, and we’re just not going to allow them to be attacked in this way,” he said.

Broadly speaking, Cicilline said elected Democrats must “stand up for the queer community, speak out, condemn this kind of [anti-LGBTQ/anti-trans] legislation, and let the American people see the contrast” between the Democratic Party, which “stands for inclusion and has fought for LGBTQ+ equality” and the GOP, which is pushing “these very toxic and dangerous and un-American attacks on the LGBTQ community.”

The congressman noted that working against the interests of LGBTQ Americans is nothing new for congressional Republicans. “With just a couple of exceptions,” he said, the House GOP caucus voted against the Equality Act’s nondiscrimination protections, which stem directly from America’s most basic foundational values of fairness and equality.

“So that means I have colleagues in the Congress of the United States on the Republican side who fundamentally rejected the legislation that would grant me and others in my community full equality as citizens of this country, [colleagues who would] allow discrimination to continue against our community,” Cicilline said.

When it comes to navigating interpersonal working relationships with anti-LGBTQ Republicans in the chamber, though, “I frankly don’t really care how they feel about us,” the congressman said. “That’s irrelevant to me.”  

Cicilline to continue advocating for LGBTQ Americans after Congress

In addition to the Equality Act, Cicilline said that if Democrats recapture control of the House, he expects to see renewed momentum for a bill that he authored, the Global Respect Act, and another for which he was an original cosponsor, the LGBTQI+ Data Inclusion Act. Both were passed by the House but not by the Senate and therefore remain “unfinished business,” he said.

The Global Respect Act, Cicilline said, “will allow the U.S. to impose visa sanctions on anyone who commits gross human rights violations against the LGBTQ community,” while the latter bill would mandate that federal surveys must include data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Other legislative efforts that Cicilline has led, in areas from antitrust to foreign policy to gun violence, also include some “unfinished business” – bills that might see movement in the next Congress that carry the potential, in many cases, to measurably impact the lives of all Americans.

For instance, Cicilline, who has been at the vanguard of Congress’s work modernizing and strengthening antitrust law, remains hopeful about the eventual passage of six bills that he introduced in 2021, all designed to increase competition in digital markets.

These would curb the monopolistic power of dominant tech platform companies whose business models center engagement as the primary mechanism to drive advertising revenue – even though, as these firms are aware, content that tends to earn more engagement tends to be that which is incendiary, offensive, hateful, false, or misleading, violent or otherwise outrageous.

Looking beyond Congress, Cicilline said he is eager to continue advancing “equality and justice for our community” at the Rhode Island Foundation, building upon the organization’s existing work “supporting the organizations that are doing really important work to support the LGBTQ community.”

Cicilline acknowledged that leading an “explicitly non-partisan organization” will be a departure from his work in Washington – though perhaps not to the extent one might imagine.

“You know, our community remains, in this country, a marginalized community,” the congressman said. “In fact, it’s the only community, still, in America, that it’s legal to discriminate against.”

At this point, rather than pivoting back to discussing the need for passage of the Equality Act, Cicilline instead explained that because of the lack of national nondiscrimination protections, he is even more eager to include the LGBTQ community in the foundation’s work advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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Congress

McCarthy dealt another blow by far-right members seeking to replace him

Rep. Emmer denies he’s interested in becoming next Speaker

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Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

After joining with the Democrats on Friday to sabotage House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) plan to forestall a government shutdown with a last-ditch spending package, a group of far-right members are now focused on replacing him.

The stop-gap funding bill was defeated 232-198 with more than 20 Republicans voting against the measure.

House GOP sources tell the Washington Blade that removing McCarthy from the speaker’s chair is now a top priority, along with resisting pressure from Senate Republicans seeking to broker a deal to avoid allowing funding to lapse.

These sources confirmed reporting in the Washington Post about discussions of tapping U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.) to become the chamber’s top Republican, though the congressman told CBS Minnesota/WCCO News, “I fully support Speaker McCarthy. He knows that and I know that. I have zero interest in palace intrigue. End of discussion.”

While Emmer was among the 39 House Republicans who voted with the Democrats in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects the rights of couples in same-sex marriages, in April he was among the more vocal members pushing for a federal ban to prohibit transgender women and girls from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

In January, McCarthy narrowly secured his bid for the speakership after an unprecedented 15 votes from his caucus. Many of the same members now calling for his replacement demanded concessions, including conditioning their votes on McCarthy’s agreement to allow any member to call for a motion to vacate the chair at any time.

During the votes, which were held over a period of five days, other members like U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) were nominated for the position.

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Congress

House passes Boebert’s amendment targeting LGBTQ workers at USDA

Democrats call measure ‘blatantly homophobic’

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U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

House Republicans on Wednesday pushed through a proposal by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using federally appropriated funds for materials supporting the agency’s LGBTQ employees.

Passing by just three votes in the face of unified opposition from Democrats, along with one GOP member, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), the measure will never be signed into law amid Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

For weeks, Boebert and her ideological allies in the lower chamber have dashed hopes of forestalling a government shutdown by insisting on ladening must-pass spending bills with far-right demands, often targeting the LGBTQ community and initiatives promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Even so, the aim and scope of the Colorado congresswoman’s amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill was striking.

Among the 17 types of “courses, books, or study guides” circumscribed in the measure are those concerning “approaching LGBT issues in the workplace,” “understanding and supporting LGBTQ+ employees,” “becoming an ally to all,” “conversations with LGBTQ+ leaders on the power of identity,” and “creating an inclusive work community” for transgender employees.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Spokesperson Viet Shelton condemned House Republicans’ passage of the amendment in a statement shared with the Washington Blade:

“In a clear indication that so-called moderate Republicans are now completely controlled by their extreme fringes, they are now passing such blatantly homophobic legislation that mandates federal employees be discriminated against in the workplace,” he said. “Their focus on these hateful policies while ignoring middle class families struggling with rising costs is why they will lose their majority in Congress next year.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Boebert denigrates, misgenders trans Pentagon official

Comments targeted Assistant Secretary of Defense Shawn Skelly

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Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) addresses a crowd outside of the U.S. Capitol building. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) denigrated and deliberately misgendered Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn Skelly, the Pentagon’s highest ranked transgender official, during a debate Wednesday over amendments to a defense appropriations bill.

In remarks that stirred outrage from her Democratic colleagues, the congresswoman called Skelly a “delusional man thinking he is a woman” and the embodiment of “woke-ism” before proposing an amendment that would reduce her salary to a dollar.

Skelly served on active duty in the U.S. Navy for 20 years as a naval flight officer before retiring with the rank of commander. Her record of service includes senior positions with the Defense and Transportation Departments during the Obama administration.

“Assistant Secretary Skelly has served in her role admirably, as she has done as her time as a naval officer,” responded U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), stressing each of the feminine pronouns as she spoke.

The second-term Colorado representative countered with more transphobic comments: “if you want to call Mr. Skelly a her, his chromosomes are still XY, and we trust the science over here rather than delusion and playing dress up and imaginary games with our military readiness.”

Boebert is among the more vocal members of an ultraconservative cohort of House Republicans who, in recent weeks, have sabotaged efforts to clear must-pass appropriations spending packages before Oct. 1 to forestall a government shutdown.

Members of the far-right faction have attached to these bills controversial, partisan, and often anti-LGBTQ amendments — effectively dooming their chances of passage by the U.S. Senate amid Democratic control of the chamber.

With respect to the Defense Department spending bill, for example, GOP members have advanced proposals that would defund healthcare services for transgender service members and ban Pride flags from military bases.

On X, U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, wrote that “Republicans claim to support the military but Rep. Boebert, just spent five minutes misgendering and attacking our Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness — just because she’s trans. Ms. Skelly serves our country with honor. I can’t say the same for Boebert.”

The caucus added, “It’s disgusting that a Member of Congress would use their platform on the House Floor to misgender and attack a top-ranking @DeptofDefense official and veteran just because she’s a trans woman.”

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