Gay Lobbying On The Hill Has Short Yet Strong History

One argument used by conservatives in the Supreme Court cases is that gay Americans have become so politically powerful that they don't need special attention from the courts. Whether or not that's true, it's clear that advocacy groups for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community have built a strong network of lobbyists and political activists in Washington.

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One argument used by some conservatives in the Supreme Court cases is that gay Americans have become so politically powerful and prominent they don't need special consideration from the courts. Whether or not that's true, it is clear that lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgendered advocacy groups have built a strong network of lobbyists and political activists in Washington, D.C.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: At the center of the lobbying for marriage equality is the Human Rights Campaign. Gay activists launched the HRC in 1980, as they learned how Washington works.

Winnie Stachelberg is a former HRC political director. Now she's with the liberal Center For American Progress.

WINNIE STACHELBERG: You needed to have both an effective lobby to push members of Congress to support the gay and lesbian community on the one hand, in terms of advocacy and telling stories. And on the other hand, you needed the traditional fundraising and boots on the ground in order to make the lobby more effective.

OVERBY: It wasn't easy. A condensed history here. For years, members of Congress wouldn't even publicly accept contributions from gay political committees. President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign had an openly gay fundraiser, David Mixner, bundling contributions from gay donors. But in '93, Clinton signed the "don't ask, don't tell" law, effectively keeping many gays out of the military.

Still the lobbying effort gained strength as more gays came out, and more voters and politicians discovered they had gay family members and friends. The election of President Obama took them out of the wilderness.

Stachelberg says Congress's repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010 gave added energy to the drive for marriage equality.

STACHELBERG: It's important that it was a public debate that really required the concentration of the American people. And they really responded in an incredible way.

OVERBY: The ground is also shifting, more slowly, in the Republican Party. At the pro-gay-rights Log Cabin Republicans, director Gregory T. Angelo says he still has to ask candidates one awkward question before the group will offer its support.

GREGORY T. ANGELO: Will you accept our endorsement?

OVERBY: But the Republican National Committee this week unveiled its Growth and Opportunity Project, a plan to broaden the GOP base, and Angelo is pleased.

ANGELO: Yes, Log Cabin Republicans definitely had a seat at the table, quite literally, when it came to giving input on this project.

OVERBY: That's exactly the wrong way to go, according to Thomas McClusky. He's head lobbyist for the social conservative group Family Research Council.

THOMAS MCCLUSKY: I mean this is politics, and money has an incredible influence on politics, be it good or bad.

OVERBY: McClusky says establishment Republicans are under the sway of consultants like Karl Rove; big outside spenders like hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer, who has a gay son; and fundraisers like former Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman, who's openly gay.

As for the Democrats, McClusky predicts they'll never again nominate a presidential candidate who doesn't support same-sex marriage.

MCCLUSKY: It is a major shift in Washington, D.C. that one party is now bought and paid for by a lot of the homosexual lobby.

OVERBY: It hardly looks that way to Fred Sainz at the Human Rights Campaign. He points out that, aside from marriage equality, LGBT Americans don't have equal protection in such areas as jobs and public accommodations.

FRED SAINZ: We're not all that powerful, in that we have not yet achieved equality in this country. And while we have certainly come a long way, the road ahead of us is very long.

OVERBY: Next week, the Supreme Court could, in effect, start drawing a new map for that road.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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