Tuesday December 11, 2012

In Tammy Baldwin’s victory remarks on Election Night last month, she noted she was fully aware that she was making history -- both as the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin and as the first openly gay U.S. Senator, but as she explained, "I didn’t run to make history. I ran to make a difference -- a difference in the lives of families struggling to find work and pay bills ...." Wisconsin voters sent her to D.C. as a Senator because in her 14 years as a U.S. Congresswoman she’s fought hard for legislation she felt would make a material difference in their lives. Many view her as a champion of the middle class; that’s why her sexual orientation was a non-issue in her hotly contested race with Tommy Thompson, popular former Wisconsin governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. Turns out, a down economy can be good for gay candidates.

This was decidedly not the case when Elaine Noble -- an openly lesbian candidate -- ran for the Massachusetts House over 35 years ago. She recalled in an interview -- as part of the exhibit Out and Elected in the U.S.A.: 1974-2004, curated by Ron Schlittler -- that her race was especially nasty. "It was a very ugly campaign. Ugly. There was a lot of shooting through my windows, destroying my car, breaking windows at my campaign headquarters, serious harassment of people visiting my house and campaign office -- it was really bad." Once in office, she faced further harassment from her fellow lawmakers.


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Recalling those times, she says the former election commissioner still refers to it as one of the ugliest campaigns ever in the city of Boston. (And that’s saying something!)

The election landscape has changed significantly for gay politicians in the United States. According to the Victory Institute, a database of "out" elected officials, 48 states now have openly gay elected officials -- sprinkled across the political spectrum. Greg Davis, Republican mayor of Southaven, Mississippi, is among this group. The conservative Davis, who runs Mississippi’s 4th largest city, came out in December of last year, saying, "The only apology I would make to my supporters if they are upset is the fact that I was not honest enough with myself to be honest with them. But I have lived my life in public-service for 20-plus years, and in order for me to remain sane, and move on, I have got to start being honest about who I am." Although he did not run as an openly gay candidate, it’s remarkable that Davis was able to "come out" in the conservative South and remain mayor.

But before we spend too much time congratulating ourselves on our progress on social issues, consider Iceland. Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir -- who took office in 2009 amidst rising food prices and a sinking economy -- happens to be a lesbian. Despite considerable attention from worldwide media outlets, Icelanders are nonchalant about making history as the first nation in the world to seat an openly gay head of government. Jonas Moody of Time Magazine interviewed residents of Reykjavik about her appointment. Said one web editor who’d recently lost his job, "She’s a good choice. She’s one of our most experienced politicians, and through this crisis she has shown nothing but integrity and concern for the public. Iceland needs someone we can trust again, and she’s earned my trust."

Ms. Sigurdardottir is not flashy, nor impressed by the trappings of her influential position; as a very popular Minister of Social Affairs, she shunned the official limousine, opting instead for her modest Mitsubishi. But she is not shy about bringing her wife -- Jonina Lesodottir -- along on official state visits. (Remember how much ink was spilled on what would happen if Hillary Clinton won the presidential election in ‘08 and brought former president Bill Clinton with her on state visits?) While we’re busy with our sexist dithering and blathering, Iceland takes a bold step forward without fanfare.

I know, I know. I can hear the reaction now: But Iceland’s a tiny island nation. Its entire population is half that of the state of Vermont. How big a deal is it, really, for them to seat an openly gay prime minister? (Let’s not be too smug. I once had a UPS worker in Wyoming say to me, "Vermont? Huh. I forgot that was a state.") It matters that Iceland’s head of government travels around the world with her wife to meet with other world leaders and enjoys astounding approval ratings at home. Says Einar Magnussson, a 34-year-old electrician, "I don’t think she’s going to be the country’s savior, but after the condescension and sheer arrogance we’ve seen in the outgoing leadership, it’s refreshing to hear someone real talk to us."

Being a gay politician doesn’t make one a better, more honorable leader. Whether it’s Mark McGreevy (disgraced gay former governor of New Jersey) or Elliot Spitzer (disgraced straight former governor of New York), the American electorate doesn’t want elected officials involved in indecorous, illicit affairs. But it certainly says something about the decency of the electorate when citizens can see beyond generations-old prejudice and support the politician who they honestly believe will make a positive difference in their lives.

In the "Tommy vs. Tammy" slugfest in Wisconsin, pundits were braced for a foul fight characterized by homophobic epitaphs and hate-filled pamphlets. But, as Michael Grynbaum wrote in the New York Times, "Ms. Baldwin built support farm by farm, trudging through potato fields, armed with a maternal smile and a touch of down-home lilt." And her opponent deserves credit for recognizing that character assassination would get him nowhere. She won her campaign the ordinary, even old-fashioned way, and that itself is extraordinary.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.