The 111th congress was sworn in yesterday, and its freshman class includes an openly gay man. In fact, Jared Polis, elected to Colorado's second congressional district in November, is the first out gay non-incumbent man elected to the U.S. Congress. Who is he? And what can we expect from him?
Polis is not, of course, the first gay member of Congress—though it remains the case that the U.S. Senate has never had an out member. Congress's most famous gay member is Barney Frank, a Democratic representative from Massachusetts. But Frank came out only after serving several terms, in 1987. The same is true of former Republican representatives Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who left his House seat in 2006, and Wisconsin's Steve Gunderson, who vacated his seat in 1996. Before Polis, the only other member of congress to have run as an out member of the LGBT community was Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. She was elected in 1998, and continues to serve. Polis will serve with Baldwin and Frank as the third openly gay member of Congress, but with the distinction of being the first man to be elected to a freshman term while being already out.
Jim Polis' trip to Congress follows a successful series of entrepreneurial business ventures, including the creation (with his parents) of a greeting card website, an online florist company, and an entertainment group. He used his prominence as a springboard to politics, serving as chairman of the Colorado Board of Education. He has also initiated philanthropic projects through his Jared Polis Foundation, dedicated to "creat[ing] opportunities for success by supporting educators, increasing access to technology, and strengthening our community." The Foundation offers awards to teachers, and donates computers to underfunded schools. Polis and his foundation have also helped to found two charter schools serving immigrant, underprivileged, and at-risk youth.
In a thank you video to all those who helped him get elected, Polis mentioned the war in Iraq and the economy as key issues he would address in office:
During his campaign, as in the video, Polis' gay status was not a major issue. The subject of gay marriage did come up, however. Polis' opponent, Republican Scott Starin, professed himself willing to amend the constitution to define marriage as between "one man and one woman," while acknowledging that, "I don't think that's the pressing, burning issue of our time right now, and we've got more important things that the Congress and the states need to address right now." Polis' response was moderate and tactful: "It's always overblown as a political issue. There are a few extremists that care a lot about denying equal rights to Americans, but most Americans are very tolerant and respectful of people who are different from them." In policy terms, Polis argues for a state-by-state process on gay marriage, but for fully equal rights at the federal level on issues of taxation, discrimination, and immigration. He also wants to see an end to the Defense of Marriage Act, so that the states and the federal government will recognize marriages contracted in different states.
On other issues, the LGBT community will have to wait to see how Polis will vote—and he may have the opportunity to weigh in on issues key to LGBT rights. The Matthew Shepard Act is still under congressional consideration, meaning that hate crime legislation protecting gays and lesbians at the federal level could be passed with the hope of presidential approval in the near term. And, the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which has long foundered over a dispute about the whether to include language pertaining to gender as well as sexual identity, may be given another push. Polis' participation in fostering these pieces of legislation, should he choose to embrace them, could aid in their success. Only time will tell where he will choose to spend his political energies—but the LGBT community can take pride in seeing one of its own elected by a public aware of, and apparently indifferent to, to the candidate's sexuality.