It matters that Tammy Baldwin is gay. And we mean that in a good way.
Pride of Wisconsin
I have been hesitant to write this column. But I have come to the conclusion it does matter that Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin is gay.
It just doesn’t matter in the ugly, negative way her Republican opponent Tommy Thompson’s campaign tried to use the issue to smear her.
Baldwin is not running as a gay candidate for the U.S. Senate. But she is not running away from who she is just because she’s running for the U.S. Senate.
And that speaks to a candidate’s personal honesty and values.
Yes, values. To those who hate gay men and women, no gay person has any values, or even any value for that matter. Ironically, the media sometimes labels such haters “values voters.” Hatred is not a value.
But hatred is what Thompson’s campaign tried to stir up as Baldwin was about to speak to the Democratic National Convention about Wisconsin’s progressive values.
Thompson’s political director distributed a 2-year-old video of Baldwin happily dancing on stage at a gay pride event in Madison, along with the vicious, sarcastic comment:
“Clearly, there’s no one better positioned to talk ‘heartland values’ than Tammy.”
Because she dances?? There’s an old joke that the reason religious fundamentalists are opposed to people having sex standing up is that it can lead to dancing.
If the Republicans’ convention hadn’t been such a joyless affair, they might have danced in the aisles over their nominee like the Democrats did.
In fact, two major events and a smaller, moving incident at the Democratic convention were what really convinced me of the importance of Baldwin’s election, not only for Wisconsin, but for the country.
The first was when hundreds of delegates jammed into a meeting room with a long line outside to hear Baldwin addressing the convention’s LGBT caucus.
Caucus organizers recalled that when they first started meeting during Democratic conventions, only a very small group had the courage to attend and be openly associated with issues of gay equality.
Now, both gays and straights openly celebrate a president and vice president for supporting marriage equality and finally ending the absurd discrimination against gays who fight and die for our country. A sea change in American public opinion has legalized same-sex marriage in six states and counting.
The personal impact of that dramatic change on human lives was palpable as people who once had to hide in shame, many with tears in their eyes, gave Baldwin two emotional standing ovations, shouting: “Tam-my! Tam-my! Tam-my!”
On the night President Obama accepted the nomination, the convention itself rose to its feet as Baldwin declared that rather than destroying rights and moving America backward as Paul Ryan and Scott Walker advocate: “The Wisconsin I know believes that with each passing year and each generation our country will become more equal, not less.”
Because of some temporary tea party victories in this state, it’s easy to forget the progressive values Wisconsin still represents to the nation.
Wisconsin’s first known gay congressman was Republican Steve Gunderson from Eau Claire, who served from 1980 to 1996. Gunderson, closeted through most of his political career, chose not to run for re-election in 1996 after being outed on the floor of Congress by a right-wing Republican.
What’s made Baldwin’s political career different is she’s never had to lie about who she is. She was Wisconsin’s first openly gay congresswoman when she was elected in 1998 and would be the first openly gay U.S. senator not only for Wisconsin, but for the nation.
As decent people, whatever their party, keep working toward ending hatred and discrimination and promoting equality in this country, such emotional milestones matter.
When Baldwin spoke to the convention, Wisconsin delegates wore Baldwin T-shirts in solidarity. A delegate from another state stopped a Wisconsin delegate in the hall and began talking emotionally about what Baldwin’s election would mean to him personally. As he talked, tears began streaming down his face.
Thompson, Baldwin’s Republican opponent, on the other hand, represents a party desperately trying to move backward, stirring any dying embers of hatred it can find.
Thompson waited nearly a week before claiming he was sorry for his campaign’s ugly attack on Baldwin, getting as much mileage as he could from a smear tactic before trying to distance himself from it.
The reason hatred of gays is at long last waning in this country is because of Baldwin and so many other courageous, honest individuals.
We’re all learning who gay people really are: leaders we admire, friends and colleagues we care about, family members and others we love.
Baldwin isn’t running as a gay candidate. It’s not even an issue in the election.
Baldwin is a dynamic, young, new generation leader fighting for jobs, health care and equal rights for all Americans. But she also cannot avoid being part of the progressive change she so eloquently advocates.
September 23, 2012
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Joel McNally lives in Milwaukee, is a FightingBob.com contributing editor, and is a syndicated columnist who writes for the Capital Times, the Shepherd Express and other newspapers.