Taking the Queer members of the U.S. House for a test drive
 

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posted Friday, June 11, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 24

Taking the Queer members of the U.S. House for a test drive
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

There are 435 members of the United States House of Representatives. Of those 435 members, only three openly identify as Queer: Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, Rep. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado.

Estimating Queer population is dicey business. Kinsey estimated - though his estimate stems from decidedly unscientific methods of data collection - that about 1 in 10 people are Queer. The latest estimates, which may or may not be scientifically sound, range from 5-15%, depending on who you ask and the criteria used. The point is, even if we use the low end of the estimated range, the Queer community is woefully underrepresented in the U.S. House of Representatives (5% of 435 comes out to about 22 members). Things are even worse in the Senate, where we're 0 for 100.

That means these three politicians are very important to the Queer community. They are the vanguard for Queer candidates everywhere and they serve - sometimes reluctantly - as role models, giving hope to young Queer people coming of age. This is a lot of pressure on top of the already formidable job of being a U.S. lawmaker representing a diverse district that is somewhere between 85-95% straight.

I was fortunate to interview all three on a recent trip to Washington, D.C., and I can report that each is handling their dual role with a healthy mix of respect, reserve, and all-out passion. And while they are connected by their Queerness, they are three extremely different people.

Since there are only three and they belong to us, it might be good to get to know them better. However, since I've only got so much space to tell you about them, I'll need a literary shortcut to help me out - a simile that will cut through all details and give you a concise image of who they are in a thrifty manner. Mmm, I wonder & if our Queer legislators were automobiles, what kind of automobiles would they be?

Rep. Jared Polis,
D-Colorado
2011 Mustang V6

When Polis walks into a room, he demands your attention - not by asking for it directly, but because you can feel his energy. He sweeps through a crowd making brief eye contact, shaking hands, and uncannily mentioning something of personal interest to everyone he greets. Watching him work a room, I couldn't help think he was thinking three moves ahead all the time.

His office has a constant din of activity. Everything from policy discussions to scheduling conflicts to ski conditions at Arapaho Basin may be overheard at any given moment. His 20-something staff wouldn't be out of place on a spring break beach wearing flip flops and drinking Corona. He and his young staff are efficient, fast, and loads of fun to hang out with.

Polis, a bit of a rule-breaker, is a new model of fast-moving, tech-savvy young congressman who's also a wildly successful internet entrepreneur with an Ivy League education and a penchant for overachievement and philanthropy. Polis' high-energy style and tendency for chaotic, though effective, multitasking is fueled largely on lunches of garbanzo beans and cucumbers.

Polis' pet issues also indicate a modern perspective. He is, of course, a huge supporter of Queer rights and is the co-chairman of the LGBT Equality Caucus. He's also interested in education and immigration. The two issues dovetailed nicely in 2004 with the establishment of the New America School, charter schools that seek to diminish barriers faced by older immigrant youth in mainstream public schools. Today, the New America School operates four campuses in Colorado and plans to open a campus in New Mexico to extend the benefits of English literacy and a high school liberal arts education to all students.

Thus, Polis is like the 2011 Ford Mustang V6. Forget all you know about American pony cars, because the new Mustang breaks all the rules. The old school fire-breathing, fuel-slurping V8 powered monster with a solid axle rear suspension and parts purloined from more prosaic stablemates is so 1995. You can also forget the sickly six-cylinder bastard siblings of those fire-breathing monsters that were little more than econoboxes in muscle car drag. The 2011 Ford Mustang V6 is an efficient and fast high-tech performance car for the 21st century.

Damn the V8, the brand-new tech-heavy and forthrightly unapologetic 3.7L 4V Ti-VCT V6 engine achieves an industry-exclusive 305 horsepower and 280 lb.-ft. of torque while delivering an EPA-estimated 31 MPG on the highway. That translates to 0-to-60 in 5.4 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14 flat at 104 mph. Add the brand new six-speed tranny and a sophisticated suspension that encourages carving the twisties over Steven's Pass and you have a complete and competent world-class car that's fun, fast, and fairly green.

Rep. Tammy Baldwin,
D-Wisconsin
2007 Honda Accord EX-L V6

Baldwin's office is in perfect order. The staff is quiet and composed. The magazines are arranged nicely in the waiting area. There is no dust on the high shelves and the flags hang perfectly.

Even Baldwin's personal desk is the picture of organization. There are no stacks of unruly papers lying about, no wastebaskets overflowing, and no rings left by coffee mugs. We sat facing each other across a coffee table situated just so in front of her desk.

Baldwin is wearing a blazer and slacks and a simple off-white blouse. The clothes fit perfectly and her natural blonde hair is parted on the side and in place without seeming just-combed. Tammy Baldwin is put together, but not in a self-conscious way. She probably learned to do this while attending tony Smith College.

She is a leading advocate for universal health care and a proponent of energy independence and renewable fuels. Tammy also is a forceful supporter of civil rights and an advocate for those in our society whose voices, too often, are not heard (while that's code for Queer, to be fair, she works hard for the civil rights of all).

In fact, Baldwin seems to have an innate understanding of her dual role as member of Congress and Queer icon. She talked about a young person who called her to say they had found her on Wikipedia and that finding an openly Queer person with such success had probably saved their life. The story was related by Baldwin with awe and respect; it's probably a Midwest thing.

Tammy's partner Lauren Azar lives back in Wisconsin and is the Public Service Commissioner for the state of Wisconsin. She comes to Washington, D.C., sparingly due to her own career. Visiting the capitol is often not the most satisfying experience for her either. Baldwin says, "What would it be like if you're a professional with a career and everybody in the room keeps reaching past you to talk to me?"

The Honda Accord has long been known as the attractive yet understated pinnacle of over-achieving family sedan engineering. It's a refined luxury car without the garish stigma of a pricy name and swoopy styling that screams, "Look at me!" No, Accords quietly whispered in your ear, "I am competent and I'll make you look smarter than you really are." Sadly, the 2008 Accord has grown ungainly in size and appearance, leaving the previous generation to carry the mantle of car model that seems innately logical. That's why Baldwin is like the 2007 Honda Accord.

You can hear it when the door shuts. You can feel it when you turn a switch. You can see it in the perfect alignment of each body panel. The '07 Accord is quiet perfection. The experience is uninterrupted as you turn the ignition and the silky-smooth 3L engine comes alive. You snick the shifter into first and the car lifts off seamlessly. Snick, snick into third, then fourth and you came to the first curve. The Accord dives in willingly with a preternatural knowledge of the road ahead. Everything works, everything is in order, everything is familiar, and it all seems easy.

Rep. Barney Frank,
D-Massachusetts
2010 Mercury Grand Marquis

Barney Frank has been a member of Congress for 30 years. Though not the most glamorous legislator to grace the House Chamber, he is one of the longest serving and most effective. His office is run by middle-aged Beltway old-timers who go about their business with a quiet pragmatism. The office is organized but in an unkempt system that was likely decades in the making. Why mess with something that works, right?

The day I met him, Frank wore a standard white dress shirt with a standard purple and black striped tie. He wasn't rumpled and he wasn't exactly pressed. His glasses are just glasses, not fashion statements. I imagine he can see through them really well.

Frank often speaks in a disconnected way, as if he's said everything so many times that even he doesn't find it interesting any longer. It's like this until he starts to speak about his partner, Jim, and only then does he gain a romantic spark, saying, "We met nearly five years ago, but [the relationship's] greatly deepened." He goes on to talk about how difficult it is to balance his job as congressman, chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, Queer icon, and partner to his mate.

Talking to Frank is like talking to your great uncle who's been around forever and is the smartest person in the family, even if he would never say so. His stealthy intelligence is part of his political arsenal, and he's always ready to disarm with his plebeian demeanor. He'll also cut you down to size with his rapier wit and intellectually out-maneuver you every time as the need arises - and he'll do it wearing a suit he bought off the rack in 1994.

The Mercury Grand Marquis is an automotive dinosaur. The platform traces its roots all the way back to 1979 and the introduction of the "downsized" version of the all-American full sized sedan. Not much has changed in the 30 years since. Today's Grand Marquis is still a V8 powered body-on-frame six-passenger behemoth with live rear axle and a trunk large enough to stow a Smart car and a couple of Vespas.

The Grand Marquis wasn't automotive perfection when it was a new design. The technology, to put it romantically, was decidedly yesteryear (to be less romantic I'd call it archaic). The large sedan is a lumbering relic that's bulletproof reliable (years of real-world use have worked out the major bugs for certain), comfy (thanks to the cushy suspension and futon seating), and unquestionably familiar to older consumers. In fact, say what you want about a 30-year-old design that was arguably outdated when new; as of April 2010, Automotive News reports the grand old Grand Marquis was the Mercury brand's highest seller. Stuff that in your Milan Hybrid with the fancy SYNC connectivity system, integrated navigation, and hi-tech stability control. Apparently, there are instances when comfort and reliability trump excitement and technology.



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