Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) joined three civil rights leaders from the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities to push for more progress in the equal rights movement.
About 75 students attended the event in the Marvin Center Ballroom Tuesday in a panel discussion sponsored by student group GW Pride.
“We have had a different kind of discrimination,” said Frank, an open homosexual since 1987 and a leader of the LGBT movement. “The average American today still doesn’t know that you can be an open gay or lesbian and get fired because of it. Some Americans think that this kind of discrimination is illegal, but it’s not.”
Frank said he wrote a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking for equal consideration for relief to be sent to gay partners of the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Washington Post reported this month that the partner of a woman who died during the attacks will not receive compensation from charity efforts because she has no marriage certificate. Sheila Hein died when American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon.
According to the Post, more than $1 billion has been donated to help terrorism victims across the country, but agencies have refused to consider people who do not fit the legal definition of a spouse.
Frank also criticized the Bush administration’s lack of support for the gay community.
“What Bush has done is to take no action. He hasn’t gay-bashed, but hasn’t supported us,” Frank said. “His position is to stick with the status quo.”
Continuing with frustrated references about the United States not having equal protections under the law for gays, Frank did say there are signs of hope.
“Things are getting significantly better,” Frank said. “But nobody should be grateful that things are getting better just because they’re less terrible.”
Frank said the most significant progress is the fact that tens of millions of people have had the courage to come out. The public is not as homophobic as it was a 10 years ago, he said.
Frank said he is one of five congressional representatives in the government’s history who is openly gay. Three of five are currently in office, including Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.). He estimates approximately 150 to 200 elected officials across the nation are gay.
Frank added he has not faced much prejudice from his colleagues in Congress.
The Massachusetts lawmaker stressed the importance of action and not just words, citing examples from the civil rights movement in the ’60s. Frank said the movement was different because African Americans could not vote. Although the members of the LGBT community vote, Frank criticized their lack of mobilization on Election Day.
“Those who care about us outnumber the bigots 364 days a year, but they beat us on Election Day,” Frank said. “The gay and lesbian mistake is that we put too much stock into protests and marches.”
Frank referred to the National Rifle Association and its “militant” abilities to control Election Day by contacting elected officials to ensure the voting goes their way.
“Visibility was important to demonstrate to America that we were here, but greater visibility is no longer an issue,” Frank said. “We must be more dedicated to political mobilization.”
Winnie Stachelberg, the political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay and lesbian civil rights advocacy group, continued where Frank left off.
“People are coming out younger, louder and more honestly,” Stachelberg said. “Though we have made progress, there are still great gains out there to be made.”
Stachelberg, a former GW graduate student, continued by explaining how progress is achieved from a public policy perspective.
“Unfortunately, tragedy is a spark to progress,” Stachelberg said.
She addressed hate crimes such as the murder of Matthew Shepard, a homosexual, and how organizations mobilized to prevent the crime from recurring.
The panel also addressed gender bias in Afghanistan, saying that America is not immune to the discrimination.
“You don’t have to look overseas to see discrimination and gender abuse,” said Riki Wilchins, executive director of GenderPAC, a national group working to eliminate gender discrimination.
Wilchins said five of the seven school shootings were committed by students who were targeted because of their gender.
“We need to cast a wider net. We need to look at more than just gay and lesbian issues, but also gender issues,” Wilchins said.
“We need to show them that them is us. We need to break down those barriers,” said Martin Ornelas-Quintero, executive director of Llego, a Latino organization for LGBT. “You’re not alone, even though it sometimes feels like you are.