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Congressional Interview

Jared Polis
openly gay freshman
Colorado Congressman

by Denny Meyer

Representative Jared Polis is the first openly gay male elected to Congress as a freshman.  He is a co-chairman of the LGBT Equality Caucus, and a member of numerous House committees and subcommittees.  While attending Princeton University he began founding highly successful business ventures. He first ran for and won a seat on the Colorado State Board of Education in 2000 and served as the youngest chairman in the history of the Board.  He founded two innovative charter schools to help meet the needs of Colorado’s underserved students. In 2004, seeing the difficulty faced by older immigrant youth in mainstream public schools, he established and served as the superintendent of the New America School.

We interviewed him on May 4th, 2009; congratulated him on his victory in the election last November, and asked him how he is supporting efforts at progress on gay rights issues.

Gay Military Signal: Many people view you as a new gay hero, having run as an openly gay candidate, winning, and starting out in Congress advocating rights issues right from the start.  What motivated you and what did you experience running as a gay candidate?

Jared Polis: I was civically active for a number of years.  I was on the State Board of Education and was a superintendent of a school  for new immigrants.  The situation arose, when Congressman Mark Udall ran for the Senate, the seat was open. And a lot of the issues I cared most about need to be addressed at the federal level.  That is: improving our education system, the war in Iraq, and working to make health care more affordable for American families.  That is really what drove me to run.

GMS: Did your encounter any discrimination running for office as a gay person?

JP: No.  I think people in our typical suburban district care about getting the economy going, creating jobs, the housing crisis, health care; they want to elect somebody and get things done.  They don't really care about the race, or gender, or sexual orientation of their representative.

GMS: Is there an LGBT Caucus or something like that in the House?

JP: We have an Equality Caucus with a dozen members which Tammy (Baldwin), Barney (Frank) and I co-chair, with many members who are committed to a full equality agenda.

GMS: Could you comment on your support for repealing the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy via the Military Readiness Enhancement Act?

JP: I think it's a policy that weakens our military. It opens our men and women who serve to possible blackmail, it destroys unit cohesion; and it puts American lives in jeopardy by not fielding our best.

GMS:  Some view allowing open gay service as a matter of fairness while others see it as a matter of readiness, or both; what is your view?

JP:  As an institution the military is not designed to promote fairness. (For example) they have physical fitness and age requirements.  It's an institution designed to defend our country. By kicking out gay and lesbian service members we are weakening our ability to have  a strong military and defend our country.

GMS: Currently, allowing transgender American volunteers to serve is not even on the table; yet many of our allied countries allow transgender service; what is your view on this issue?

JP:  Anyone who meets the physical (and other) requirements should be able to serve.  Just because they were a different gender previously should not keep them from serving.  There probably are transgender people serving, but not openly, I presume.

GMS: Oh indeed there are, since the Civil War. Even Israel allows such service.

JP: Well, yes, they are smart about defense, they realize that they need every capable body.

GMS:  What about partner benefits?  Do you believe that openly gay and lesbian troops should have the same benefits as others?

JP: Of course, gay and lesbian members of our military should have the same consideration for benefits as their straight counterparts.

GMS:  Imagine two American soldiers shot side by side where one's spouse is getting all sorts of support and benefits while the other's partner is left out in the cold?

JP: Well, we actually don't have domestic partner benefits for federal employees in any category in that regard.  In fact, I don't get them for my partner as a Congressman.  We are of course working to change that, but it has not passed yet.

GMS: In the past few months you have spoken out valiantly about the plight of gay Iraqis who are suffering a virtual genocide.  Could you tell us about that? 

JP:  There has been a rise in anti-gay violence in Iraq and the security forces have been, at best, turning a blind eye to it.  There have even been allegations that some security forces may be involved in some of the violence including killing, imprisonment and torture.  We have been raising the issue to protect gay Iraqis through diplomatic channels. We sent a letter to the charge d'affaires at the embassy in Baghdad; we had conversations with the head Human Rights at the Department of State to get our government engaged to include this issue in our broad support of human rights in Iraq and using the leverage that we have with the Iraqi government to make sure that they protect all their citizens.  There is some sympathy within the Iraqi government as well; I've spoken with the Chairwoman of the Iraqi Human Rights Committee of the parliament, the US Ambassador Karen Stuart the head of the Human Rights Division of the Department of State, and met with the Human Rights Minister of Iraq.  They are certainly sympathetic and want to work with us to make sure the government is not complicit in these activities.

GMS:  Is there a plan to rescue these people?

JP: Several gay Iraqis have successfully fled; a number of them are in refugee camps.  Our office is working with them trying to facilitate asylum and resettlement.  At this point I would encourage gay Iraqis who are under the threat of death to flee.  There are NGOs, one called Iraqi LGBT working out of England, that help with safe houses and are currently assisting people to flee Iraq.  There are several other NGOs doing work in that area.

GMS: Are our own American troops doing anything to assist in this situation?  As one of those who volunteered during Vietnam, and we have gay American troops in Iraq now, imagine our frustration at having to serve in silence and also not even be able to help gay Iraqis from being horribly murdered. 

JP: It's not part of the (military) mission nor any other part of human rights considerations. Ironically the human rights condition for gays in Iraq has deteriorated considerably from their experience under Sadam Hussien.

GMS: What are your priorities, especially regarding gay rights?

The next major equality issue that will be taken up in the US Congress in the coming months is ENDA and we are supporting full inclusiveness.  We passed the Hate Crimes Law last week.

GMS: And the repeal of DADT?:

JP: I think that President Obama must step up and honor his campaign pledge and work with Secretary Gates to end this ridiculous policy that weakens our military.  We are a co-sponsor of the bill.

   2009  Gay Military Signal