June 24, 2009 at 1:00 am

Deb Price

Gay voters can persuade lawmakers to change

How many gay voters does it take to change a member of Congress?

Probably not that many. But they need to ask the lawmaker to change.

Letters, e-mails, phone calls, visits.

They're what transforms Congress.

That's the unglamorous reminder coming from House members pushing for repeal of laws banning openly gay soldiers and federal recognition of gay married couples.

"I'd like to make it a rule: No yelling at the president until you show me a letter you have written" to your House member and two senators, says gay U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.

As lawmakers prepare to head home for their July 4 recess, key congressional allies emphasize that every member of Congress needs to hear from constituents passionate about passing legislation to move gay Americans toward equality.

Gay Americans are frustrated and angry -- at the lack of legislative change and at the Obama Justice Department's fighting to preserve the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

That fury can be communicated in ways that take advantage of two undervalued statements:

President Obama, announcing a small package of partner benefits for gay federal workers, said of the marriage act, "I believe it's discriminatory. I think it interferes with states' rights. And we will work with Congress to overturn it."

And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said of the military ban, "With presidential leadership and direction, I believe we can find the time to get repeal done in this Congress."

It's easy to doubt the sincerity of Obama and Reid and write off their rhetoric as frantic efforts to keep gay money flowing to a Democratic Party that has yet to keep its promises. Motives aside, those words have power. And every lawmaker can be pushed to match them -- and to support repeal legislation.

What does gay-friendly Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on civil rights, need voters to do to help him pass the anti-DOMA bill he'll soon introduce?

"Call your representatives. Meet with them. Pressure them," Nadler told me.

Nadler hopes to quickly get a Senate companion bill. Already, a House bill to repeal "Don't Ask" has been introduced. A Senate version is likely shortly.

Those are the two most important measures: No other federal laws mandate discrimination against a group of U.S. citizens. Hate crimes and job discrimination will certainly decline once Uncle Sam embraces fairness.

Gay Rep. Tammy Baldwin says pushing other bills will illuminate the path to repeal.

The House could vote by summer's end on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act -- banning bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity -- and the Domestic Partnership Benefits and Obligations Act, extending health and pension benefits to federal workers' partners.

"If we do get a roll call vote on ENDA and the domestic partners bill, we are going to get a sense about what this body is thinking about our families and our right to be free from discrimination. That will an indicator we don't currently have on repealing DOMA," Baldwin told me.

The number of gay-friendly lawmakers is rising. The more calls and letters, the more change.

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