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June 13, 2012

Web Exclusive: Representing equality

Congressman Yarmuth discusses LGBT rights and the Republican roadblocks standing in the way

Though the push for gay rights in this country is gaining momentum, there still is much work to be done to achieve full equality for the LGBT community. U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Louisville, talks with LEO Weekly about some of the remaining challenges and relays his belief that “full equality nationwide is unstoppable.”

LEO: When do you believe that marriage equality for same-sex couples will be extended to all 50 states, including those that have banned it in their constitution, such as Kentucky?

John Yarmuth: Civil rights and social progress advance with every generation, and I’m hopeful that the young people of this generation will carry the rest of the country forward. Just 15 years ago, only 27 percent of the country said same-sex marriages should be recognized under the law. This year, 53 percent said they should. For the first time, a clear majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.

And while the law is often several steps behind cultural change, we are seeing progress. At the federal level, Congress approved groundbreaking hate crimes legislation. We repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which cost our military greatly. And just recently, federal courts have ruled that both the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 — California’s anti-gay marriage initiative — are unconstitutional.

It’s clear where the momentum is. Seventy percent of 18-to-34-year-olds in this country support same-sex marriage. I believe they will be the ones to finally guarantee full marriage equality nationwide.

LEO: Do you envision a future in which more Kentucky politicians are afraid of the electoral consequences of blocking LGBT rights than protecting LGBT rights?

Yarmuth: Yes. It wasn’t long ago that supporting LGBT rights was viewed in the political mainstream as a liability. Now, through the good work of the Fairness Campaign here in Louisville and groups like it across the country, more and more people in politics are embracing equality and standing proudly alongside broad-based LGBT coalitions.

We have seen more advancement of LGBT rights during the past few generations than at any time in history. And as progress continues, the pressure for politicians to embrace common-sense reforms such as partner benefits and anti-bullying laws will increase.

LEO: Do you think there are a significant number of Republican legislators in D.C. who vote against LGBT rights even though that conflicts with their own personal beliefs, only doing so because they fear backlash from their party base?

Yarmuth: Absolutely. For some of my Republican colleagues, it does conflict with their personal beliefs. For others, it runs counter to their ideology. Look at marriage equality. Even though marriage is traditionally handled by the states, and the Republican Party claims to be the chief advocate for states’ rights, their leadership supports the federal marriage ban. That is because they concluded that exploiting same-sex marriage to energize the extreme wing of their base was more important than their states-rights ideology.

Still, the progress we’re seeing toward full equality nationwide is unstoppable. And if political leaders don’t recognize the changing electorate, the backlash will ultimately be on them.