Progress can be measured three ways.
Seven years ago, when state Rep. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, took his oath of office, KIRO, KOMO, and KING all featured it on the evening news. Murray was then the only out gay legislator in Washington. The spotlight burned hot: Murray received hate mail and found himself embroiled in a bitter controversy over the legality of gay marriage. He jokes that it was like the brouhaha over the TV show Ellen.
When state Rep. Joe McDermott, D-West Seattle, took office in 2000 and became Washington’s second out gay lawmaker, there was no hubbub. In fact, McDermott said a surprising number of Republican lawmakers didn’t even know he was gay, even though he had been forthright about it for years.
State Rep. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, had his rookie season in Olympia this year, and he said the fact that he was gay never even came up.
Murray compares his colleagues’ experience with the success of the TV show Will and Grace. “We’ve gone through a nice evolution in this state. [My colleagues] came into the process without gay written on their forehead in neon. It’s a sign of growth and changing times. The politics are different.” But the challenges that remain make it clear we’re not quite living in Queer as Folk yet.
Ed Murray, 47, is supercharged—full of ideas, jokes, and pointed observations. He bulls right into controversy, unafraid to take unpopular stands with his Capitol Hill, U District, and Wallingford constituents—such as pushing local environmentalists to support the highway-heavy Referendum 51.
Murray says Washington’s climate with respect to queer issues has shifted for the better. The 1998 beating death of gay activist Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, he argues, lessened the articulation of violent homophobia.
Murray also points to the defeat of nine anti-gay, conservative-Christian lawmakers in the last three state election cycles. “The late ’90s was the death throes of the old homophobia,” Murray claims. “To quote Bill Clinton, ‘That dog don’t hunt.’ The gay card doesn’t play anymore. Washington’s voters don’t like the language of hate.”
Murray says the gay and lesbian community’s apathy is now the chief obstacle to change. “If the gay community does not organize, you can have three or 20 gay legislators and it will not matter.” He found it discouraging that the controversy over having a beer garden in Volunteer Park during this year’s Pride celebration drew far greater attention from his constituents than the Legislature’s failure to enact civil rights protection for gays and lesbians. “Having been involved in gay politics in this town for 18 years, this is the most anemic time,” he says.
With Joe McDermott’s good looks and GQ fashion sense, you wouldn’t necessarily guess West Seattle as his hometown. But the 34-year-old’s low-key steadiness does keep with his neighborhood’s reputation. He grew up Irish Catholic as a member of the Holy Rosary Parish (as did Murray), scooping ice cream at the Husky Deli and dreaming of becoming a civil engineer. The political bug bit him on a high-school field trip to D.C.
As a gay legislator, McDermott says, “I feel accepted and haven’t felt any affront personally.” For instance, when a Republican colleague asked him if he was married, McDermott replied with a grin, “It’s not legal in this state.” And the Republican, McDermott says, “rolled with it.”
His first year in the Legislature, he joined Murray’s effort to pass the “safe-schools bill,” a measure that required school districts around the state to come up with policies to protect kids, including queer youth, from bullying. The House was locked in a 49-49 tie, so no bills could move without the support of each party’s leadership. And the GOP made sure the safe-schools bill was dead on arrival. This last session the Democrats had a one-seat majority, and not only did the safe-schools bill pass, but 81 out of 98 representatives voted yes. “By the time it hit the floor, no one wanted to be pro-bully,” says McDermott. Yet, he says, “I still see hesitation, lack of support, and outright opposition to legislation on [gay and lesbian] issues.”
Dave Upthegrove, 31, barely talks about being gay. It’s not that it makes him uncomfortable, but rather that he’s as passionate about his south county district of Des Moines, Normandy Park, and Burien (Upthegrove’s hometown) as many people might be about a night with Matt Damon.
“It’s the creeks I played in as a kid. It’s the schools I went to,” he says. “I can’t imagine representing any other district.” He devoted much of his first year to Sea-Tac Airport issues: funding noise insulation for the Highline School District; defeating an effort to exempt a proposed gravel-mining operation for the airport’s third runway from environmental laws; and protecting Miller and Des Moines creeks from airport expansion. Sexy stuff! Upthegrove argues that “people will judge candidates on the basis of these local issues.”
At the same time, Upthegrove feels that he has “a unique responsibility.” He hopes to “lead by example, showing that someone who is gay or lesbian can do a great job.” As a Democrat in a suburban district, some close advisors urged him to keep his private life private. But he felt more comfortable being “honest and up front,” because being gay “is a meaningful part of who I am. It has shaped my life experience. It has given me courage.”