Congresswoman Fights for Gay and Trans Rights

Middle-schooler Tammy Baldwin faced a problem:

A lady had complained that students trampled her flowers on their way to school. So student council member Baldwin worked with other kids on an outreach team to fence the flowerbed.

Solving problems through public service is deep in the Wisconsinite's "never doubt" DNA.

This year, Baldwin marks her 10th year as the gentle lady from Madison, Wis.

In 1998, the progressive district elected her to the House of Representatives: She was both the first Wisconsin woman elected to Congress and the first person elected to Congress who ran openly gay rather than coming out in office.

With the only other openly gay member of Congress, Democrat Barney Frank, turning 68 and now thriving as a committee chairman, the 46-year-old Baldwin may be the gay community's best shot at having an openly gay senator in a decade or so.

But for now, the Democratic congresswoman finds herself for the first time in the party that controls the House.

Her overriding political passion hasn't changed -- passing universal health care. But being in the majority has opened new possibilities to improve the lot of gay Americans. In this, fortunately for those of us who're gay, Baldwin's girlhood idealism is in full bloom.

She's pushing to extend partner benefits to federal workers. With allies, she's slowly changing the State Department. By taking her partner of 11 years, Lauren Azar, to congressional events, she reminds colleagues that anti-gay policies hurt someone they care about.

But no example is more beautiful than her valiant attempt to keep transgender protections in legislation to protect gay workers from discrimination. After losing that round, Baldwin promised trans people: "You are not forgotten. And our job will not be finished until you, too, share fully in the American dream."

Baldwin acknowledges frustration, but views this session as a "rehearsal" before a gay-friendly Democrat wins the White House. Since Democrats took control after the 2006 elections, the House and Senate have passed hate crimes bills with gay and trans protections, the House passed gay job protections and a House hearing is expected on job bias against trans Americans.

"The issues have gotten their first real airing in well over a decade," Baldwin says. "That's a step forward. And there's a value in members in tough districts having taken these votes. When they survive re-election, they can come back with more courage."

Baldwin keeps a framed observation by anthropologist Margaret Mead in her offices: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has!"

"Never doubt" has become Baldwin's mantra. But she reminds those of us who're gay that daring to dream must be followed by courageous acts, whether putting a partner's photo on our desks or running for office.

"There will not be a magic day when we wake up and it's now OK to express ourselves publicly," she says. "We make that day by doing things publicly ... until it's simply the way things are."

The girl who sewed her own dress for her first day of school has blossomed into an inspiring woman. Never doubt how much more she will achieve.



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