Out In Congress

Rep. Jared Polis, the first out gay man to win a freshman seat in Congress, is our latest GLBT political ally

Interview by Will O'Bryan
Photography by Todd Franson
Published on May 14, 2009, 12:00am | Comments

There have been gay members of Congress before and there are those who serve now. There has already been an openly gay candidate elected to Congress as a freshman legislator: Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.). But Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, has the distinction of being the first out gay man elected to a first term. There's no arguing that's not a historic feat, considering the disproportionate disadvantage the GLBT community suffers on Capitol Hill. Every inch toward proportionate representation is a milestone.

But Polis is much, much more than a name for the history books. Having just turned 34 on May 12, this dynamic young congressman brings to Washington a background in business, technology and education, along with his partner of five and a half years, Marlon Reis.

Jared Polis
Jared Polis

He's also wasted no time getting his hands dirty, traveling to Baghdad in April -- his first trip as a member of Congress, his second as a concerned citizen. While ending the war in Iraq was one of the issues most important to his constituents back home in Boulder, Colo., Iraq is also important to Polis as a matter of grave humanitarian concern.

Tracked primarily by journalist Doug Ireland of New York's Gay City News and other publications, there are reports not only of death squads targeting gays in Iraq, but of a gruesome method of execution: using a type of glue to seal the anuses of a men suspected of being gay, then inducing diarrhea, causing a painful death.

As Polis wrote, in part, in an April 27 letter, also signed by Baldwin and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill, "We hope that by reaching out to you and members of your staff, that the U.S. Embassy in Iraq will prioritize the investigation of these allegations, work with the Iraqi government to end the executions of LGBT Iraqis, and make protecting this vulnerable community a priority."

Iraq's gay community isn't the only vulnerable group Polis is trying to help. Back in Colorado, he's worked to improve the lives of newly arrived, immigrant youths, for example.

In Washington, Polis says he's been excited to find new allies for his progressive agenda, meeting the savviest players through organizations such as the new Q Street.

"That's a great group of LGBT lobbyists, organizations and associations," says Polis. "It's amazing how we did a reception and there must've been a few hundred people who came."

Polis' entrée into Washington is also flavored with a refreshing accessibility. Having served as keynote speaker at the April 19 Victory Fund Brunch, a group that supported his campaign, he's also auctioning off a lunch date at the Men of Mautner fundraiser May 14, and is lined up for a May 19 public discussion with Congressional Quarterly's Lydia Gensheimer at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue.

Maybe it's his youth, maybe it's his values, or possibly it's just some Rocky Mountain goodness in Boulder's tap water that fuels him. Whatever his secret, Jared Polis' face is one that gay Washingtonians should expect to see more of, whether on C-SPAN, at fundraisers, or just grabbing lunch with his partner at Eastern Market. Polis would be the first to invite you to introduce yourself and say hello.

METRO WEEKLY: How are you settling in, both with Congress and the District?

REP. JARED POLIS: Well, as a member of Congress, we don't get to see the city that much. Probably 90 percent of my life is just within a few square blocks of here -- the Capitol campus and where we live. I walk four blocks to work. But my partner and I really enjoy our excursions into Washington. We've been to Columbia Heights, the Dupont Circle area, Georgetown -- we enjoy going out when we have the chance.

I have a car here -- I drove out from Colorado -- but we don't use it very often.

MW: A hybrid?

POLIS: It is, yeah, of course. A Ford Escape hybrid.

MW: Hybrid and American, lots of points. Were you very familiar with D.C. before the election?

POLIS: Not really. It's been a long time since I did a summer internship here when I was 18, on the Senate side for Sen. Tom Daschle.

Of course, as anybody, presumably, in this community knows, Capitol Hill is a very friendly place with a sizable LGBT contingent among the staff people in the committees and offices on both sides of the aisle.

MW: What's your reading of this Congress? The environment for advancing GLBT equality seems as unprecedented as your election.

POLIS: It's a very promising atmosphere. We're witnessing a sea change from just four years ago, where you had a hostile administration and a hostile Congress. And now, it's just a question of what we can accomplish. We've already passed hate crimes [legislation] with a strong majority. We plan to take up workplace discrimination shortly. Then it's just a question of what's next, in terms of social progress.

MW: With the hate-crimes bill you just mentioned, many of us outside Congress were shocked when Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) used the debate to call characterization of Matthew Shepard's murder as a hate crime a "hoax."

POLIS: It shows the lack of thought behind the anti-gay message. It exposes it to the American people who are just as shocked as any of us are about the use of that kind of language. It really undermines the authority of any of those who argue against gay rights when they make these ridiculous comparisons and arguments.

I think it reflects more on Virginia Foxx than on anyone else, and it reflects very poorly on her.

MW: But was her comment as controversial within the Congress as it was outside? Or do you just chalk that up to political grandstanding?

POLIS: It was really shocking to everybody. Any member who makes comments like that will be less respected by the other members.

MW: Why did you want to come to Washington? What was your motivation?

POLIS: I really enjoyed the work I was doing. I was involved with some private-sector work, on the boards of some companies; I was active in education as superintendent of several charter schools I started. I'd founded a nonprofit promoting education and technology. And I really felt like a lot of the issues we faced were national in scope.

So, first of all, the opportunity arose: Our congressperson [Mark Udall] ran for Senate. That sort of led to a decision point: Do I want to do public service full time?

I'd done part-time public service in the past, been on the [state] school board, that sort of thing. But when I really thought about the issues that are most important for our future, I thought I could clearly have more impact if I participated by serving in Congress than I could just from the outside.

MW: Is serving in Congress something you see yourself doing for the long run, or do you have some sort of self-imposed term limit?

POLIS: It's hard to say. I'm just at the start of it. It wouldn't really be a fair question now.

I certainly am thrilled every day with the opportunities I have to change public policy. How I'll feel in six or 10 years, it's hard to say. But you need to be part of this institution long enough to make an impact, and that takes at least a few terms. Hopefully, not so long that you become part of the problem.

MW: I'm sure you're pleased with your committee assignments, serving on the Rules Committee and the Education and Labor Committee, but do you have a sort of "dream" committee assignment?

POLIS: Really, the ones I have now. Education is my passion. I've direct experience in education. There are no other charter-school founders in Congress, and I think only one former superintendent. So I'm one of the few members of that committee who has hands-on experience running schools, as well as in a school-board capacity. And the Rules Committee is absolutely terrific in terms of the ability to see what's really going on across the entire body and help impact legislation through the amendment process.

MW: What are the special qualities of your schools?

POLIS: I started two. One I ran, the other I just started. The one that I ran works with 16- to 21-year-old new immigrants, helping them learn English and getting a high school education. That's called New America School.

The other is the Academy of Urban Learning and that one works with homeless youth, and youth in transitional housing in Denver. Basically, I started schools to serve underserved populations that really weren't having their educational needs met with conventional public schools.

MW: Speaking of underserved youth, I'm reminded of there being only a tiny handful of homes dedicated to GLBT, homeless youth.

POLIS: We're not a home, we're a school, but we've had a number of LGBT kids who have attended Academy of Urban Learning. Some of them are homeless from issues of being kicked out for their sexual orientation. We work with several shelters in the area, but we're just where they are during the day, then they go elsewhere at night.

Unfortunately, nationally, a large percentage of homeless youth -- maybe a quarter -- are LGBT. I've seen statistics that say it's as high as half.

MW: Granting your association is with schools, not shelters, might we still consider that homeless GLBT youth have never had a stronger advocate in Congress?

POLIS: Absolutely. I don't know if there's ever been an openly gay member of the Education Committee in Congress. Not recently, at least. The Academy of Urban Learning serves LGBT homeless youth along with other homeless youth. Certainly, with discrimination, many LGBT people start feeling it at an early age and we need to do more in our schools to make sure we promote an atmosphere of tolerance and respect.

MW: What was your own coming-out experience?

POLIS: To whom? When you're a public person, like in Congress, you're out to everybody. I think I came out to my parents and family when I was 21 or so.

My parents were not only supportive, but very supportive. My mother became sort of the prototypical PFLAG mom. For the couple years after I came out, she was always trying to get me to read books about being gay. I said, ''Mom, you don't have to be an expert on it.'' [Laughs.] She was very enthusiastic.

I grew up in a traditional, liberal household. My parents were sort of former hippies, active in the anti-war movement in the '60s. My father was a physicist who became an artist full time. My mother's a writer, a poet. They're kind of free spirits, very creative people.

MW: The Boulder area has a progressive reputation, but you went away to school in San Diego. What was the mood at that school?

POLIS: It's changed a lot. There's been a huge transition, not just in my high school, but in all high schools. I was one of the last generations to go through when there certainly weren't any Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA). There really weren't any out gay kids in my high school.

I was class of '93, but it's very different if you fast-forward. I went back to visit my high school, and they have a GSA. All the major high schools in my district do. There's a lot more visibility and a lot more support for LGBT youth now than there has been.

But, of course, it's far from universal. In many communities, they're still lacking where we need those kinds of support the most.

MW: You seem to enjoy sharing your experience. Is that important to you, being accessible?

POLIS: I certainly try to, but there are only so many hours in the day. I use new media to communicate with my constituents. Many of them keep up with me through Facebook and MySpace and Twitter. I welcome readers to become my friends. I hope through this work, we can help make this institution of Congress a little bit more open and accessible.

I enjoy getting to know friends here in Washington. I expect to, when I can, attend community events around D.C., obviously keeping in mind that many weekends I have to be home in Colorado, in my district.

MW: You have another community talk coming up at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. What will you be talking about?

POLIS: I'll probably talk about faith issues, empowering the faith-based community. I'm a member of a Reform synagogue in Colorado. They've really been on the forefront of social equality, along with Unitarians and other interdenominational organizations.

MW: Were you raised Reform?

POLIS: Yep.

MW: Unrelated, but worth mentioning, you speak Spanish fluently?

POLIS: .

MW: Any other languages?

POLIS: German. I would say conversantly, rather than fluent. Every now and then it would impress an old, German immigrant. I think I won three or four votes that way. [Laughs.] But Spanish I speak regularly.

MW: Tell me about your district.

POLIS: It's a typical suburban district in many ways. I have the north and west suburbs of Denver, and I also have the mountain-resort communities, like Vail, Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek. It's 90 percent suburban, 10 percent mountain, in terms of population.

It's a district that is generally moderate in a lot of ways. It's not a gay mecca -- in fact, there's not a gay bar in the entire district. But of course it has a gay and lesbian population, like anywhere. People just live their lives in their communities.

MW: True to that, your sexual orientation didn't seem terribly important during the campaign.

POLIS: No. The voters care about what you're going to do to end the war in Iraq, about the economy, health care. The least of their concerns is the orientation of their representative.

MW: Here in Congress, aside from your committee posts, you're also the new co-chair of the LGBT Equality Caucus, along with Representatives Frank and Baldwin. Did they draft you, or did you approach them?

POLIS: I got to know them a little bit over the course of the campaign, and when I was elected Tammy Baldwin called and asked if I'd be a co-chair. I said sure, of course.

We need more openly gay and lesbian members of Congress. We need to build a much stronger support network across the country to encourage LGBT candidates to run, and support them. I had more support from the business community and the Jewish community during the campaign than I did from the LGBT community. To urge others to run and to help them win, we need to do more nationally.

There shouldn't be only three of us. We're three out of 435 [representatives]. There should be more like 25 or 30 or 40.

MW: You can always wheel a keg in and see what happens.

POLIS: Yes, we're not counting the closeted members. [Laughs.]

MW: Did your sexual orientation come up with your Iraqi counterparts when you were in Baghdad?

POLIS: It's in my bio, if they looked it up. I'm sure my colleagues from Congress -- I was with five others -- knew.

MW: Would you have been comfortable talking about it there?

POLIS: Yes, if it came up. I didn't ask what their sexual orientation was, and they didn't really ask me. But I certainly talked about protecting the human rights of the LGBT population and made sure they were aware of what's going on.

MW: From what you learned during your trip to Iraq, from your interviews with Doug Ireland and speaking with the State Department, what is your assessment of the situation for GLBT Iraqis? And what can you do about it?

POLIS: There's certainly a very serious problem with the level of dedication that the Iraqi regime has toward human rights. This is being felt most urgently in the human rights of the LGBT population of Iraq, which in Baghdad and many other areas lives in fear. There have been several killings [and] imprisonments.

I think [the Iraqi government is] beginning to feel the pressure to do something about it. Our efforts have been to encourage the American government to emphasize the importance of protecting human rights, including protecting all minorities, whether they're gay or Christian or atheist or Jewish. The real test of whether Iraq is dedicated to protecting human rights is whether they protect some of the less-popular minority groups in their country.

We are currently circulating a letter to Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton and there's been great support from my colleagues here in Congress. We had a couple good calls with Ambassador Karen Stewart, the head of the human-rights division of the Department of State. They've addressed it at the human-rights level. But we need to make sure we, through normal diplomatic channels, try to get the Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and the civilian leadership to more broadly condemn this practice. They have issued a condemnation, stating that people have to follow the law, basically. But they need more specific actions to combat this anti-gay violence.

I raised the issue with a member of the Iraqi Parliament, the chairwoman of the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. Part of the problem is that their committee doesn't have very much authority to actually protect human rights, but she was generally receptive to the arguments. I think that there are allies within the Iraqi government, but the prime minister needs to take these allegations more seriously and really promote more of a culture of tolerance, of diversity.

MW: Once U.S. troops have left Iraq, one could argue we'll have much less leverage in protecting this community.

POLIS: They receive a lot of foreign aid from us. We'll continue to have leverage, remaining a close ally, to continue to pressure them to protect human rights. We hope for real action to come from the Iraqi government to protect the rights of all their citizens.

MW: Bringing it back to Washington, have you been following the move in D.C. to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions? Do you foresee any fights in Congress during the review period?

POLIS: It should be fine. Congress doesn't need to do anything. We just need to not object, and I don't expect Congress to object or overrule that law.

MW: You don't sit on the committee overseeing the District, but Rep. Foxx does. Even in the minority, what kind of damage could she and those like her do?

POLIS: I think you'll hear them complaining about it on the floor, but I don't expect that there will be votes on it.

MW: There's some discontent brewing in the progressive community, wishing that the president would say something more about marriage equality. Would you like him to step in more forcefully, to show leadership on marriage equality?

POLIS: I certainly encourage the president to. He speaks very powerfully, and that would be a great, great thing for him to do.

MW: Would this law affect you directly? Are you and your partner legally married, or do you have some other formalized partnership?

POLIS: No. We don't have that yet in my home state of Colorado. We had it on the ballot, but domestic partnership didn't quite pass. It got 47 percent. And we haven't gone to a different state.

MW: What did he think of you running for Congress?

POLIS: He respects that that's my passion. He's been very supportive along the way.

MW: Is he a congressional widow, or has he found ways to occupy his time in D.C.?

POLIS: He goes back and forth with me most weeks. We try to spend what time we can together. He likes to concentrate on his writing. Since he's a writer, he's fairly mobile. He's also considering volunteering to some good causes here in Washington. His main causes are animal rights and the environment.

MW: What's the best thing you two have discovered about D.C. since beginning your term?

POLIS: Boulder has a lot of dining options, but we've just been blow away by the quality and quantity of the different types of cuisine. Occasionally Marlon and I will enjoy the nightlife here; we've been out to Town and JR.'s and places like that. We've been very impressed by the hospitality of the city. While our time here is very limited, we've enjoyed being sort of ''resident tourists.''

MW: Is there anything you'd like to add for Metro Weekly's audience specifically?

POLIS: I would encourage them to stop by, Cannon House Office Building 501, and say hi. If I'm in, I'll say hi. If I'm not in, one of our friendly Colorado staff members will. I look forward to getting to know more members of the community here.

Rep. Jared Polis will discuss entrepreneurship, education and public service with Congressional Quarterly's Lydia Gensheimer, Tuesday, May 19, at 7:30 p.m. at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW. Tickets, $6, are available by visiting www.sixthandi.org. For more information, call 202-408-3100. For more about Rep. Jared Polis, visit www.polis.house.gov, or call his office at 202-225-2161.


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