News

Bisexual Ariz. Lawmaker Challenges Colleagues, Voters

by Joseph Erbentraut
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Mar 10, 2011

As a recent Associated Press report shed new light on the influence openly gay and lesbian lawmakers have made on the progress towards LGBT equality in several states, such headlines have generally focused on how out legislators have spearheaded successful efforts to pass relationship-recognition measures in Illinois and Hawaii and other states in the last year.

But what about states where such far-reaching legislation would not stand much, if any, shot at success?

Arizona state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Phoenix,) who was elected earlier this year after serving six years in the state House of Representative, is all too familiar with the impact an openly queer presence can make on seemingly unfriendly territory. Openly bisexual, the 34-year-old is one of the state's rising Democratic lawmakers and-perhaps surprisingly-one of five openly LGBT politicians, all Democrats, currently serving in a statewide office. This number represents the highest percentage of out leadership of any state's Legislature.

Sinema, 34, told EDGE earlier this month that her sexual orientation has never been much of an issue when it comes to voters. "I think the general public doesn't give a damn if you're straight or gay in Arizona. They don't care. We're kind of a live and let live kind of place," she said. "I think Arizona has a long history of being pretty libertarian in that sense."

That said, the Republican-dominated Legislature still pushed for a state law banning marriage for same-sex couples in 2006 and 2008, when they were successful. And GOP lawmakers have consistently worked to chip away at pro-LGBT laws in the state. Sinema led both campaigns against the marriage ban.

The state is in the midst of a lawsuit that seeks to eliminate domestic partner benefits for state employees, and Republican lawmakers have also proposed a bill that would make it more difficult for single adults to adopt children.

She still added the presence of her and other out legislators has made an impact on their heterosexual peers-even if it's a more subtle effect than she would like. Arizona, she conceded, doesn't have many rights for LGBT people to be taken away at this point; so there's still much room for improvement.

"There are less anti-gay measures than there used to be at the Capitol, but let's not fool ourselves-the legislature is still very anti-gay," said Sinema. "But the language people use about gay people is different in the Capitol now. They're at least polite even if they don't agree with us, which makes a different especially to young people."

An increased sense of civility in the state's political discourse may also have something to do with the fallout from a massacre outside a Tucson supermarket on Jan. 8 that left six people dead and nearly killed Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Giffords, a close friend of Sinema's, continues to recover after Jared Lee Loughner allegedly shot her in the head at close range. Sinema reiterated, however, there has "not been a huge change" in the amount of what she considers to be harmful legislation introduced at the Capitol.

"There is some sense of civility with each other which is good, but it hasn't resulted in what I think Gabby would have wanted to see: For us to seek more opportunities to find civil dialogue through compromise, consensus and finding a middle ground," said Sinema. "And I think that's unfortunate because I think this is an opportunity for us to find our way back to what Arizona is-a practical state."

In the eyes of some, practicality has been a contentious issue in Arizona politics since Gov. Jan Brewer signed a highly controversial bill into law last year that imposed the country's strictest regulations on illegal immigration.

But Sinema, who identifies as a moderate, said Senate Bill 1070 is only "the tip of the iceberg" of "flat-out crazy" measures related to immigration and other contentious issues that some of her colleagues plan to introduce in the near future. One proposed law would deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants who are born in the United States.

The state Senate voted 21-8 last week in favor of a measure that would allow individuals to bring guns into most public buildings or grounds, such as a festival or a fair. The bill would exclude college campuses, which have a standing ban on firearms that a separate bill seeks to overturn.

Sinema, who is rumored to be mulling a run to represent the Grand Canyon State in the nation's capital, has introduced controversial bills of her own. Some of her own supporters have criticized her measure that addresses "drop houses" and the illegal smuggling of immigrants across the border; they maintain the bill would further criminalize immigrants.

While they remain vastly outnumbered in Arizona; and even to a degree in Washington, D.C., Sinema said progressive and LGBT voters will need to work harder ahead of the upcoming election. She sees it as the "only way we're going to get back to a sense of normalcy and an agenda of equality and fairness."

"We have to keep our eyes on the future and work a lot harder," she said. "Put down the martini and pick up the ballot. We don't spend enough time volunteering, going door-to-door, canvassing and contributing to campaigns. We have to step up our game if we want to see a change."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.


Comments

  • Tim Janes, 2011-03-10 10:41:42

    There has always been a dedicated core of peole supportive of the LGBT world -- particularly in southern Arizona. (Hy do you think we want to become a separate state?) Tucson was one of the first cities in the nation (4th or 5th) to pass an equal rights ordinance (in 1976) covering orientation, subsequent amended to include gender identity. Unfortunately, places like Tucson (and Flagstaff, et al) are routinely run roughshod over by the politicos from Phoenix.


  • , 2011-03-15 00:52:52

    She’s actually not a "rising" star. Many people are very disappointed in her. She’s successful with PR, but she doesn’t value her constituents and she’s willing to throw the oppressed under a bus at a whim. Note that the wind blew her out of town this week so she could conveniently be absent for all of the spring break protests and for the minute men vote.


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