If you follow LGBT politics closely, you know the polling numbers by heart. Two thirds of Americans believe same-sex couples deserve legal protections in the form of civil unions or marriage. About 75 percent believe gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military. Even more say employers shouldn't be able to fire people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In the last decade these numbers have moved in only one direction--toward fairness and inclusion. And yet, Congress still hasn't enacted significant protections for LGBT Americans. Why?
Fear, mostly. Fear that despite their distinct minority status, anti-LGBT extremists wield inordinate power when directly challenged. Swat that nest, the thinking goes, and the hornets will swarm. Incumbents, especially this year, aren't eager to add perceived obstacles to reelection.
LGBT activists often debate whether this fear is rational. On one side are Beltway types who see it up close every day. It's the elephant in the room at every conversation with a moderate Democratic senator from the Midwest, a gay Republican staffer for a House member, and even White House strategists.
Whether one believes it's rational or not, this fear exists, and it's part of working in LGBT politics in Washington. It must be understood, or the conversation stops.
On the other side are those who see our current power position slipping away without a lot to show for years of work. They see those polling numbers, pro-equality majorities in Congress and the most pro-equality president in history. It's fair to say they don't spend a lot of time worrying about whether a moderate will get reelected to Congress, and they're tired of being told to wait just a little bit longer to be treated equally. We've all waited long enough.
These two sides can and do work together, but they can also sometimes work against each other. It's easy to fight in front of a similarly-minded audience these days, so the rhetoric is too often overheated.
But this debate misses something important. What about the fear? What about the nature of the fear that's keeping elected officials from doing what they know is right? How do we remove that obstacle to equality?
Someone once said fear is just an acronym for "false evidence appearing real." When it comes to anti-LGBT extremists, there may be something to that.
Few lawmakers who've voted to end discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity have been defeated by anti-LGBT challengers. That's not to say there isn't a hardcore group of voters who will work to oust pro-equality politicians, but that group may not be large enough to matter very much in many places.
There will always be elected officials whose constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to LGBT equality. And with few exceptions, those politicians will fall in line whether they personally agree with the voters or not. But public opinion has shifted so dramatically in recent years it's hard to justify caving to minority opinion in more moderate districts.
Our job as advocates is to come together to find a solution, address the fear and create the conditions to win.