Political climate opens to gays

OLYMPIA — Rep. Marko Liias’ arrival in the Legislature has pushed the state to a new political milestone.

Liias, a Democrat from Mukilteo, is Washington’s sixth openly gay legislator, the most in state history and more than every other state except New Hampshire, which has seven. California, Connecticut and Vermont each have five.

“It’s not something that I thought about before I came here,” said Liias, 26. “When I was appointed I was excited to get to work on the issues.”

Liias joins Reps. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle; Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver; Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines; and Sens. Ed Murray, D-Seattle; and Joe McDermott, D-Seattle.

Murray had been the lone openly gay legislator for years. He welcomed the state’s new status.

“What I think it signifies for the state is that this is a fairly tolerant state and that voters are making decisions on people’s character, and not their sexual orientation,” he said.

Voters will be looking beyond numbers and at each individual’s accomplishments, Liias said.

“The real testament is going to be what we get done,” he said. “In the end, that’s what’s most important, not that we tipped the scales, but that we had six members of the Legislature who worked to get some good things done for their district.”

Liias said his sexual preference wasn’t widely known while he served on the Mukilteo City Council because no issues arose that made it relevant to discussion.

In Olympia, as a legislator on the larger statewide political stage, it emerged publicly when he joined the other gay legislators in calling for passage of a proposed law expanding rights for same-sex domestic partnerships.

On a personal level, he said it’s nice there are other gay lawmakers with whom he can talk.

“Quite frankly that was comforting knowing there were others that I could seek out for advice and counsel,” Liias said. “Being openly gay requires revealing a part of your private life. In our society we don’t usually talk about our private lives.”

Nationwide, the number of openly gay and lesbian leaders remains a small number: 400 of approximately 500,000 elected officials, according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee.

California leads the nation with 116 elected and appointed officials who are openly gay, according to the Victory Fund. Pennsylvania is next with 37, none in state office, followed by Washington with 35 and New York with 30.

Nineteen states don’t have any openly gay lawmakers in their legislatures. Of those, six don’t have any openly gay officials at any level: Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina and West Virginia.

Though small, the numbers are improving.

“Barriers have been broken,” said Denis Dison, spokesman for the Victory Fund. “I think we are in the adolescence of gay and lesbian people stepping up and running for office.”

Liias accepts that he now carries an extra responsibility.

“Anything that we can do, me as an individual, or us as a state, to be leaders on this issue and be role models is excellent,” Liias told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

“The message really is, everyone deserves a stake in Washington, and everyone has a stake in Washington’s future,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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