Pantsuit Politics talks LGBTQ Politics with Kim Mellen

Editor's note: A long time ago Kim Mellen, a devoted listener and activist, reached out to the show and offered her perspectives if we ever wanted to discuss LGBTQ issues. I decided to take her up on it. Last week, while everyone was freaking out over the firing of Jim Comey and the Yates/Clapper testimony, Kim and I had a long chat on the phone about the past and future of LGBTQ politics in America, where the next fights are, how age shapes your political vigilance, and where conservatives fit into the social policy equation. This is part of our conversation. 

Do you think that LGBTQ people by nature are more politically active than your average citizen? Do you think activism is a necessity for LGBTQ folks? Or conversely, is inactivity viewed as a luxury?

100% I think we’re more politically active. We have seen an uptick in people’s engagement, and donations to organizations protecting LGBTQ rights. I don’t see that going down anytime soon. Locally in Atlanta our Human Rights Campaign chapter has endorsed John Osoff in the 6th district. There is a lot of support behind organizations and candidates fighting for LGBTQ rights. You see information getting passed around and it starts linking into every community. The thing about our community is it’s truly representative of the entirety of our populations. We’re men and women, rich and poor, black, white, hispanic. It really covers the spectrum. There is a lot of community engagement and there is a lot of fear in the community right now, and that in turn spawns engagement. You see that in other groups too. Professionally you’re seeing lawyers organize, which is crazy.

But to me personally, engagement isn’t new. I have always been politically engaged. The first time I went to D.C. I cried as an adult, it was kinda dorky. The last two election cycles have in particular really provoked a big uptick for me. After the Supreme Court passed Obergefell v. Hodges, the marriage equality measure, in our local and state groups we started looking at the shifts in local policies because that’s where the real damage was being done. I remember when Act Up got started in the Reagan era, and Harvey Milk, and representatives in the political space being recognized and listened to. It breeds a culture of activism. We have to be active. If we’re not, we get nothing. Even with marriage equality. In North Carolina, and Tennessee, and Texas, and Mississippi, the legislation that happens at the local level is really what will affect and impact your life. People are paying attention. With the wave of younger progressive people coming into the political space, it’s been an interesting time to watch that come together. The energy, Dante, it just feels different. Just talking to people in the neighborhood. It’s always present.

Do you find there to be an age disparity with LGBTQ folks fighting for their rights? And what I mean is, for younger people who have grown up in what is a nowhere near perfect, but more demonstrably progressive America, does the fight not feel as real or as urgent as say, someone who grew up in the height of the Christian Right in the 80s?

Yes, definitely. I see that even with my wife Rebecca and I. We are 14 years apart. She grew up knowing a more open society, her generation, they started that big shift. They are all gender fluid and all that stuff. I graduated high school in 1986, knowing what it was like to drive to a bar and know that you might be arrested. I’ve been run off the road for holding hands with my girlfriend in a car when people saw us at a stoplight. I’ve been pulled out of a car by young guys thinking I was a guy, and when they saw I wasn’t they just kind of let me go. Everything now feels like a physical blow, and it’s just different. When Rebecca and I talk, I’ll explain it to her and she’ll say stuff like “That actually happened to you?” There is a difference generationally in how people are feeling this in the community. It doesn’t detract from any age group getting into the fight. People telling their stories like they’re hearing now. Those who lived through the Reagan era, and the AIDS crisis. I never thought I’d see marriage equality in my lifetime and if I did I thought it wouldn’t happen until very late in my life. It doesn’t make the progress less tangible. But I think the young people are seeing that the fight is never really over, and there’s still so much work to be done.

What do you say to straight people or people outside the LGBTQ community that have viewed the incoming Trump era and said, you know I don’t know what they’re so afraid of?

My emotional reaction is not very nuanced. It’s a big fuck you. And that’s from my gut. I would point people to all kinds of places you can find news in the LGBTQ community. There are links on the HRC’s website. The ACLU has information on cases that I’ve been involved in. Source your own research but here is where you can go to find it. Ten trans women of color have been killed just this year due to hate crimes. TEN. The hate, and the danger, it’s around you everywhere you look. It impacts my life every single day. You things that most people don’t even think about my wife and I have to think about, like whether she can make medical decisions with me, not even talking about children and parental rights, just making medical decisions together.

It’s one story at a time and one person at a time. I keep watching all these things happen and the only way I’ve ever made an impact with people is to sit and talk to them and meeting them where they are and not apologizing for that. After talks it’s usually, I understand you a little bit better and I hope you understand me a little bit better. I have a boring mundane life. I am married to the woman I love. I go to work, pay my taxes. You know it’s basically the same as everyone else’s, but sometimes it takes real conversations to get people to see that.

LGBTQ for a long time has, from a national politics perspective, been focused on sexuality. But now it seems more and more the gender portion of the acronym is moving into the spotlight. Gender is a really tough thing for people to wrap their heads around, is it like that even for folks within the community?

I think there are some people in the community that struggle to understand that experience. Even if you don’t fully understand it, protecting their rights becomes about appreciating someone’s right to exist as they are. Transgender people, there’s so much to unpack there. I can’t fathom the experience they have or that they go through. But I can understand what it feels like to be different, and viewed as “other” and not fit in and not feel comfortable as myself because I couldn’t be my true self. I couldn’t imagine my entire life, as an open and out lesbian, under that weight. I don’t need to experience being transgender to know that weight, and fight for people to never have to live with it.

Where is the next fight for LGBTQ rights?

It is definitely in the area of trans rights. It’s the bathroom bills that are coming out. At the state and local level is where it gets really scary and the feds have basically passed these issues on to the states, and at the local level discriminatory legislation can happen much quicker. Adoption is now on the table. Tennessee just signed into law the invisibility law, NC is trying to work on the repeal of HB2. Texas has lots of adoption laws on the books. It’s definitely centered around trans and family and keeping the more “traditional” definition of what a family is and getting it enshrined into law.

What do the words religious freedom mean to you?

It means you have the freedom to practice a religion unencumbered by anyone or government. Practicing your religion means gathering in your church, or mosque, or synagogue. It doesn’t to me mean that if you run a business, that you can use scripture to discriminate against people. Practice your religion. Then when you step into the public space you can’t deny people coverage, or service, or anything based on religious freedom just like you couldn’t based on the color of their skin. The religious freedom argument is a license to discriminate and there is no other way to look at it.

Why do you think religious freedom has been used as a weapon, even as its legal justification to discriminate keeps getting challenged. Socially and economically too, we’re seeing more and more activism against religious freedom bills that aim to discriminate.

Freedom is to be free of that kind of discrimination, really. But when you say religious freedom it feels like something that is being taken away. It immediately positions it as a removal of freedom. It’s all about things being taken from you by the “other.” At the heart of it, it’s racism and sexism and homophobia, and xenophobia driving that sentiment in the GOP. There’s always this concept of the “other.”

It seems to me though, that the party shift under Trump might draw some focus away from LGBTQ folks as the "other." Trumpism to me is more of a nationalist movement, so is there an argument to saying that there is less of a stereotypical social conservative bend to this administration and its supporters?

Well, there is the David Duke segment of that base and there’s obviously the alt right, but you’re probably talking about the Fox News watcher. They just have a different enemy. They’re riled up about Muslims, or illegals. They have bigger “others” to deal with at the moment. It just happens to be our turn not to be in that crap pile for that segment of the population.

Who are the political heroes and heroines in the LGBTQ community?

Barney Frank. Tammy Baldwin. Barack Obama. Although he’s not really in the party right now. The progressive caucus is leading there, but getting more people at the table is happening slowly but surely at the federal level. But it’s going faster at the local and state levels. In ATL we have 3 openly LGBT people in city commission, we have an openly LGBT mayoral candidate about to run in Atlanta. That campaign is set to start soon. I realize Atlanta is a bubble comparatively in the South, but it’s happening. That race is going to heat up. We’ve got some old time Georgia candidates, some black candidates. It will be an incredibly diverse race.

If you don’t have a seat at the table you don’t have a voice, even though you have people advocating for you. Those are two very different things. It’s all about perspective right?  We have Tammy Baldwin in the Senate. There is a guy in the house, but his name is slipping me at the moment. There might be 2 openly LGBTQ representatives at the federal level, and 2 out of 535 is pretty poor. One openly sitting Senator. I think that is starting to shift. Maybe not at the federal level, but it’s coming.

Do you think we’ll see an open president?

Not in my lifetime. It make me a little sad to say it but I don’t think so.

You’ve categorized a lot of things tonight in terms of your lifetime. Considering the gains that have already been made and what you’d like to continue to see, if at the end you could give a recap, what would a lifetime of progress look like for you?

The further away I get from it, I think it’s really gratifying to see how the community itself has grown and changed and embraced the more marginalized sections of even our own community. I think it’s only going to continue, and as we get coalitions built with other marginalized communities. Now you’re going to get into my liberal Democratic side where we’re all one and everyone is beautiful, but you know I really believe that! Seeing a younger generation coming into life without the same hang ups that I have has been a wonderful thing to see, you know? Just people being more comfortable with who they are and being able to live as they should - that and a female president are things that I would look back on and feel very proud of. I’d also look back on two political moments, and they are both Obama inauguration speeches. When he said we’re looking forward to welcoming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters so they can enjoy equal rights, and when he said Stonewall to Selma my jaw dropped. To hear that in the inaugural, it was unbelievable to someone like me.

It’s common to associate LGBTQ folks with the Democratic Party, but we know there are conservatives too. What do you see as the future of the conservative movement within the LGBTQ community? And moreover, conservative politics in relation to it? There is a lot of talk that young cons are really not as concerned with some of the social aspects of the last 30 years of GOP politics. Could you see a shift that brings the country closer together on social policy?

There’s continued talk of that and I would love a movement. The younger conservatives are what might ultimately save the party. They really are talking about policy issues not social issues, and policy issues should really define a party. I think I would like to see that. It’s a truer representation of what government would be and what governing is. The conservative movement within the LGBTQ community will always survive, and unfortunately it presents itself in some ugly ways. You obviously still have the dominant white male and everything that comes with that, even in the gay community. You still have elements of sexism and racism and all that. People that are born and raised in these gentile environments - which is my experience in the South - they really believe they’re better than people. They believe that I’m white so I’m important or I’m a man and people are interested in what I have to say. It tends to coalesce around a certain kind of individual, and it tends to be white men. I think there are a lot of people really concerned with government and not social issues. Democrats can get there too. We have a lot of policy points that have nothing to do with who you love or who you marry. It will be interesting to watch, to see the younger conservative members of our community and their evolution.

My last question. Are we doing a good enough job of covering LGBTQ issues on the show? And if we’re not, what would you like to see us cover?

Y’all do a great job of bringing issues to light and talking about the social fabric of politics. Of course it’s always done in a fair and loving way. I’ve never felt left out listening to the show or participating in the community. Something I would like to see though, The Democrats have just reintroduced the Equality Act, maybe do a show on what that means? The Equality Act basically inserts sexual orientation and gender identity into the civil rights protected classes and grandfather’s us in so we don’t have to fight these constant battles to get the next protection on the books.

Would it essentially be a re-shaping of the 14th amendment?

Well the 14th amendment says you can discriminate based on race, religion, etc. so yeah, in essence we are talking about adding to the 14th amendment. It expands the categories of public accommodation. It amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexuality among the prohibitive categories. That takes all these discriminatory cases running around in cities and states and throws them right out the window.