Capitol Beat Opinion

Why Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo Supports LGBT Equality

Linda Pentz
Written by Linda Pentz

What’s with Florida all of a sudden?  There are only two Republican members of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus and both represent Florida constituencies.  Both are also straight allies.

The more senior of the two (in age, and longevity on the Caucus) is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 63, whose LGBT support has a more clear-cut personal connection.  Ros-Lehtinen has a transgender son.

“It’s a tragedy that a great proportion of young people who pass through this transition are rejected by their families,” Ros-Lehtinen told Telemundo in an interview with her and son Rodrigo last October.  “We’re very happy that our son is happy with who he is.  And that’s a blessing to us,” she has said.

The other is considerably younger at 36 and only joined the Caucus late last year.  But Rep. Carlos Curbelo does not see his support for LGBT rights as at odds with his party’s core beliefs.

“Last year I joined over 300 Republican leaders to sign an Amicus brief arguing that the freedom to marry is a conservative value,” Curbelo told me.

“Most Republicans revere the Constitution – as we should,” he added.  “Well, if we want to be true to our constitutionalism, that begins by recognizing the God-given rights of every person – no matter their sexual orientation.”

Curbelo could have stayed on the sidelines rather than draw attention to his views by signing on with the LGBT Equality Caucus.  So why did he join?

“I believe in promoting a society that values the dignity of every person,” he replied. “The government should not allow any type of discrimination, and no one should be unfairly treated based on their sexual orientation.  Most people in my age group agree: it’s long been time to turn the page on prejudices and the exclusion of the past.”

The value of straight allies like Curbelo, Ros-Lehtinen, and Democrat Rep. Mike Honda of California who chairs the LGBT Equality Caucus and whose granddaughter is trans, cannot be under-estimated, says Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) who is gay.

“It’s simple math,” he said.  “There are only six openly gay members of the House, so in order to make any progress on issues of importance to the LGBT community we need to work hand-in-glove with our straight allies.

“And what’s important to always remember is that the issues we’re fighting for – equality, respect, the right to love who you love – those aren’t gay or straight issues,” he continued.  “They’re basic American values.  And true progress for LGBT issues comes when members of all sexual orientations come together to fight for those values.”

Unlike Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo had no personal motivation for joining the caucus.  “I just think it’s the right thing to do,” he said.  “My wife and I teach our girls to judge people by the content of their character – not their religion, the color of their skin, their accent or their sexual orientation.  Every human being deserves the opportunity to thrive and flourish.”

This must make the current rash of discriminatory bills in places like North Carolina and Mississippi particularly challenging politically, given their Republican origins.

“The mistreatment and harassment of individuals in the LGBT community because they don’t ‘fit’ into heteronormative standards is a travesty,” Curbelo said when I asked him what he viewed as the most pressing LGBT issue of the moment.

“By promoting acceptance in our schools and universities we can continue raising social standards and eradicating the legacy of discrimination and bigotry inherited from our past,” he said.

Maloney said straight allies played a crucial role in the progress made recently.

“Straight allies in Congress were essential in repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, taking the fight on marriage equality to the Supreme Court, and passing the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law – a bill of deep personal significance to me from my time in the Clinton White House,” he said.

We may yet see another Clinton White House, but the Sanders campaign would argue that their candidate has the stronger – and longer – record as a straight ally.

“I remember at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, those of us in the LGBT community did not have many friends,” wrote Mo Baxley last month in New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor.  Baxley is a former state representative and former executive director of N.H. Freedom to Marry and now works on the Sanders campaign.

“I remember fighting the bill that would make donating blood a class B felony, and a state senator saying he didn’t mind if we donated our blood as long as we gave every last drop.  This is the treatment we got from elected officials,” she continued.

“At the same time across the Connecticut River, then-Mayor of Burlington Bernie Sanders was banning housing discrimination against gays and lesbians, and signing city proclamations for Burlington’s Gay Pride march,” she wrote.

Setting that “good example” says Curbelo, is how he sees his role – and that of other straight allies.  “The focus has to be on inclusion rather than diversity – meaning not merely a “check-the-box” exercise,” he said.  “Acceptance must be full and complete – not just superficial.”

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