Agreeing to Disagree

Agreeing to Disagree

Top gay aide to Sen. Pete Domenici reflects on boss’ support for constitutional amendment

An openly gay aide to a senior United States senator said that he is not surprised by the efforts of gay activists in the nation’s capital to publicly identify closeted colleagues who work for federal lawmakers who support amending the Constitution to permanently ban same-sex marriage.

In fact, it was partly in anticipation of such tactics that Lynden Armstrong, administrative director for Republican Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, said he co-founded the GLASS Caucus, which stands for Gays, Lesbians and Allies Senate Staff. Armstrong forged the group in cooperation with Mat Young, a staffer for Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan

In a recent interview, Armstrong acknowledged that once top congressional leaders endorsed the amendment proposal, the Federal Marriage Amendment(FMA), gay and lesbian staff members began to express concern with the difficulties they might face on the job.

“We knew which way the debate over FMA would go, and that it would be basically a rougher environment for the staff,” Armstrong said. “Our goal was to support Senate staff in their positions and create a safe professional environment for them, to let people know that you can be gay and have a professional and successful career on the Hill.”

The FMA would alter the Constitution to prevent any governmental body—from municipal to federal entities—from legally recognizing the marriage of any two individuals unless they were a man and a woman. Most lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy groups have roundly attacked the amendment as the greatest threat to gay civil rights in the history of the United States.

Recently in Washington, a loosely affiliated group of individuals has begun outing gays and lesbians employed in the legislative offices of the amendment’s supporters. Activists call officials in those offices and publicly identify a gay or lesbian staff person.

According to Mike Rogers, one activist engaged in the outing campaign, the offices that have been contacted so far include those of Representatives Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), Melissa Hart (R-Pa.), Charles Stenholm (D-Tex.), Peter King (R-N.Y.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), and Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.).

Brian Gaston, a deputy chief of staff for Blunt confirmed that Rogers had placed a telephone call to him.  When asked about the topic of their conversation Gaston replied, “I will not discuss that conversation nor validate the things he’s trying to do.”

None of the other lawmakers’ offices returned telephone calls seeking to confirm Rogers’ statement.

Although Armstrong has not been subjected to this tactic—he came out to Domenici and colleagues in 1997—he’s in the position of being a gay man who works for a senator supporting the FMA, and said he understands the pressure some gay staffers, including himself, feel as the measure nears a vote in the Senate next week.

“I have to keep in mind [Domenici] isn’t personally against me or gay people,” Armstrong said. “I don’t always agree with him, but he has to answer to his constituents. He has to do what he was elected to do which is represent his constituents in New Mexico. If you look at the polls, overwhelmingly in New Mexico they are in support of FMA.”

Domenici was elected to his sixth six-year term in 2002 and chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee and the Defense and Homeland Security Subcommittees.

Ten years ago, Armstrong began working for Domenici as a staff assistant, eventually rising to the position of administrative director overseeing personnel in the Capitol Hill and New Mexico offices as well as managing the budgets and co-coordinating the senator’s travel schedule. Throughout his time in Domenici’s office, even after he came out, Armstrong said he has always felt strongly supported by Domenici.

In response to the call of many in the gay community for gay staffers to speak out against FMA, Armstrong said that his job requires him to separate his personal viewpoints from policy matters espoused by the senator.

“My office knows how I feel about these issues, but it’s how I feel personally and it’s not my opinion as a professional on the Hill, “ said Armstrong. “My job is to support the Senator as he represents New Mexico.”

Armstrong said that despite the national importance of the amendment proposal, much of his work is about addressing the more mundane issues of constituent services.

“We are doing a lot of good things for the people of New Mexico,” said Armstrong, who expressed a strong loyalty to his boss. “Running the office helps the senator further his goals for New Mexico residents.”

Armstrong admits that the political wrangling over the FMA, including Pres. George W. Bush’s endorsement of the measure in January’s State of the Union address, makes him uneasy, but quickly added that he was expressly a purely personal opinion. Overall, he added, the controversy has left him convinced that he has a duty to remain in the Republican Party as an out gay man to change attitudes within the party.

“As they put a face to people who they respect, who they depend on, it becomes harder and harder to make a distinction between straight and gay, and what rights they should have,” Armstrong said of those Republicans he works with in Domenici’s office.

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