Jared Polis' Pink Ceiling
I discovered Congressman Jared Polis one afternoon while I was on the prowl—not for hookups, but for gay role models. As a gay man myself, with a disappointingly small amount of high-profile gay people to look up to, I find myself prowling quite often. Polis was brought into my periphery because he is the representative from Colorado’s 2nd congressional district. I have only lived in the state for about three years, but it’s good to know there are more of us out there.
It wasn’t Polis’ politics that initially drew me to him; he’s a pretty middle-of-the-road Democrat with an unremarkable tenure on the Hill. No, it was strictly his sexuality and his ability to break through the “pink ceiling,” the supposed barrier to advancement for LGBTQ individuals, that caught my attention. The more I read about Polis, the more my interest grew. He’s one of only seven openly gay members of the 113th Congress and the first gay parent in Congress, not to mention that he was the first gay congressman to be out of the closet when first elected.
He’s also worth an estimated $400 million dollars, making him the sixth wealthiest member of Congress. Before entering politics, he attended Princeton University, where he started his first company, American Information Systems. Two years after graduating, he sold the company, and by 2005, had founded and sold two more companies for a combined value of over one billion dollars.
Polis has been a Congressman for almost eight years, and he is now one of six Democrats who have declared their candidacy to succeed current Governor John Hickenlooper next November. Polis is arguably the most qualified, as he is the only candidate from either party to have held an elected position in the federal government. At only 42 years of age, Polis likely has a lengthy political career ahead of him. He entered politics “to make a real difference,” specifically in the areas of renewable energy, education quality, and college affordability. He says he’s running for governor because it’s the governor, principally, who can get those things done in Colorado.
Polis has shattered the “pink ceiling.” He might seem like some sort of gay pioneer, breaking through boundaries and redefining what it means to be gay. But does Polis view himself the same way?
Though his legacy is yet to be cemented, his political success parallels that of gay political legends like Harvey Milk and Barney Frank. He is, whether he wishes to or not, spearheading the LGBTQ political movement beyond the shattered ceiling, toward whatever achievement the future of queer politics promises. For the LGBTQ community, Polis is a role model. He cannot separate himself from his sexual identity. But, as I learned in from Polis himself, he might not want that burden.
In early October, I am invited to a fundraiser for Polis, and eventually talk my way into getting an interview with him. The fundraiser where I interview the congressman is at a home in Manitou Springs, nestled on a hillside overlooking the small town. We congregate on the back porch as the sun sets over the mountains.
The event is filled mostly with older community members, with some younger attendees lingering on the fringes. All are dressed in suits, dresses, or at the very least a collared button-up. But Polis is surprisingly unimposing in his purple Colorado Rockies polo, which is tucked into a pair of loose-fitted blue jeans. His feet are outfitted with a pair of cheap tennis shoes. Throughout the night, he insists that people call him Jared. He’s more of a Coloradan than a congressman, particularly when he’s in his home state.
The house is filled with lavish paintings and decorative furniture. An ornate cage in the living room houses a large red parrot (who, to my surprise and mild disappointment, remained politely silent throughout the event). The counter is stocked with expensive bottles of wine, pastries, a charcuterie, and endless cans of La Croix. The event is visibly swanky. Polis is decidedly not.
The congressman speaks briefly, then faces questions and comments from the crowd. He mentions the importance of education, and how grateful he is for the education he received. Unsurprisingly, Polis makes no mention of his wealth or his business endeavors. He’s playing the humble guy. But there’s another omission from the conversation that piques my interest more—he never once brings up LGBTQ issues, or references his own sexuality. He talks about his children and only briefly mentions his “partner,” but not by name or in a way that reveals his gender. It is unclear whether this omission is deliberate.
At the end of the fundraiser, an elderly woman stops the polite chattering around the living room and demands attention, clinking her glass with a fork. “I’ve known Jared for a long time, and I just want to say, what he is doing for the GLBT community is so important,” she says. “Jared, we are so thankful for you, and you have all of my support.”
He politely thanks her, but any attention toward the toast quickly fades. Polis’ choice neither to correct the woman’s misordered acronym, nor to share a pro-LGBTQ sentiment, is telling.
Then I finally get the chance to talk with the congressman. After introducing myself, I ask if he wants to perhaps sit down to make it a little more casual. “No, it’s fine,” Polis replies. “This shouldn’t take long.”
Two of Polis’ campaign aides stand next to us, recording the interview along with me. On the deck with the other guests, Polis was calm, measured in his responses. Now, he speaks rapidly, but his responses are just as calculated. He doesn’t pause once, and while I attempt to make it more conversational, I realize I’m better off asking my questions as quickly as possible. I start by inquiring if he himself has had any gay role models.
“Well, to me, it was kind of exciting because I had read about and knew about the legendary Barney Frank,” says Polis. “When he was elected to Congress he wasn’t out, but he came out and kept getting elected. To show that someone could break through that pink ceiling and get elected was important,” Polis says, smiling. “And I had the opportunity to serve alongside him for six years in Congress. So it was amazing to get to know him on the level of a colleague—someone who I looked up to as a kid.”
As he talks about Frank, I can’t help but see Polis as his successor. Frank was the first to break the pink ceiling. Is Polis continuing that legacy?
I move on to directly question if he thinks people care about his sexuality.
“Well you know, not really. There’s people that don’t like anything, but they’re not people that are likely to vote for somebody that has progressive values anyway. So if you’re pro-marriage equality, pro-environment, you know, you’re not going to get the votes of those people anyway. So it doesn’t make a huge difference.”
My romanticized image of Polis as an iconoclastic politician starts to fade. The more I ask about his sexuality and the more I try to dig deeper into what life is like as a gay politician, the more I feel it is exactly what Polis doesn’t want to talk about. His answers are qualified with phrases such as “so it doesn’t make a huge difference,” it “doesn’t affect the campaign,” and “regardless of orientation.” A lot of his answers I could have simply found written on his campaign website.
There’s no doubt I’m being critical, and I can’t discount the fact that I’m talking to one of the only out gay federal representatives this country has ever seen. He came out to his parents when he was 20, in the ‘90s, when the social and political implications of homosexuality were more disastrous. He’s campaigning for issues I believe in. He’s not my enemy, but I can’t quite figure him out. I keep pushing. How does he feel about being the “first gay parent in Congress”?
“We have a three-year-old and a six-year-old. . .Yesterday was our six-year-old’s birthday,” Polis explains. “He turned six so we had to entertain 20 six-year-olds for a birthday party, which was quite a task. But you know, again, for most voters, being a parent is something they can relate to regardless of their orientation.”
Polis is involved in politics during a time in which LGBTQ rights are simultaneously progressing and under threat. Sexuality and gender identity are becoming less prominent hurdles to a candidate’s ambition, but LGBTQ individuals are still underrepresented in politics. Beyond political candidacies, LGBTQ individuals are still being discriminated against. Do I agree that being a “gay parent” shouldn’t matter? Of course. But it’s too early in the fight for equality to pretend like it doesn’t.
When I press Polis on LGBTQ issues, he’s willing to talk, but he’s not speaking as if he has anything personal at stake. His platform could be that of any Democrat’s: He’s worried about the Supreme Court reversing Obergefell v. Hodges. He’s worried about protections for LGBTQ individuals regarding workplace discrimination, potentially allowing people to be fired just because they are gay or lesbian. More recently, he’s worried that President Trump is singling out transgender Americans in the military and trying to exclude them from their service.
Polis and I move to to talking about his constituency, particularly the young people he represents. I ask him if he views himself as a role model for young gay people—he’s hesitant to use that label himself, but he acknowledges that his sexuality, and his success, allow him to inspire LGBTQ youth in ways other politicians cannot.
“I think [my sexuality] helps differentiate; I’m not just another straight white guy running for office,” continues Polis. “To show we value diversity in all of its forms, it’s important for people to know I’ve dealt with these issues throughout my own life and with friends, and I think a lot of young people can identify with that.”
It’s the first time I’ve gotten him to acknowledge that, at least to some extent, his sexuality affects how people vote for him. But that’s as much as he will give me. I can’t imagine being a gay politician and downplaying my sexuality as much as he does. He talks like we are living in a political world where sexuality no longer matters. I think the very fact that I am interviewing him about his sexuality challenges that. Even if it truly doesn’t matter for some voters, it matters a lot for young LGBTQ people.
I think back to Milk and his revolutionary campaign for gay rights. His final campaign manager, Anne Kronenburg, said of Milk after his death, “What set Harvey apart from you and me was that he was a visionary. He imagined a righteous world inside his head, and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.”
I know Jared Polis isn’t some sort of gay messiah in politics, campaigning on a platform of gay liberation. He doesn’t claim to be. Perhaps the time has passed for the Harvey Milks of LGBTQ politics, for the brazen warriors fighting for radical change. Polis’ success, and the apparent non-issue of his sexuality, indicates that there has been undeniable progress. And in all fairness, Polis has sponsored some of the most pro-LGBTQ legislation ever introduced to Congress. But all of this is only possible because of the radical figures, like Milk, who came before him.
I wonder if Polis could enjoy the same sort of post-identity politics on a national scale, or even elsewhere in the state. Polis’ district is the state’s second-most liberal-leaning. It includes both Boulder and Fort Collins, so he represents some of the youngest constituents in the state. Perhaps Polis’ sexuality hasn’t been an issue in politics because it simply hasn’t had the chance to be.
In Colorado, there are only eight openly gay representatives in the state legislature. In the United States Congress, there are only seven. That’s just over 1%. Getting an exact estimate of what percentage of the population is openly gay is difficult, but there’s a general consensus that it is at least 3%, with some estimates citing 10%. No matter how you spin it, gay people are underrepresented. And with other members of the LGBTQ community, it’s even worse. 2013 marked the first time a non-white LGBTQ politician was elected to the U.S. Congress. We’ve still never seen an openly transgender person elected to Congress.
So maybe if we are talking about a rich, white, gay, cis man, sexuality might not be a big deal anymore. But coming out of the closet has, historically, always been easier for white people. LGBTQ politics needs to go beyond electing white gay people into positions of power. Polis has the privilege to say that his sexuality doesn’t matter. Others don’t. Success for politicians like Jared Polis is a step in the right direction, but there is a mood within the LGBTQ community that asks for more.
This kind of change, especially at a federal level, takes time. The LGBTQ politicians that follow Polis’ path to Congress will indicate just how quickly this change can happen. LGBTQ representation has been increasing (albeit slowly) since Frank came out publicly as gay in 1987. But right now, the future looks increasingly bleak for the LGBTQ community. Our current president has been stripping away non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals. The same president jokes, on the topic of gay people, that his vice president wants to “hang them all.” There is pain within the LGBTQ community. And I don’t believe a gay politician should ignore and distance himself from that.
I feel a sense of betrayal when I hear Polis echoing the sentiment that sexuality isn’t so important anymore, when it still matters so much for so many. There’s nothing radical about Polis—being gay doesn’t change that. But I see potential in him. Should he try to elevate his status from “a gay politician” to one who is an unabashed champion of his identity as “the gay politician”? Will there ever be an opportunity to have such a figure in national politics, or has progress stalled somewhere between the election of the first gay congressman and Harvey Milk’s righteous world?
Part of the Four Letter Word issue