Dana Rohrabacher, the 15-term Republican incumbent washed away by Democratic challenger Harley Rouda when the blue wave came ashore in Southern California’s 48th Congressional District last week, isn’t your average homophobic extremist.
He is, in fact, an architect of the decades-long battle against LGBTQ rights and a politician, among many others, whose bigotry is partly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people from AIDS.
Rohrabacher was a lieutenant of President Ronald Reagan throughout his two terms as a speechwriter and special assistant, helping Reagan court the evangelical right, which Reagan has been credited with bringing into politics. Reagan, bowing to the zealots from whom he helped amass enormous power (power they still wield with President Donald Trump), was among the most anti-gay presidents in history, ignoring the AIDS epidemic until far too late.
Rohrabacher was first elected to Congress in 1988, at the end of the Reagan administration, representing a district in Orange County, a bastion of conservatism in the ’80s and beyond. He was among a trio of California right-wing Republican congressmen ― including Bob Dornan and William Dannemeyer ― who demonized people with AIDS in that era, voted against efforts to stem the epidemic and battle discrimination and pushed legislation that was discriminatory against LGBTQ people.
Rohrabacher also teamed up with the virulently anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina in attacking government grants to queer artists. Rohrabacher railed against the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 ― even as George H.W. Bush’s White House tried behind the scenes to get him to pull back ― for supporting artists who created “drawings of homosexual orgies, bestiality and a Statue of Liberty turned into a transvestite, complete with male sex organs.”
Over the years, Rohrabacher twice backed a federal amendment to ban same-sex marriage, voted against preventing anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment and voted against legislation extending hate crime coverage to LGBTQ people. In 2009 he said allowing people with HIV to enter the country, even on tourist visas, was “humanitarianism gone wild.” And this year, Rohrabacher, who became a national embarrassment as a Vladimir Putin apologist in the Trump era, caused a national uproar when he supported allowing homeowners to turn away gay buyers.
Now, after 30 years, this bigot has finally been booted.
And he’s not the only one.
There has been much discussion in the aftermath of last week’s midterms about the rainbow wave, a record number of LGBTQ candidates elected in races across the country ― over 150 at last count. But on the other side of the coin, many ardent homophobes and anti-gay candidates were taken down too.
In Minnesota, Rep. Jason Lewis, a Republican who equated gay couples with rapists, lost his House seat to Democrat Angie Craig ― the first lesbian mom elected to Congress.
In another case of poetic justice, openly bisexual California Democrat Katie Hill defeated Republican House member Steve Knight, who supported Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, and voted against banning “ex-gay” therapy during his time in the California Senate. His father, Pete Knight, spearheaded a precursor to Prop 8 ― the anti-gay Knight Initiative, a 2000 ballot measure — as a state senator. Even after his own brother, David Knight, came out as gay, Steve Knight carried on his dad’s hateful tradition.
In Georgia’s now-famous 6th Congressional District, short-lived GOP incumbent Karen Handel, who said last year while running in a special election against Democrat Jon Ossoff that she didn’t support allowing adoption by gay and lesbian couples, was beaten by African-American Democrat and gun reform advocate Lucy McBath.
Texas GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, who claimed the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida ― the site of a 2016 gun massacre ― wasn’t actually a gay club (and who voted anti-gay every chance he got in his more than 20 years in Congress, garnering a score of zero every year from the Human Rights Campaign) was defeated by African-American civil rights lawyer Colin Allred.
In a huge upset in Oklahoma, Republican Steve Russell, who in 2016 introduced a bill that would have provided religious exemptions to President Barack Obama’s executive order banning anti-LGBTQ discrimination among federal contractors, lost to Kendra Horn, the first Democrat to win the state’s 5th Congressional District in 44 years.
Former CIA analyst Elissa Slotkin took down Republican Rep. Mike Bishop in Michigan. He voted last year to deny transgender service members medically necessary transition-related health care and was an ardent opponent of marriage equality, seeking religious exemptions.
In fact, the list of GOP House members opposed to marriage equality who came crashing down last week goes on and on: Dave Brat and Barbara Comstock in Virginia, Iowa’s Rod Blum, Illinois’ Randy Hultgren, Mike Coffman in Colorado and Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania.
In races that have yet to be called but where Democrats seem likely to prevail, GOP marriage equality opponents include New York’s Claudia Tenney, New Jersey’s Tom MacArthur and Utah’s Mia Love, who even sent out anti-gay emails during the campaign attacking her opponent’s support of marriage equality.
In the Senate, GOP marriage equality opponent Dean Heller went down in Nevada against Jacky Rosen. And in Arizona, Martha McSally, another equality opponent, lost in the fight for the open seat to replace marriage equality opponent Jeff Flake ― to openly bisexual Democratic candidate Kyrsten Sinema.
Far-right Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who once compared homosexuality to polygamy, was stopped from taking the governor’s seat and continuing the Kansas GOP’s anti-LGBTQ agenda. Democrat Laura Kelly flipped the state and has already vowed to reinstate protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender government employees, which were rescinded in 2015 by then-Gov. Sam Brownback.
In Wisconsin, anti-LGBTQ Republican Scott Walker lost his governorship to Tony Evers, after nearly eight years, in a major win for equality.
Democrat Gretchen Whitmer flipped Michigan in its governor’s race, preventing Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette ― who rejected the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s expansion of state law to protect LGBTQ people ― from continuing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s hostile agenda. (In another boost, openly lesbian civil rights attorney Dana Nessel, who fought Snyder to overturn the state’s same-sex marriage ban in a case among those that eventually prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2015 Obergefell ruling ― was elected Michigan’s new attorney general.)
And in the open governor’s race in Maine, Democrat Janet Mills flipped the state, ensuring right-wing extremist Gov. Paul LePage’s horrifically anti-LGBTQ agenda won’t continue under Shawn Moody, who similarly opposed marriage equality.
In many state legislatures, the blue wave washed away the hate last week. In Texas, where anti-LGBTQ Republicans in recent years introduced more than a dozen bills harmful to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people each session, Democrats flipped 12 House seats, in the biggest shift since 2010. In an upset, Ron Simmons, who authored an infamous anti-transgender “bathroom” bill ― which died in the Texas House last session but which conservatives vowed to bring back next year ― was defeated by Michelle Beckley.
There are more ― and I’m sure there are still others about whom I haven’t yet become aware. Just a couple of years ago, many queer activists and LGBTQ leaders would have grudgingly denied that these enemies of equality, several of whom they’ve fought for a decade or more, could have been defeated.
But the 2018 midterms showed that when progressives work together and organize with enormous drive, the possibilities are endless.
Michelangelo Signorile is an editor-at-large for HuffPost. Follow him on Twitter at @msignorile.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect that Democrat Kyrsten Sinema won the Arizona Senate race.
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