Attendees of the White House reception for Pride month last week included high-profile LGBTQ leaders from activist groups, state legislatures, and the federal government. One lawmaker, however, was conspicuously absent.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), the only out bisexual in Congress, didn’t attend the event — an absence that stood out as members of the House LGBTQ Congressional Equality Caucus were there. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Sinema’s LGBTQ companion in the Senate, also showed up and was in the front row for President Biden’s remarks.
When the Washington Blade reached out to Sinema’s office to ask why the senator skipped the reception, her staff confirmed she had been invited.
“Kyrsten was invited, but was unable to attend as the Senate had recessed Thursday evening for state work period,” said Hannah Hurley, a Sinema spokesperson.
But the Senate recess didn’t stop Baldwin from attending the Pride reception.
It’s not the only event Sinema has skipped in recent weeks. When Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a dinner at the White House for all women members of the Senate, Sinema was the only Democrat not in attendance.
The absence of Sinema is almost metaphorical as she has become the target of ire for progressives who view her as an obstructionist to their agenda in the Senate.
Sinema, as she articulated in a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, has come out in strong defense of the filibuster in the Senate, which has been criticized as a relic of structuralism racism (although she’s not the only Senate Democrat to oppose dropping the filibuster).
“It’s no secret that I oppose eliminating the Senate’s 60-vote threshold,” Sinema writes. “I held the same view during three terms in the U.S. House, and said the same after I was elected to the Senate in 2018. If anyone expected me to reverse my position because my party now controls the Senate, they should know that my approach to legislating in Congress is the same whether in the minority or majority.”
As a result of her position, Sinema has been accused of holding up key legislation like the Equality Act, which would expand LGBTQ protections under the law. (It should be noted the bill as it stands doesn’t have unanimous support in the Democratic caucus and wouldn’t even pass without the filibuster on a majority vote.)
Also, the dramatic thumbs down she gave on the Senate floor on an amendment to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour was interpreted as an insult to progressives pushing for the increase.
The transition for Sinema is remarkable. Starting her political career for the Arizona Legislature as a Green Party candidate who once dressed up in a tutu to oppose the Iraq war, Sinema’s latest incarnation as a conservative Democrat has some of her one-time supporters scratching their heads.
That will make things complicated for LGBTQ advocacy groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which have endorsed her efforts to win election, and for Democrats who sold her as the only out bisexual in Congress.
Sinema, after winning election in 2018 to a six-year term, will be in the Senate for a while and won’t face re-election until 2024. But progressives are already clamoring for LGBTQ advocacy groups to take a hard line with her regarding any future support.
Michelangelo Signorile, a progressive activist and Sinema critic, went so far in an email to the Blade as to say LGBTQ groups should withhold their endorsements entirely from Sinema.
“LGBTQ groups definitely shouldn’t be endorsing anyone blocking the Equality Act from being passed. Right now that includes every Republican and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who refuse to eliminate the filibuster,” Signorile said. “So of course they shouldn’t endorse her. How could the Human Rights Campaign or Victory Fund have any credibility while telling the community to invest hard-earned dollars with this politician?”
Sinema has always taken a one-foot-in, one-foot-out approach to her sexual orientation as a political figure. Accepting endorsements from LGBTQ groups, Sinema has attended events after her election hosted by them, such as an event with new LGBTQ members of Congress upon her election to the U.S. House in 2012. But Sinema has dodged questions about her bisexuality, telling the Washington Post in 2013 she doesn’t understand “why it’s big deal.”
The LGBTQ Victory Fund, for its part, is putting a degree of distance between itself and Sinema in response to inquires from the Blade, but not repudiating its support for her entirely.
Elliot Imse, a Victory Fund spokesperson, said his organization endorsed Sinema when the choice for Arizona voters was between her and “the anti-LGBTQ Republican candidate Martha McSally.”
“She is not currently endorsed by Victory Fund and we won’t be considering 2024 endorsements until summer 2023 – and much will happen between now and then,” Imse said. “As with all our incumbent candidates, the Victory Campaign Board will review her efforts to advance equality while in office as it is a key criteria for our endorsement.”
In response to an inquiry on whether the Victory Fund has reached out to Sinema about her policy positions, Imse said that would be inconsistent with his organization’s mission.
“Victory Fund has a very clear mission and we believe organizations are most successful when they remain laser-focused on that mission – so we do not take positions on specific policy or procedural questions,” Imse said. “We endorse and support LGBTQ candidates who will fight for and advance equality legislation and policies once in office and the LGBTQ members of Congress we’ve helped elect are the most outspoken and passionate voices on the Equality Act and other LGBTQ rights legislation.”
Having that “laser-focus,” however, isn’t true for other LGBTQ political groups, which do both endorsements and lobbying before Congress. Chief among them is the nation’s largest LGBTQ group, the Human Rights Campaign.
The Human Rights Campaign, however, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on Sinema or any discussions the organization has with her. That silence, however, likely won’t be enough for progressive activists angered with Sinema.
Signorile said Sinema’s absence from the White House should be seen as a red flag for LGBTQ advocacy groups on any future support.
“Sinema, by not attending Pride at the WH, doesn’t even make herself visible there. It’s almost like she wants to distance herself from being part of the community,” Signorile said. “She never talks about being bisexual, doesn’t discuss her coming out story — even if you ask her — and I defy anyone to find me a recent time in which she’s discussed being part of this community.”