Election 2024

Rep. Mark Pocan knows Donald Trump’s cult must be defeated to achieve equality

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI)
Representative Mark Pocan (D-WI). Photo illustration by Kyle Neal.

Congressman Mark Pocan (D-WI) has laid out a path forward for LGBTQ+ equality, which prioritizes defeating Donald Trump in November and pushing the right’s more extreme elements out of the mainstream Republican party. Americans can be convinced to support LGBTQ+ rights, but Trumpism — or, in Pocan’s words, “that hate, base-only mentality” — must be divorced from the Republican party.

Because, outside the most right-wing parts of the GOP base, there isn’t much support for lawmakers spending so much time attacking LGBTQ+ rights.

“I truly believe it was the last spaghetti thrown against the wall,” the congressman told LGBTQ Nation when asked about Donald Trump’s use of transphobia at his rallies — including one last year where Trump attacked “transgender insanity” before making fun of how his supporters are so energized by attacks on transgender people when they “didn’t know what the hell” transgender people were while he was in office.

“They were looking for something to scare people because that’s where they do this best,” Pocan said. “I really believe much of this issue is a driver for a segment of their base, and not a general election driver because most people — what they’re most concerned about — are kind of economic core issues to their family … I think it’s going to be hard to make this one of those transcending issues.”

This is in contrast to the House, where Pocan says that “LGBTQ+ discrimination is pretty rampant” right now. He brought up how House Republicans attached anti-LGBTQ+ riders to major appropriations bills throughout 2023 in defiance of congressional norms.

“I think it’s really broader now than just the very significant anti-trans attacks we’ve seen nationwide, but it’s coming back to full-blown discrimination against the broader LGBTQ+ community,” Pocan said. “We do have to try to gain public support and show that public support to the rest of Congress to try to make some of these attacks less common.”

‘There are bullies walking around the halls of Congress’

Marjorie Taylor Greene
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), part of the far right GOP, is known for bullying tactics, referring to the LGBTQ+ community as “groomers” and “pedophiles.”

Pocan chairs the Congressional Equality Caucus (CEC), which was formed in 2008 to advance LGBTQ+ rights, putting him at the center of discussions of LGBTQ+ issues in the House and giving him unique insight into how LGBTQ+ equality will fare in the House this year.

Pocan and the CEC’s focus is on the 2024 election season. The CEC just released “Obsessed: House Republicans’ relentless attacks against the LGBTQI+ community in 2023,” a report that outlines how Republicans have tried to use the levers of power afforded to them in the chamber to take away rights from LGBTQ+ people

The report identified 50 anti-LGBTQ+ votes held on the House floor last year, 95 anti-LGBTQ+ amendments added to bills that the House will vote on, 40 committee hearings at which people made anti-LGBTQ+ comments (often as the main focus of the hearing), and 55 anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced. House Republicans voted to pass several anti-LGBTQ+ bills and also voted for anti-LGBTQ+ extremist Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) to lead the House.

“The cruelty is the point,” Pocan wrote in the report’s summary. “You expect bullies in school, but yet there are bullies walking around the halls of Congress. These elected officials target LGBTQI+ youth, especially trans youth, because it helps increase their clout with a small slice of their base.”

The CEC’s goal in releasing the report is to outline for the LGBTQ+ community and allies the current stark contrast between Republicans and Democrats in Congress and to drive home the intentions of the current GOP majority and what it would try to achieve if it wins a majority and takes back the White House in this year’s elections.

Even the makeup of the CEC shows the partisan divide in Congress, because all 195 of its members are Democrats.

“No Republican has joined because we actually have requirements,” Pocan said. “You have to support equality legislation, and none of them can actually do that.”

In addition to building public awareness around GOP attacks on LGBTQ+ rights going into the election season, the CEC is in the process of forming a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization so “that we can have even more resources to help us do that sort of work.” The Congressional Black Caucus has an organization — the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation — that allows people to donate to support their work.

‘We’ve got the goalie in place’

President Joe Biden
“There’s a real strong message around freedom, says Rep. Mark Pocan, who believes President Joe Biden is one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly leaders in our nation’s history.

Republicans spent the better part of 2023 attaching anti-LGBTQ+ riders — or amendments unrelated to the intent of a bill — to large spending bills that Congress has to pass to keep the federal government funded. For example, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) successfully attached a bill amendment for the Federal Aviation Administration that ended funding for any LGBTQ+ agency initiatives, including posting social media messages in celebration of Pride Month. 

Others would block anti-discrimination measures from being implemented at the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other departments. Several riders attached to the military’s funding bill last year banned the military from reimbursing gender-affirming care for trans people and banned Pride flags at military installations. 

While the anti-LGBTQ+ riders were removed from the military funding bill when it passed in December, many of those bills haven’t been reconciled with their Senate versions. But Pocan isn’t worried about them. 

“So the Republicans claim that they’re still fighting for their riders,” he said. “They’re all kind of out there because the appropriations process has been such a … I would use cluster eff but I won’t.”

Pocan explained that House Democrats and former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) agreed in September to keep the appropriations bills focused on budgetary measures as part of a larger agreement to avoid a government shutdown. But House Republicans broke that deal several weeks later, after McCarthy was ousted as speaker.

“We’re still trying to hold them to that,” Pocan said. “And I think the Senate Republicans have been a bit more appreciative of the deal that was made than House Republicans.” 

While the Republican House passed several anti-LGBTQ+ bills last year — including a ban on trans student-athletes participating in school sports and a “parents bill of rights” that required schools to out trans students to their parents — but they’re not going to pass the Democratic Senate nor be signed into law.

“We’ve got the goalie in place,” Pocan said, referring to President Joe Biden.

‘Support someone who supports our community’

Voting booth
“Support someone who supports our community rather than someone who will be quite glad to throw us aside,” says Rep. Mark Pocan. Photo by Jim Vondruska/Getty Images.

To advance a pro-LGBTQ+ agenda, instead of just blocking an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda, it all comes back to this year’s election.

And that includes the Equality Act, the landmark bill that would ban anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal anti-discrimination law.

Currently, only state and local laws, as well as federal court rulings, provide some recourse for discrimination against LGBTQ+ people, but Congress hasn’t passed any law to ban workplace, housing, or other forms of anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, decades after such laws were passed for several other oppressed groups. The House passed the Equality Act in 2019 and 2021, but it died in the Senate both times.

Many queer Americans continue to ask the perennial question of what Congress might do to make the bill more palatable to moderate Senate Republicans to get it passed next year. Some senators have said that they won’t vote for the bill because its religious exemption isn’t big enough, or because they don’t want to be perceived as supporting gender-affirming care for trans minors. For example, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) said in 2021 that he was opposed to the Equality Act because he wanted “strong religious liberty protections” that weren’t included in the bill. 

But Pocan dismisses those as “excuses,” instead focusing on the existential impact of the forthcoming presidential election. 

“I think the real modification that has to happen is Trump loses, and Republicans decide to move on,” Pocan said. “Getting Donald Trump and that mentality — that hate, base-only mentality — out of the picture should give Republicans some room to try to move forward.”

“I think it’s tweaking Donald Trump out of being the leader of the Republican Party cult, that it currently is, is what’s needed the most.”

While Pocan doesn’t think that Republicans are going to be able to win elections on the back of anti-transgender politics — he even called Trump’s use of the issue “disingenuous” — he has ideas on how to push back against it.

“There’s a real, strong message around freedom,” Pocan said. “The freedom to love who you want to love, the freedom to make decisions about your own body, the freedoms that we have around democracy, all that are under attack by the current Republican Party under Donald Trump.”

“That recurring theme has a broader appeal as well,” he said. “Someone who might care about abortion can also see why they should be supportive of the LGBTQI+ community, and someone who cares about democracy can understand why they may want to care about a woman’s decision over her own body.”

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) at MoveOn event in Washington, D.C.
“Support someone who supports our community rather than someone who will be quite glad to throw us aside,” says Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI). Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for MoveOn.org.

For LGBTQ+ people, the stakes of the election couldn’t be clearer.

“When you look at the unbelievably large distinction between Joe Biden — probably the most LGBTQI+ friendly president we’ve had in history — versus Donald Trump, who’s taken the slippery slope to be a very discriminatory candidate on LGBTQI+ issues, there’s a huge difference between the two,” Pocan said. “It certainly makes sense to support someone who supports our community rather than someone who will be quite glad to throw us aside and has already proved that he will do that.”

In 2020, the vast majority of LGBTQ+ people voted for Biden, and post-election analyses showed that LGBTQ+ people likely tipped the election in favor of Biden in key swing states. But the January 6 insurrection, where supporters of Trump rioted at the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the election results and keep Trump in the White House, jeopardized all the work put into getting Biden elected.

Pocan himself has been a vocal critic of the January 6 insurrection, calling the people who rioted at the Capitol “seditionists, conned by a desperate, defeated former President” who tried to “hijack our democracy.” He also called on the Department of Justice to investigate Wisconsin’s fraudulent electors, who allegedly pretended to be members of the electoral college selected by Wisconsin so that they could change the state’s election results. (They were sued by Democrats in the state and settled the lawsuit in December.)

Even though Pocan took the threat to democracy posed by January 6 seriously, he is much more sanguine this year.

“On the good side of the equation,” Pocan said, “there would not be a transfer of power because Joe Biden’s in power, right? So we’re not gonna have to worry about someone being willing to leave the building, so to speak.”

That wouldn’t stop Republicans from trying. Pocan called the Republican Party “so extreme and so illogical,” noting that they chose an election denier as speaker of the House. 

“We just have to be vigilant and ready to reach out to our elected officials.”

Rep. Mark Pocan

“There absolutely will be a push [to overturn the 2024 election results] if it’s a close election,” he said, “but I don’t think you have to worry about that as directly as we did last time. But I do think you have to worry about four years of repetitive messages around election fraud.”

The congressman stressed that LGBTQ+ people need to be paying attention and ready to reach out to elected officials because attacks in one area of LGBTQ+ equality can “slide [to other areas] in a very short amount of time.”

“We saw a very fast slippery slope, from anti-trans-girls-in-sports … to taking away earmarks that have never been touched before, without a lot of stops in between,” he said. “We just have to be vigilant and ready to reach out to our elected officials, because I do think that … reasonable Republicans and maybe some Democrats in swing areas need to hear from people to know that people care about their rights and their freedoms.”

“Being ready to make those phone calls or emails is really, really important.”

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