A month ago, LGBT Washington was abuzz about the pending DOMA and Prop 8 decisions. I was in town for several Pride events sponsored by the Obama Administration. Rep. Alan Grayson, elected to represent Florida’s newly reapportioned 9th District last November, graciously offered to take me to lunch and sit for an interview.
But when I arrived at his office in the Cannon House Office Building across the street from the Capitol, the Congressman was rushing out the door to cast votes and make a rare speech on the House floor. He asked a staff member to give me a tour and promised to meet up with me later.
From the House gallery I watched Rep. Grayson—easily recognizable due to his height, shock of thinning and unruly black hair and endearing forward-leaning tip-toe walk—make his way about the busy floor and then set up to introduce the “Mind Your Own Business Act” to stop National Security Agency spying on U.S. citizens.
It was vintage Grayson: clear, compelling, hyperbolic and filled with quotable phrases. He claimed that Uncle Sam has become Big Brother, and charged that proponents of the NSA monitoring program believe it is—wait for the YouTube moment—“as American as apple spy.”
“We are not North Koreans. We are Americans and we are human beings and we deserve to have our privacy respected.”
Back at his crowded office, his staff watched affectionately. “Go get ‘em, tiger,” one said as the phones lit up with overwhelmingly positive reactions from C-SPAN watchers.
First elected in 2008, Grayson quickly made a name for himself as the outspoken progressive willing to go there. He described former Vice President Dick Cheney as a vampire, referred to a Federal Reserve advisor as a “K Street whore,” and famously characterized the Republican health care plan as “if you get sick, die quickly.”
Republicans spent a fortune successfully unseating him from his District 8 seat in 2010. But Grayson saw an opportunity when Florida gained two new congressional seats as the result of the Census. In 2012 he easily won election in a new and more Democrat-leaning district covering parts of Orange and Osceola Counties.
Grayson was born in the Bronx, and worked his way through Harvard as a janitor and night watchman. A magna cum laude Harvard law degree followed, and Grayson found success specializing in whistleblower fraud cases. A $13 million verdict against one government contractor remains the only successful prosecution against Iraq war profiteers. Grayson later started and then sold a successful telecommunications company, making him one of the wealthiest members of Congress.
During our lunch together, Grayson was warm, accessible, reflective, even professorial—very different from the firebrand persona touted in the media. He’s clearly devoted to his Philippines-born wife, Lolita, and five children ages 8 to 18. And the depth of his commitment to LGBT equality was sincere and touching. In this unprecedented interview, I think you’ll see an unexpected side of this singular elected official
WATERMARK: I went to a briefing at the Executive Office Building yesterday for LGBT activists and community organizers. Important officials from a number of different agencies shared all kinds of really useful information. And it occurred to me that this administration really gets it: that gay people are just like everybody else. The more secure and fulfilled we are in our lives, the more productive we’ll be; the better citizens we’ll be.
I grew up feeling that being gay was a pretty bad thing. We’re about the same age. You must have learned the same things. So when did you first ‘get it”: that gay people are like everybody else and should have access to all the same opportunities for happiness and fulfillment?
ALAN GRAYSON: As with many people, I think it was when I first became aware that I had a gay friend. In my case, that wasn’t until I finished graduate school. I’m sure I knew plenty of gay people before then, in high school and college. I just didn’t know they were gay. It wasn’t something that was discussed when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s.
Interestingly enough, that first friend told me he was gay almost immediately; he felt he needed to tell me. I’m not sure that would be the case today. I think today it’s possible to be friends with somebody who’s gay and not even think about it.
That’s true in popular culture as well. There was a TV show on the SciFi channel called Stargate…
(Laughs) I have no idea where this is going.
In Stargate Universe, characters were removed from their families for long periods of time and would only rarely visit them. So we got to know the background of the characters long after meeting them, and one of them just happened to be gay. The show didn’t make a big deal out of it. When she went home and the door opened, she was greeted by another woman. “Hi… How are you… I miss you.” You know, the same things that a man and a woman would say to each other. It was in no way contrived or dramatic. It was nothing like, say, the first interracial kiss on Star Trek back in the 60s.
In the 60s being gay wouldn’t be talked about at all. In the 80s, when people came out we would discuss it. It was sort of a test of character for the straight member of the conversation. You know… how will you react? And as for me, when my friend came out to me I thought, ‘Let me be honest with myself. How do I really feel about this?’ And there just wasn’t anything that would lead me to feel hostility or negativity. There just wasn’t.
So to answer your question, I think that was the crossing point for me. That was when, not being a gay person, I had to figure out for myself what it meant to me on an individual level.
And, again, I wonder whether that would even happen today. I suspect his being gay wouldn’t come up at all. Or if it did it would come up in some casual manner and wouldn’t matter.
What about when you entered public life and were faced with decisions having to do with LGBT equality? Did you ever consider those issues from a political perspective, and how they might cost or benefit you in getting elected?
Well, first of all, I came to this late in life. I didn’t even run for anything until I was in the second half-century of my life. So, it was a whole new experience to me. In 2006, if you were a candidate running for Congress—I think anywhere in the country—you were asked to take a position on issues like ENDA .
The ban on same-sex marriage was ripe in Florida.
Right, and also whether there would be some kind of alternative status to marriage… you would be asked that question all the time. And I was unusual in the sense that I thought people actually deserved an answer.
The feeling among most elected officials is that you don’t really want people to know your position because then they might not like you. And if they don’t know what your position is, then they have no reason to dislike you. Elected officials apparently never consider that if people know your position, they might actually like you and support you because of that. Which is sort of the secret to our success. I think people are entitled to know.
When I ran in 2006, I thought voters deserved to understand the choice they were making. It wasn’t that hard for people to figure out the differences between me and Keller. But if people asked me a straight question, I went out of the way to give them a straight answer. We got questionnaires from NOW and HRC , and also from religious groups. All these issues were addressed, and I would try my best—particularly back in 2006–to give people the most truthful answers I could; answers I was willing to stand behind and live with. And honestly, I’ve learned that’s unusual. Often, people find it counterproductive.
You must’ve at least considered: ‘Hmmm… my opponent’s pretty conservative. I could equivocate a little on this and gain some moderate voters without losing liberals.’
Well, I’ve always been comfortable with the idea of gay marriage because I just don’t see why anyone else would care but the people involved. I mean… the propaganda that somehow gay marriage makes straight marriage bad for everyone is just farcical to me. I just don’t understand the logic of it. When you talk about marriage you’re talking about the people who are married to each other, not all these other people who are outside the picture. Once you bring them into it, you invite prejudice.
Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage almost ten years ago? Has it affected any straight marriage in any way? Of course not.
But now we’re kind of at this tipping point. Regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, there are 13 states that have legal same sex marriage. It seems like we know what the end game is going to be, even if it takes some time.
You’re a smart guy who understands the arc of history. Looking ahead 10 to 20 years, do you think this issue will be mostly behind us? Or do you think that the battle will be ongoing… because members of the LGBT community are inherently different, will always be in the minority, and will always offend certain religious beliefs?
Well, the progress that’s been made in the past 15 years in terms of people’s attitudes and views is almost unbelievable.
I often tell people that this is one of those things that makes me proud to be an American. People’s prejudices just vanish and they adopt a respectful and, I think, practical view. As you pointed out, when you stigmatize large groups of people everyone ends up getting hurt. Why do such a thing? What’s the motivation?
But getting back to your question, my own view is that we have made a dramatic shift from a place that was fundamentally no different than the Jim Crow laws that African Americans faced until the 60s and 70s. We’ve gone from a position of organized prejudice and institutionalized discrimination to a situation where there are openings, there’s a sense of progress, a sense of destiny and a sense that time is on the side of those who favor equal rights.
And there is tangible progress, like with ENDA and ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ where you can actually point to specific votes that reflect people changing their minds. In some places that’s also true for same-sex marriage. But I think we’re approaching a situation where there will be some kind of stalemate between the red states and the blue states. Not a stage where there’s universal recognition of the right to equal treatment and respect, but rather a situation where there will be certain places in the country where gays and lesbians have equal rights and certain places where they don’t. And I think that sort of equation could exist for many years to come.
The only way that I see that we can move beyond that is if your community continues to organize and press for equal rights in a way that forces the federal government to clamp down on state discrimination or if there is a clear majority for equality on the Supreme Court.
Some people think that actually might happen with the DOMA and Prop 8 cases. Some people are very optimistic.
Yes, but it’s still a long way from that to the courts declaring that it will strike down certain state laws that discriminate against gays. For instance, laws regarding visitation rights in hospitals. Generally speaking, either you have a federal law that makes it a uniform rule for the whole country or you have state laws. I don’t see any possibility, even in the next 20 years, that we will see a state law that provides hospital visitation rights for gay couples in Alabama. Not gonna happen.
So to reach full legal equality there has to be an assertion by a national majority—which is emerging but not there yet—through a federal law like the Voting Rights Act. Or the Supreme Court has to establish a principle under the Equal Protection clause in the Constitution that laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians, either in word or effect, are unconstitutional.
Suppose one of your kids came to you and said, ‘Dad, I think I’m gay. I have feelings for people of the same sex and I’m scared. I’m scared of what people will think about me. I’m scared I’m going to be bullied. I’m scared what my life’s going to be like.’ What would you say to them? How would you guide them through that?
First, I would say I still love you. Forget the advice… I think they would need to know that above all else. But second, I’d tell them it’s up to them to create a life for themselves; one where they feel that they are not limited. In other words, don’t move to Uganda, where they execute gays. Instead, live in or create an environment where you can be everything that you can be, unconstrained by other people’s prejudices.
If they want to be politically active, that’s fine. If they don’t want to be politically active, that’s also fine. The important thing is that they not put themselves in front of the moving truck that is other people’s prejudice. One of the beautiful things about America today is that there are places where gay people can live free. And as a father, I would recommend that a gay child take advantage of that.
It’s an interesting question for me because I was concerned that my kids would face discrimination for being half Asian. And I think I faced some degree of discrimination for being Jewish. I know my father did.
There’s a story behind it, but we named our daughter Skye as a constant reminder of her worth as human being, regardless of how other people may judge her or feel about her. We are who we are. I don’t let other people judge me in any way that I regard as crucial. If the voters like me, that’s fine. If they don’t like me, I’ll just have to live with it. But I make that judgment. And I think when you’re talking about something as essential as your sexuality identity, my children need to be strong enough to feel the same way. It’s simply not a subject for other people’s judgment.
Speaking of advice… you’ve had great success in many different realms. Do you have any idea what it is about you that has made that possible? Do you have an empowering personal philosophy you’d be willing to share?
Well. I have certain skills that are extremely well-rewarded in 21st century America.
That sounds awfully modest.
It’s just a fact. Just to give you one example. I’ve made an awful lot of money through investments. That’s literally something that is self-taught; something that comes out of a native ability I have to put together concepts and numbers.
What about on a more primal level? You grew up in the Bronx. You went to Harvard and paid for it working as a janitor. That takes something special internally, and I wonder if you have any sense of what it is. And is it something you’re trying to instill in your children?
Well, I don’t waste time. I’ve been near death on many, many occasions and that instills you with a sense that you should take advantage of life.
How have you been near death?
I was a very sick child. I had to go to a hospital four times a week for treatment. I almost died several times from that alone. Then when I was in high school I got thrown under a moving bus. When I was 20, I sat under a tree in Sri Lanka that was blown up by terrorists just a few months later, killing 120 people. And I was almost killed by a rhino two years ago in Africa. I could go on….
Each time served as a reminder that life is fleeting?
Yes. It’s not a reminder I really need anymore.
I mean, if people want to sit in their living room and watch TV, God bless them. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I don’t feel that way. I’ve created different standards for myself that I don’t apply to others, even my children.
Getting back to your original question, I don’t think that experience is transmissible. None of my children has ever been near death. To give you one more example, I was in a terrible auto accident twelve years ago. I lost more than one-third of my blood. According to the emergency room doctor, I was within 20 minutes of dying. If there had been 21 minutes between the accident and the hospital, I’d be dead. If you’ve had even one or maybe two of those kinds of experiences, you sort of realize that life really is precious and you can’t waste it. So, I don’t. No.
Your constituent field director in Orlando, Vivian Rodriguez, is openly gay. She’s also a force. How did that relationship develop?
Our district director, Susannah Randolph, was impressed with Vivian, both in terms of her ability to organize the LGBT community and to do Hispanic outreach. Vivian had a long and distinguished career with the New York Police Department before she moved to Central Florida. She received honors and assignments that only go to people who have poise and intelligence. So we’re lucky to have her.
Vivian’s been active in the Democratic Party, locally and statewide. And I’m happy to have her advice when it comes to things like security at town hall meetings. I mean, she knows her stuff. She was responsible for visiting dignitaries in New York City. She knows what to do to handle me, that’s for damn sure.
We’re here in Washington DC. When I’m at home watching television news and the like, this city seems like a grotesque, dysfunctional cesspool of self-interest. But it’s also beautiful. You’re surrounded by reminders of the compelling, inspiring history of our nation. And when you meet with members of the administration and elected officials and their staff, you can’t help being impressed by their intelligence, competence and passion. You’re intimately familiar with Washington DC. What is your overall sense of this place?
I’ve only been in Congress for 29 months, so I may not be the best person to ask that question. It still feels new to me. I enjoy every moment and I’m excited that I have the job. And on a certain level I’m certainly grateful to the 700,000 people who elected me, and who want me to do something good for them. I understand that responsibility, and I think about it every day.
The system is contrived to require a lot of coordinated effort to get things done. The basic function of Washington is to establish national laws; a uniform group of laws for our whole country. And in order to do that you need a majority of the House, a majority of the Senate and the President’s signature or an override of his veto.
Generally speaking, there’s a division in the world between countries that are set up to allow for majority rule and countries that are set up to put a brake on majority rule. Our Constitution puts us in the second category, so it’s intrinsically difficult get things done. The only way to change that would be by amending the Constitution or through revolution. We haven’t reached a point yet where any serious number of people supports either of those alternatives. So, yes it’s difficult and complicated to create or repeal a law. That being said, I think it’s a personal failing on the part of many elected officials to say that it’s just too hard to accomplish anything… that it just can’t be done.
Do you encounter that?
Oh, all the time… yes. It’s sort of a Republican mantra, and many Democrats have fallen into the same pattern. It’s a personal failure in many cases. I tell people, ‘If you think that you can’t get anything done in Washington, please don’t run for Congress! You are not the right person for the job!’
Conversely, when I hear people railing about how they’re going to change Washington, I think to myself that they’re either lying or naïve. They don’t understand how to actually get things done here.
In less than two-and-a-half years, my office has what I regard as an amazing record of getting tangible things done. And I get no credit for it in the local media. The Orlando Sentinel clearly doesn’t even want people to know. And TV news can’t explain what’s going on in a 20- second clip. So a lot of people don’t know unless we tell them, and that’s difficult and expensive.
The first time I was in office we cut foreclosures in Orange County in half by creating a mandatory mediation program. It was so successful that it was adopted statewide. We also found money to provide people with counseling on housing options, including 30 year fixed rate loans at two percent.
I follow news and politics. I read the Sentinel. This is the first I’ve heard of any of this stuff.
I know. We just couldn’t break through. In my first year we increased competitive federal grant money coming into the district from $100 million to $200 million. We had a full-time staff person who was literally calling up hospitals, small businesses, nonprofits and churches and saying, “There’s a federal grant program for you, would you please put in an application. We’ll help.’ I signed hundreds of support letters for local organizations that were making that pitch that had never done it before in their entire existence.
Out of the 53 new members of Congress in 2009, Democrat and Republican, I was the first one to pass a substantive bill: The Pay for Performance Act. It cut off the use of bailout money for Wall Street bonuses. It passed in the House nine days after we introduced it. And in a similar vein, we took congressionally-directed spending in the district from $2 million up to $12 million, and then $14 million the following year. This was available money that my predecessor had ignored, except for doling it out to lobbyists who put PAC checks into his pocket.
We did this under increasingly difficult circumstances, because I became really well known and everybody knows I’m a strong Democrat. When I ran for reelection in 2010, the Republicans declared me their number one target. They spent more money, more sewer money, more super PAC money, to get rid of me than they had ever spent against any Democrat anywhere in the country… ever.
And yet I’m back. They know exactly who I am, and that makes for challenging circumstances. Even still, in the six months since my reelection we’ve gotten 18 amendments passed in my two committees. We’ve passed eight amendments on the floor of the House. They’ve all been unanimous; none even had to come up for a vote.
These are substantive amendments that in some cases represent dramatic improvements in the law. Just to give you one example, for years the government has required contract applicants to disclose whether they have committed any of 12 serious crimes… like embezzlement or bribery.
Any contract more $150,000, with both defense and non-defense agencies.
Obviously the government doesn’t want to do business with you if you’ve committed bribery. But that’s not what the law says. Even though you’ve disclosed the serious crime, the government can continue to give you the contract…and often does! Nine out of the ten biggest federal contractors have committed felonies. So, last week we had two appropriations bills come up—one for Homeland Security, which is a large department now, and one for the Veteran’s Administration and Department of Defense military construction—and in both bills we put in a blanket prohibition that says that no money can go to any contractor that checks a box and says, ‘Yes, I committed bribery.’ That’s the Grayson Amendment to the bills… we call it the ‘Contractor Death Penalty.’
That amendment is in the pipeline?
That is now out of the House and heading over to the Senate. The Senate has to take the House bill and work on it. They’re not allowed to originate spending bills. They have to use the House bill as a starting point. We’ll try to defend it and we’ll try to make it law. And we’ll build on it to get it to the other agencies as well.
Another example is that the Department of Homeland Security has been monitoring and sometimes infiltrating liberal, environmental and civil rights groups… it could actually even be some gay groups. Occupy Wall Street was heavily infiltrated and monitored by DHS, and they took action that is very difficult to justify under the First Amendment. So, we put in an amendment to a bill that says that DHS has to abide by the First, Second and Fourth Amendments to the Constitution, including associational rights under the First Amendment.
That’s my amendment, so I’m allowed to say what it means. Yesterday I submitted an explanation that said that my amendment means that it’s impermissible for DHS to monitor and infiltrate groups on the basis of race, national origin, gender and sexual orientation. I know it sounds ridiculous, but if there were a gay group that DHS considered threatening, it’s now clear that they have to make the case the threat has nothing to do with them being gay. I think that’s an important distinction to make.
I think people know that you’re progressive. Sometimes people associate that with big spending, but it seems to me what you’re about….
You should ask my wife. My God… my wife could put lie to that.
It seems to me that what you’re really about is a stronger social safety net, but also less government waste. Spend money where’s it’s actually doing good, and not on expensive wars unless fully warranted. Is that accurate?
I think it comes down to something I said at the Harvey Milk Foundation Breakfast in Orlando a few weeks ago. I want everybody to be all that they can be. I’m sorry that the Army has appropriated that slogan, because I felt that way a long time before I first heard that ad.
I want people to be able to enjoy their lives and contribute whatever it is they have to contribute. Every one of us is this beautiful, gorgeous bundle of interests, talent, skills, experience and limitations. That’s what makes us human beings. The things that make us special are the things that make us different. It’s not our responsibility to overcome those things. It’s our responsibility to let a thousand flowers bloom.
That doesn’t come easy because there is sort of a dark impulse in many people toward prejudice and hatred and certainly fear. And those things are constantly reinforced by certain outlets of mass media in this country.
Poverty precedes Biblical times, where many people found it difficult to make enough sustenance to survive. Today, people are constantly being threatened by personal tragedies of one kind or another: bankruptcy, divorce or whatever it might be. We’re all subject to health issues, which we’ll eventually succumb to if we are not killed by other means.
These are the things—poverty, ignorance, prejudice—that keep us from attaining the heights that we could attained. My job is to try to eliminate those barriers for as many people as possible, whatever it takes.
So, that’s the litmus test.
Yeah. That’s it. Virtually everything that we do is for that reason. You heard my speech today. I think that fits that paradigm perfectly. How well can any of us function if we live in fear that some huge unquestionable authority knows everything about us, and has some sort of malignant fear-based intent. If we live in a world like that, it would be exactly as described in Orwell’s book 1984; an amazingly unproductive society where people’s time and talent is focused on watching and keeping each other in line.
We now live in a nation where most people have a lot of free time, and therefore a lot of opportunity for personal expression, including demonstrating love for those they love. We still have a functioning democracy, so we choose collectively what kind of world we want to live in. So if you want to know my ideology, I certainly could care less about many of the issues that are marked as liberal, per se. It depends on where they fit into my own framework of who I am, what I stand for and what I want to do.
I listen to right wing talk radio and Fox news and, frankly, they’re always talking about me.
Literally. It’s like they are completely, completely out of touch with my actual motivation.
They use you. They don’t want to know you.
I’ll give you a classic example. When I gave that speech that mocked Republicans for not having a healthcare plan. I said, ‘The Republican healthcare plan is, don’t get sick. But they have a backup plan. If that doesn’t work for you, the backup plan is if you get sick, then die quickly.’ And, you know, that caused a tremendous uproar.
It’s been viewed on YouTube like a million times.
That’s not the record holder.
So a couple days after the speech they were playing a clip on local Washington DC talk radio that had been reduced to five seconds. The guy was just playing it over and over, lashing me mercilessly. I was driving my car from my house in Virginia into my office next to the Capitol, and this guy is saying, probably to hundreds of thousands of people, ‘Grayson is so F-ing stupid he shouldn’t be allowed to drive.’ I was like… did he know I was doing that very thing as he was speaking?
I know why I do what I do.
I wonder how many people in Congress have that same clear sense of purpose… beyond personal ambition and just staying in office?
It’s in The Bible. Deuteronomy, Chapter 16, Verse 20: “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” There it is, right there.
From our media partner WatermarkTom Dyer