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To foster connections, gay congressional staffers think Pink Hill Mafia

Pink Hill Mafia members circulated a photo of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) at a White House picnic in pink shirt, fitted white pants and teal belt that ended up on the gossip Web site Gawker.
Pink Hill Mafia members circulated a photo of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) at a White House picnic in pink shirt, fitted white pants and teal belt that ended up on the gossip Web site Gawker.

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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010

"The Hill is a very gay place," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), an openly gay member of Congress whose desk is covered in pictures of himself and his partner. "A large percentage of the staffers on the Hill are gay, on both sides of the aisle."

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To fill the need for a private forum for this community of colleagues, more than a dozen of those gay Capitol Hill staffers gathered last November in the Longworth House Office Building's cafeteria. They discussed the creation of an online newsletter that would deliver job postings, gossip, colorful photos and videos, commentary and breaking news about the major gay political issues of the day. The administrators would confine the recipients to those House and Senate staffers who asked to be in the loop.

"We were at this table right here," said Brian Cook, 28, surrounded in the basement eatery by emptied coffee cups and BlackBerry-scrolling staffers. "I said, 'It would be useful to have a listserv.' "

A few days later, his brainchild, Pink Hill Mafia, went live.

* * *

Capitol Hill is an Internet mailing list culture. There are private e-mail lists for chiefs of staff, communication directors and all manner of progressive and conservative groups. An e-mail discussion group of policy wonks and political reporters called JournoList last year prompted accusations of a liberal conspiracy to pass health-care reform. (The list was maintained by Ezra Klein, now an employee at The Washington Post, who closed the list after its postings created an outrage.)

For the most part, though, the lists are dull inbox cloggers with arcane updates of little interest outside of the intended audience. For example, the official e-mail lists of the House's gay organization (the LGBT Congressional Staff Association) and its Senate counterpart (GLASS, or the Gay, Lesbian and Allies Senate Staff Caucus) both play that role. In addition to passing along help-wanted intel, they shop around their bosses' bills to potential allies. There are also more casual notices, flagging social events. A recent example: "Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies (GLIFAA) is having a Smart Power Women's Happy Hour."

There's some overlap on Pink Hill Mafia. Messages have included a recommendation for movers ("Gay friendly?") and an urgent job-seeking appeal from a staffer whose boss, former New York representative Eric Massa, quit in disgrace in a tickling affair. But the forum has outpaced the other, stodgier gay e-mail lists by drawing in members with rollicking discussions about figure skater Johnny Weir's performances at the Winter Olympics. Then in June, members circulated a photo of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) at a White House picnic in pink shirt, fitted white pants and teal belt. The photo subsequently leaked to the gossip Web site Gawker, which described the image as "jamming up the gay staff listserve on Capitol Hill." Schock responded on Twitter a week later that he had "burned the belt." Administrators of Pink Hill Mafia came down hard against the breach of the list's no-leak ethic.

"It's less targeted and more gossipy," said one Pink Hill Mafia member, who was granted anonymity to depict its content. "During [the] 'don't ask, don't tell' [debate], people were trying to find out 'Is Collins going to vote for it or is she not?' "

According to current and past participants, the livelier exchanges on Pink Hill Mafia also give its members an online forum to vent about setbacks in the Obama administration, to assess their bosses' relative commitment to LGBT issues, to discuss the prospects of political candidates and to share political intelligence.

"Our community is pretty well connected," Cook said. "So often, someone on the list is the first to hear about something."

But sometimes, the back-and-forth between members can turn sharp. In the days and weeks before Congress failed to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," participants passed around quotes from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in which he promised to repeal the Pentagon policy if the top military brass allowed. According to one recipient of the e-mail exchange, the subject line exclaimed, "Republicans lie!" So much for bipartisanship, a few recipients bemoaned. At least one cautious member, turned off by the hostility, abandoned the list.

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