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To foster connections, gay congressional staffers think Pink Hill Mafia

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2010; C01

"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."

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.

As Pink Hill Mafia has privately expanded, the official organization of House gay staffers sought the spotlight for openly gay staffers in congressional offices. Now, some of the official group's leaders are worried that the "unofficial" group's e-mail list coming to light will distract from their bipartisan agenda. Christopher Crowe, the House gay staff association's new president, wants his group to "work inside the office and have an influence" on lawmakers. In short, the official organization frets that Pink Hill Mafia will be misconstrued as an actual mob, with ugly connotations of mission and methods.

Crowe argued that the Pink Hill Mafia was an informal and innocent social network. "The LGBT community on the Hill is huge, so to serve that, we started an unofficial list, Pink Hill Mafia," he said. "That's where we can talk openly about campaigns and things."

It didn't take long for their ideological adversaries to see a more shadowy operation. "When a member takes a position, a staffer has an obligation to support and not undermine what they are doing," said Rob Schwarzwalder, the senior vice president of the Family Research Council. He expressed wariness that any staffer might be working "behind the scenes" against his or her boss's agenda.

* * *

In 1993, when the debate over gays in the military was at its most heated, then-Rep. James M. Inhofe (R) and other members of the Oklahoma delegation publicly refused to hire gay staffers. As a result, a group of gay staffers created an organization for gay colleagues, many of whom felt they had no choice but to remain closeted.

"We lived in a period where visibility was important," said Robert Raben, a prominent lobbyist who founded the group -- in the face of opposition from the Democratic leadership -- when he worked as counsel to Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Over the years, as gay staffers on the Hill increasingly came out, and the culture in Washington became more accepting, there were fewer closeted staffers to protect. The organization effectively lost its mandate, and considerable energy. In May it reemerged with a different goal of highlighting the presence of gays in the offices of lawmakers.

On a recent afternoon, Cook stood at the door of Room 122 in the Cannon House Office Building checking in members of the newly invigorated LGBT Congressional Staff Association on a yellow legal pad. About 20 dues-paying members had come to hear the pitches of candidates running for the vacant position of communications director.

First up was Kat Skiles, a 26-year-old press assistant in the House Committee on Science and Technology. In cuffed bluejeans, sneakers and a pink button-up shirt, she argued that the association needed a more visible Web site to get the word out and a woman on the board to send a positive, inclusive message to prospective new members.

Skiles and her rival for the spokesperson gig both met with the same concern from the gathered members: How did they plan to recruit their gay Republican friends on the Hill when the bosses of so many of those staffers opposed gay rights legislation?

"It's really tough because you don't want to get your boss involved in your stuff," Skiles, who won the election, said sympathetically after the election. "You just want to be a good staffer."

Part of Pink Hill Mafia's role, members said, was to create the social space where that delicate outreach could be made.

"I don't know a lot of straight Democratic friends who hang out with Republicans. We do," said Cook, a press secretary for California Rep. Pete Stark. "You have liberal Democrats, Blue Dog Democrats, people who work for conservative Republicans. We do fight over policy, but we also laugh over the last episode of 'Glee.' "

The name Pink Hill Mafia is itself a playful reflection of what its members consider their ubiquity throughout the Hill.

Cook, who named the e-mail list, said that every time he and a colleague would visit another congressional office, branch of government or advocacy group, he would know someone there. His friend would begin to ask how he knew so many people.

"Then she'd say, 'Oh, right,' " recounted Cook. " 'It's the Pink Mafia.' "

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