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WASHINGTON -- Openly gay U.S. Congressman Jared Polis, D-Colo., hosted an online town hall forum Wednesday night, to engage viewers in a dialogue about issues facing the LGBT community.
The forum was sponsored by The Fearless Campaign.
Michael Mitchell, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, was the moderator.
Mitchell and Polis spent a good portion of the evening having a candid discussion on issues such as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the Student Non-Discrimination Act.
The online meeting was broadcast via LiveStream, and included a chat room and feeds for social networking sites Twitter and Facebook. LiveStream showed at one point that 36 people were signed in to the broadcast, although more people may have been viewing the event without signing in.
Mitchell and Polis began by explaining that The Fearless Campaign is an effort that was launched from within the halls of Congress to give members of Congress a vehicle to transform the nation alongside passionate grass-roots advocates. Polis, who says he witnessed firsthand a disconnect between grass-roots advocacy and the legislative process during his first time in office, conceived the campaign to change this.
"As a legislator, we need to be able to get people to call in and organize from outside groups," Polis said. "As a congressman, I only have one voice. But I am excited to have this campaign to harness the great many voices involved in grass-roots activism."
While The Fearless Campaign focuses on a number of issues, including immigration policy, strengthening education, repealing the prohibition of marijuana use, food policy, and a free, open Internet, this forum discussed issues related to the campaign's LGBT interest area.
Polis talked about how important these issues are to him and the nation. "It is really about equality for gays and lesbians - really simple," he said. "In a lot of areas, we are not treated as equal."
Mitchell and Polis noted that the town hall meeting was especially relevant, as it coincided with the White House's new online "Stop Bullying" campaign.
Polis noted that ending bullying in schools is an issue dear to his heart, as he was an educator before serving in the legislature.
"I started a charter school before I was in Congress," he said. "I have a lot of experience in the education field and what we see too much in schools across the country is bullying, with students feeling like they have nowhere to turn.
"The pervasive culture of bullying and discrimination that exists makes schools an unsafe place to learn and that is why we see higher suicide and dropout rates amongst LGBT students."
Hoping to change this, Polis announced the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) that he sponsored, along with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., would be introduced Thursday. "Through policy, we can change what happens in those [school] buildings," Polis said.
SNDA was indeed introduced in the Senate and House today. The bill, which applies to elementary and secondary schools, prohibits discrimination against students on the basis of real or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any program or activity receiving federal funds, or they will risk losing those funds.
"SNDA will ensure that LGBT students and those perceived as LGBT have the same rights as other students," Polis said.
Polis and Mitchell encouraged viewers to call their legislators to ask them to co-sponsor SNDA.
Other topics were also discussed as viewers submitted questions via the chat room or Twitter.
A chat room viewer who went by the name "Sarah" commented, "'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was repealed a couple months ago, but I don't think anything has changed."
Polis assured viewers that he believes the implementation of the repeal will come soon.
"People are confused about this," he said. "[DADT] is still in effect, pending final approval of its removal from the heads of the various forces. This should happen soon, although I don't know what soon means, but hopefully within the next couple of months."
Polis warned LGBT servicemembers that coming out in the forces is not recommended yet, as the military completes its certification process.
"The military does things very thoroughly - they want to have all the factors out there," Polis said. "What will come is this, though, is a comprehensive manual on how to handle LGBT people in the military and this could work to the community's favor."
Another chat room participant asked if college and university campuses that barred military recruiters from their grounds because of the discriminatory nature of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy should allow them back once DADT is repealed. Polis believes recruiters should be allowed back on campuses, hoping that "universities will now reconsider."
Questions also came in about DOMA, ENDA, immigration reform and a LGBT "Omnibus" bill, with Polis and Mitchell both stating that their groups are working very hard on these issues.
As for the "Omnibus LGBT Bill," which would include a broad range of protections for LGBT people in one single bill, Polis said it is a possibility.
"We are very much considering doing an omnibus LGBT bill just to demonstrate all of the areas where LGBT people are not equal," he said. "The various ways through our legal structure where LGBT people are considered less than others would be seen."
Polis noted that ENDA is really a state-by-state battle right now.
"A number of states have fully-inclusive ENDA policies but the ones that have the most discrimination are unlikely to these types of policies," he said. "This is why we need a federal law, which is very unlikely with the current composition of the House - if Democrats do recapture the house, we need to make sure we can get it passed."
After much discussion by Polis and Mitchell about the need for restoring a Democratic majority in the House, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News asked Polis, via the chat room, about how the LGBT community can make allies across party lines.
While the question was not initially answered, two chatters "Collin" and "Beckygrrl" sent messages urging Polis to answer SDGLN's question.
"We have Republicans who are fearless advocates of equality," Polis said. "In terms of building bridges, we hope to do so across party lines. SNDA, for example, is a nonpartisan bill - it just says that kids should be safe in school."
As the discussion wound down, Polis and Mitchell urged viewers to do three things in the next week including signing up online for the Fearless LGBT campaign, signing up for the National Stonewall Democrats, and calling legislators to tell them to support SNDA.
Polis noted that his office is looking for "citizen co-sponsors" of SNDA. "How powerful would it be to say we have 10,000 citizens co-sponsoring this bill?" Polis asked.
Mitchell and Polis noted that future forums similar to this one will be scheduled, saying "this was fun -- we'll do it again!"
For more information visit www.fearlesscampaign.com/lgbt.