The first Gay Congressional spouse
rattles D.C. just by showing up
by Scott Rice -
SGN Contributing Writer
I met Marlon Reis in a writing workshop at the University of Colorado. I believe it was the spring semester of 2001. He was a shy, skinny 19-year-old with pretty skin, sweet eyes, and big feet. He had a profound proclivity for Victorian literature and Cher. We became friends and later edited CU's undergrad literary journal together.
I've always had Marlon's e-mail address in my contacts, and we'd catch up intermittently. About a year ago, we exchanged our usual semi-regular biennial e-mails. Marlon wrote saying, "You'll never guess what I'm doing."
He was correct. I would never have imagined that the skinny, shy kid who wrote like Edgar Allan Poe and listened to Cher would land in the political spotlight as the partner of Jared Polis, the first openly Gay candidate for, and eventual member of, the U.S. House of Representatives.
Marlon has become the political poster boy and trailblazing pioneer of the marriage equality debate. He is smack in the middle of Washington, D.C., shaking hands with Obama and Pelosi. He's been featured on CNN and interviewed by The Advocate. He's wrestled with the U.S. Congress' Member Services department over the title on his ID card and he's been denied spousal travel benefits while part of a congressional delegation to the U.S.-Mexico Inter-Parliamentary Meeting here in Seattle last June. My shy college friend has become a very public figure, and he's handled himself with a graceful humility that I've come to admire. He's also a terrific, if reluctant, role model.
Scott Rice: How are you?
Marlon Reis: It's like a dream. I definitely would not have seen myself being a congressional spouse. I didn't have any real interest in politics prior to meeting Jared, and then I was sort of forced into it. And I'm sort of a shy person, so being in the spotlight isn't that comfortable for me, either. But it's also fun. I get to meet Obama and go to the White House for holiday balls and picnics and give tours of the Capitol, so I have an interesting perspective. I can't complain.
Rice: Let's back up before we get to Washington and talk about how you met Jared.
Reis: Believe it not, it's a funny story. I met Jared online. I was in my last year of college & and he had just gotten out of a relationship. I was working on my honors thesis and he asked me some questions about it and that was sort of how we got started. We met the next day. We didn't keep it virtual for very long.
Rice: How long was it before you knew he was "the one"?
Reis: Oh gosh, you know, I would say for the first two years I was kind of uncertain because he came from a very philosophical background in terms of thinking about his sexuality. He wasn't one thing or the other. I didn't even know if he wanted to come out, if that was something he was prepared to deal with because we had talked several times about the fact he had aspirations for running for public office. He was interested in leading a public life. I guess it was six months before we actually agreed that we were dating. [Laughs.] I knew we were dating, but I guess he had to say it officially. "Now we're dating."
Rice: Did you discuss his running for Congress and what that would mean for you before he committed to run?
Reis: Yeah, to a certain extent. & There was the lead-up to him coming out publically, and what he had done was alluded to it in an article that he submitted to a local newspaper in order to minimize the splash that it would make, so it wasn't a headline.
Rice: And he already had a high profile in Colorado at that time, right?
Reis: Yeah, he did. He was a member of the State Board of Education and a prominent philanthropist and an internet entrepreneur. He had made a lot of money and was sort of seen as a benefactor in Boulder. Everyone knew he was interested in politics. We actually worked with an organization in Washington called The Victory Fund, which is devoted to helping candidates come out and then run for office, so we were coached by some people during the process.
Rice: During that coaching, did you actually discuss what it would mean for you as a Congressional spouse?
Reis: It was very vague, actually. I asked the people at Victory Fund what I could expect, and people were overwhelmingly positive. They said, "people will look up to you, you'll be an example." It was very vague and Jared had no idea, really.
Rice: I don't know if anybody knew, though.
Reis: Yeah, no one knew. I would have had to have spoken to another congressional spouse, and at that time I wasn't that well connected to the political community. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. As soon as I started attending events with him as his partner, I got a taste very quickly of what it was going to be. & In the beginning, I was having trouble being what he needed me to be because other political spouses sort of work the room when there are people members of Congress can't get around to speaking to. Then the spouse has the role to go out and connect with them to make sure no one feels they couldn't access the representative.
Rice: That seems like it would be really tough for you.
Reis: Oh god, it's so difficult. You know, I'm the type of person that gets into a conversation with one person and it lasts two hours. [Laughs.] I'm not good at going in and talking to 50 people for two minutes.
Rice: What's the most surprising thing about being a congressional spouse?
Reis: My experience is different than [that of] most congressional spouses. I don't know if you saw the CNN special, but a lot of spouses end up staying back in the district because they either have a family or a job that ties them down. And the ones that come to D.C. come periodically and stay a few weeks and then go back. I'm a full-time D.C. spouse, and then a Boulder spouse, so I split my time evenly. The most surprising thing has been, probably, the fact that people actually pay attention to what I say now.
Rice: That can be a double-edged sword, right?
Reis: Oh yeah. My tendency had always been to be very open and say whatever was on my mind - above all, to be honest. Now I've discovered that there's an art to speaking strategically. We have a press secretary in D.C. who insures I don't say too much but I don't say too little. That there's a happy medium. & Part of me would love to have this interior life with a small group of friends. A part of me can't help but long for that type of privacy. It's different. There are advantages and disadvantages. I don't think that I would trade it.
Rice: You are a pioneer. You will always be the first congressional spouse.
Reis: Isn't that crazy? And you know, it's hard to describe to people why this is a first because people always say Barney Frank was doing it before anyone else. But when Barney was elected, he hadn't come out yet [Ed. note: and he didn't bring along his partner of 5 years like Jared did]. Jared was the first openly Gay man to run for and win a seat. I've inherited this interesting mantle, I guess.
Rice: You've been there a year. Do you think you're going to be able to change things?
Reis: I haven't really had to do anything except simply be there, to show up and be a challenge to the process. If I'm standing there, they can't ignore me. They have to deal with me, and that is forcing people to deal with new situations. They'll eventually have to change the policy.
Rice: That's awesome.
Reis: In the next election cycle this November, we're going to see a lot more openly LGBT candidates seeking office, and when they arrive in D.C., D.C. is going to have to be prepared for them.
Rice: Yes, they will. On a lighter note, do you and Jared double-date with Barney Frank and Jim Ready?
Reis: [Laughs.] That's very funny. Actually, we haven't done that yet.
Rice: What was it like meeting Barak Obama?
Reis: It was wonderful. I'm not sure he knows who I am, yet. He's a great guy. He's very polished and he knows how to talk to people. I really like him. He's very calm; I like his energy.
Rice: He comes across that way. Now that you have lived inside the beltway, who's your favorite politician?
Reis: Oh gosh. Well, Jared definitely.
Rice: [Laughs.] That's the correct answer. Now, just for kicks, I have some choices for you. Tell me which one you prefer. Hillary or Cher?
Reis: I'm going to have to say Cher. I've actually seen Cher, but I've never met Hillary.
Rice: That's fair. Madeleine Albright or Barbra Streisand?
Reis: Barbra Streisand.
Rice: I originally had the choices [to be] between Hillary and Madeleine and Barbra and Cher, but I couldn't ask you to choose between Barbra and Cher because I know you love them both.
Reis: [Laughs.] Oh god, I am such a stereotype.
Rice: Finally, life before Washington or life after Washington?
Reis: That's so good. I'm going to say life after Washington. It's still an adventure. It's always more fun contemplating the possibilities than contemplating the past.
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