When he started talking to the passenger seated next to him, Jared Polis discovered he was flying alongside an executive from California-based Riot Games, the video game-developing and -publishing company whose first major title is one of Polis' favorites: League of Legends.
"I was excited that I was sitting next to the person who [ helps ] make the game that we play. And he was excited that he was sitting next to a Congressman," said Polis, 34, elected to Congress in 2008 from the Second Congressional district of Colorado.
Polis, in an exclusive, wide-ranging one-on-one interview, spoke of his lengthy gaming fascination; his love of baseball ( playing and watching, especially his hometown Colorado Rockies ) ; his workaholic days living in Chicago in the mid-1990s; and even his terrier mix dog, Gia, adopted from the Humane Society in 2009.
And also, of course, he talked about many LGBT issueshe is the first openly gay male elected to Congress as a freshman which, he said, was "another barrier broken."
"Tammy Baldwin was the first lesbian elected," Polis said. "There have been several members of Congress who have come out after they've been elected, such as Steve Gunderson, Jim Kolbe, Barney Frank and Gerry Studdsat least four that come to mind. I think it demonstrates that people who are out should not let their sexual orientation hold them back.
"There's no reason that gay people cannot do everything that straight people do, be it [ in ] professional sports, politics, running a company as its CEO, or whatever.
"I think this is [ now ] a time where, hopefully, our government and our politics will catch up with where the people of our country already are. By a strong majority, the people of our country favor [ repealing ] 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell [ DADT ] ,' protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. It's simply time for our laws to catch up with where most of the people of our country already are." [ Editor's note: This interview took place before the recent DADT-related developments. ]
Polis acknowledged that there is "finally movement" toward repealing the law that dates back to 1993 and the Bill Clinton era.
"To have a president of the United States call for [ ending DADT ] in a State of the Union [ address ] , and have the highest-ranking members of the military all say it's time to repeal it, signifies that there's finally momentum to do it," Polis said. "So, I'm confident that we'll get it done. It could take as long as a year, but I'm hopefully that if we push hard enough we can end it sooner.
"A number of us in Congress, myself included, have called on the president to use his executive authority to stop the discharge of members of the military under 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' There's no doubt that the president cannot unilaterally end the policy because the policy is in statutes. Only the House [ of Representatives ] , the Senate and the President can change that. I feel confident that we have the votes in the House; we also would have to get it out of the Senate, which means reaching a 60-vote threshold to ensure cloture. We're just continuing to push ahead. Having the support of the military, which is something we didn't have the first time around in 1994, is critical."
Polis said it is "very important" that high-ranking military officials agree it's time to end DADT.
"There are a lot of Republican members of Congress who care more about military preparedness than social equality per se, [ yet they ] are finally coming around to the conclusion that it's bad for military preparedness to kick people out of the military based purely on their sexual orientation.
"I have a high degree of confidence that, in the next year, the statute will actually be repealed."
But first, the military must stop discharging military personnel under DADT, though it has slowed.
"I would like to see a formal suspension to expulsions of the military under this policy, which I think would be a reasonable [ first ] step while the longer step of ending the policy is undertaken," Polis said. "The President's top domestic policy priority is healthcare, and we haven't been able to pass that. But it's certainly not for a lack of effort, yet I remain confident that the [ DADT ] policy will be repealed soon."
Polis and several politicians, including Mike Quigley, D-Ill., are seeking to end discrimination for LGBT binational families. House members are calling on President Obama, the House of Representatives, and Senate leadership to support inclusive immigration reform.
"We are a nation of immigrants and, as a result, our diversity is our greatest strength," Polis said on press release about the subject, issued Feb. 9. "Unfortunately, our out-dated immigration system contains laws that discriminate against LGBT families and hinder our economy, our diversity, and our status as a beacon of hope and liberty to people across the world. To be truly comprehensive and achieve real, long-lasting reform, we must provide all domestic partners and married couples the same rights and obligations in any immigration legislation."
The bill is supported by Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Congressmen Barney Frank, D-Mass.; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; Mike Honda, D-Calif.; and Quigley, as well as more than 50 members of the LGBT Equality Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
"There is simply no place for discrimination in America," Baldwin said on the press release. "LGBT families are being torn apart by inequitable immigration laws that deny same-sex married couples and domestic partners the same rights and obligations as their married heterosexual neighbors. As we tackle comprehensive immigration reform, it's imperative that we end discriminatory laws that hurt couples, their children and extended families, and their communities and employers."
Quigley said, "It saddens me to think that the struggle for immigration reform, a movement based on the fundamental principles of equality and the decent treatment of every human being, could push on without including LGBT families. If we are to truly consider a proposal deemed 'comprehensive,' we must include everyone. The beauty of America is that somewhere in each of our lineages, someone made the choice to come here, to a country built on fairness and justice. We must continue to honor that tradition not just for some, but for all."
Under current law, LGBT Americans are unable to sponsor their spouses or partners for legal residency in the U.S. and, as a result, tens of thousands of binational families are either living separately, facing imminent separation, or have left the U.S. entirely in order to remain together. This policy often separates children from a parent, causes businesses to lose valuable employees, and forces state, local and the federal government to lose hardworking taxpayers.
"Comprehensive immigration reform is an important issue for the country, not only for gay and lesbian immigrants," Polis said. "It's a major challenge that the country faces, successfully integrating our immigrant population. Currently, our immigration laws are completely out of touch with reality. With regard to same-sex families, there's currently discrimination under the law. There is a process under which opposite sex partners can legally bring in their partner [ to the U.S. ] , but there is no similar process for same-sex partners, and that's very frustrating for multi-national couples."
"He's wonderful. Mike Quigley has really emerged as a great leader in the efforts toward full equality for gays, lesbians and all Americans. I'm thrilled that Chicago has sent him to Congress," Polis said.
"I certainly think it is gaining momentum nationally," said Polis, who himself has been partnered with Marlon Reis for six years. "The critical step that we need to take in Congress is, we need to repeal the defensive marriage act in its entirety to allow that states that allow same-sex marriage have those marriages respected at the federal level and under federal law. I think that will inevitably happen once more states allow same-sex marriage."
And what about Colorado?
"I certainly wish our legislature would pass" a law allowing same-sex marriages, Polis said. "A few years back, there was a ballot initiative for civil unions, and it came very close.
"I think we're getting there. The voters in my district certainly care more about my stance on creating jobs and the war in Afghanistan than they do about my sexual orientation. I think that's where the country is heading, certainly with the younger generation; they don't really care about who a person is dating, but rather, that person's value, character and what they think."
Polis lived near the intersection of Clark and Division in Chicago for about a year, and then moved to Schaumburg. He spent about four years in the mid-1990s living and working in Chicago, running American Information Systems, his first company, which he co-founded while attending Princeton University.
"That was during my workaholic years, so I didn't get out much, but I certainly enjoyed working there and meeting a lot of friends in Chicago," he said.
Polis also had his "first gaming experience" in Chicago, he said, admitting that he often played Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness late at night.
"We'd just sit around the office for hours playing," he said. " [ Video games are ] just a hobby."
2010 Gay Games in Cologne, Germany
Polis does not plan to attend.
"I don't think [ I will compete ] ," he said. "I don't think they have baseball, but if they did, I would be tempted. I know they have softball, but that's not much interest to me."
Polis said his current favorite games are League of Legends and Demigod. He plays in Colorado and Washington, D.C., and also often on the Internet with his partner.
Congressman Barney Frank is the lead sponsor, and Polis is a co-sponsor, of a bill to legalize Internet gambling. "Having [ Internet gambling ] illegal does not stop it from existing; it just drives it under ground," Polis said. "So, under this bill, we can legalize it, regulate it and tax it, and it [ can ] raise tens of billions of dollars."
Polis' favorite sport is baseball, and he also plays tennis. Polis can ice-skate, sort of. "I can go around in a circle [ on skates ] ; that's about it," he said, laughing. "I'm not Johnny Weir."
Polis splits season tickets to see baseball's Colorado Rockies and said his favorite baseball player is Colorado's Todd Helton.
"I just enjoy the sport; I don't know about all of the issues," facing baseball these days, he said.
Polis is a baseball pitcher and first baseman, who sports a fastball, curveball and changeup on his pitching arsenal. He will play this summer in the annual Congressional baseball game, "which is a lot of fun," and annually plays in several weekend-long baseball tournaments. "They are a lot of fun, yet we end up real sore at the end of the event," he said.
Polis played on a gay softball team years ago in Denver, although he lives in Boulder.
"I'm a better baseball player than a softball player," he said.
What about an openly gay player in one of the big four male professional sports ( baseball, basketball, football and hockey ) ?
Give it a half-decade at most, he said.
"In the next five years, I think it's very likely that we'll have an out athlete in football, basketball, baseball or hockey. Especially because [ some of ] the younger generation coming up [ now ] are already out [ while in ] high school and college. And then, when some go on to professional careers, they still will be out," Polis said.
Polis added that the first few openly gay pros from the big four sports actually "will have a lot to gain because they will have access to a lot of marketing and promotion deals to the LGBT community that will attract gay and lesbians to their sport. So, I really think it will be a big deal for the first few, and it will be positive for their teams.
"In 1942, I don't think anyone envisioned that Jackie Robinson in 1947 would break the color barrier. I don't think anyone back then envisioned that a Black person would play in Major League Baseball. That was before the Brown vs. Board of Education ( of Topeka ) case and the Loving vs. Virginia case.
"I think, before gays and lesbians can get married [ in all 50 states ] , we will have an out gay player in baseball or football," or one of the big four males pro sports.