Rebuilding the Gay Movement
When Republican Senator Al D'Amato was endorsed for re-election last November by the Human Rights Campaign--the nation's wealthiest gay civil rights lobby--the HRC's appalling decision crystallized for many gay activists around the country the disconnect they feel with national, Washington-based organizations operating on a top-down and elitist corporate model. (HRC, for example, has no chapter structure and is governed by a self-perpetuating board.) Those close-to-the-ground organizers rightly argue that the lion's share of gay resources should go into creating political and electoral power at the state and local level. This makes particular sense in light of the dramatic upswing in the past three years in state legislation affecting same-sexers: A National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) survey of the fifty states noted a jump from 160 bills in 1996 to 472 in 1999, a majority of them gay-hostile.
Activists also criticize the narrow focus of some gay groups solely on gay-related issues, when their own experiences tell them that winning means building coalitions with potential progressive allies by embracing their issues as well as our own. One of the most successful models for building gay political power at the state level is Basic Rights Oregon, which took the lead in helping to create the progressive Voter File Project, a coalition with labor, environmental and pro-choice organizations that in the past three years has pooled lists and resources to identify over half a million voters for Election Day get-out-the-vote drives (out of a voting population of some 2 million). While each group retains autonomous control over its own lists, a steering committee meets regularly to discuss which candidates and referendums to support or oppose, and members share money and resources to keep the voter file updated and to expand it. With 125,000 gay and gay-friendly voters ID'd on its list, Basic Rights Oregon has as much clout at the table as the union contingent, which includes the state AFL-CIO, the Office and Professional Employees, AFSCME, the Service Employees, the Oregon Education Association, the Nurses Association and the Teamsters. "Why do you think [US Senator] Ron Wyden supports marriage equality for lesbians and gays?" asks Basic Rights Oregon executive director Jean Harris, a former deputy mayor of San Francisco.
Oregon typifies the tension between state groups and Beltway-based organizations. "Ten years ago, everything was done nationally in DC. But we've had antigay referendums on the ballot here in '88, '92, '94, '96 and '98. Between state legislation, local ordinances and these referendums, our plates are pretty full and our resources stretched, although we have a donor base of 20,000 people who give us a little bit each year," says Harris. "We're in this big fight with the national organizations; we've asked HRC and NGLTF to pitch in some money, and it's been hard. HRC doesn't organize, doesn't help state groups--they just come in and cherry-pick for what happens in DC. HRC raises $500,000 a year out of Oregon, but I tell 'em, we can't raise much money after you've been here; all we can do is pick over the remains."
This year the Oregon Citizens Alliance--the leading Christian right antigay group--is pushing two referendums in 2000. One would stop teaching about homosexuality in the schools, ban open gays from teaching and forbid the establishment of gay student groups. Another would ban gay marriage. (A bill to overturn the Tanner v. Oregon Health Sciences University decision, in which a lawsuit brought by three lesbian couples at the university successfully won the extension of domestic partnership benefits to all government employees regardless of sexual orientation, was defeated in June.)
Beating back these referendums means calling on the coalitions forged through the Voter File Project. Organized labor will be a key ally, and, fortunately, unions haven't forgotten how Basic Rights Oregon mobilized some 80 percent of gay voters to defeat two antilabor ballot initiatives last fall (one of which was defeated by only 1 percent). "The gay vote was very significant in those victories," says Rich Peppers, political director of Oregon Public Employees Union. "Our labor community is a strong supporter of the gay and lesbian movement in the state. We've all had our struggles against the forces of evil here, and attacks on gays and lesbians have interfered with nondiscrimination clauses in our contracts."
Coalition-building has also been critical for Kentucky's gay movement, which won a major victory in January when the Louisville Board of Aldermen finally passed, by 7 to 5, an ordinance outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity after three previous attempts had failed. The local lesbian and gay group, the Fairness Campaign (which has a membership of about 1,000 and a mailing list of 5,500 in a city of 350,000), attributes its success this time around to a highly visible grassroots campaign--for example, it placed more than 2,000 yard signs proclaiming "Fairness Does a City Good"--and to alliances with other groups. Says FC co-chair F.M. Chester, a nurse practitioner, "We see ourselves as committed to a broader social justice movement, and we've worked hard on issues of importance to communities of color and labor." When the Professional Golfers Association brought its tournament to a local golf club that had no black vendors or minority contractors--and refused to talk about the issue--Fairness folks were among those who got arrested blocking the gate to the club. And when the United Food and Commercial Workers Union struck the local Tyson Foods plant, Fairness did support work. The local NAACP and the union, in turn, supported the passage of the antidiscrimination ordinance. For labor, "the gay community has been great--they turn out first off when we need them," says local Jobs With Justice coordinator Paul Whiteley. "We can learn a lot from the way Fairness conducted their campaign--they're important allies."
At the state level, while the Kentucky Families Foundation--the local spawn of James Dobson's Focus on the Family--has been relentlessly peppering the legislature with antigay bills, thirty-seven out of thirty-eight of them in the past three years have been defeated, thanks in part to the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, with 2,200 members and a $130,000 budget. "I'm very frustrated with gay organizations that just hire a lobbyist and have right-looking people talk," says KFA executive director Maria Price. "I work in the other 119 counties outside Louisville. If we don't do movement-building work at the grassroots, our victories are not only shortsighted, they're vulnerable." Price points to the importance of her work on hate crimes legislation to blacks in rural areas (for whom church-burnings have been a major issue).