Same-Sexers Under Siege
The warning signs of a real crisis for the gay rights movement are there for all who care to read them. In five of the six places where equal rights for homosexuals were placed before the voters last year, the antigay forces won. Referendums banning marriage equality for same-sex couples passed easily in California, Nebraska and Nevada. Ferndale, Michigan, voters repealed a local ordinance barring discrimination against same-sexers. Worst of all, a Maine law protecting gays against discrimination in jobs, housing and credit, passed by the State Legislature after years of struggle by local activists, went down to defeat at the hands of a well-funded referendum campaign by the Christian right. And while Oregon rejected a vicious "no promo homo" amendment that, by forbidding realistic teaching about homosexuality, would have vitiated AIDS education in public schools and colleges and threatened the livelihood of openly gay teachers, the margin of victory was too close for comfort.
Across the nation, the right-wing crusade to roll back gay civil rights gains and block further advances--already well under way before the election of George W. Bush--is gathering momentum. At the same time, gay conservatives--many of whom oppose laws protecting gays against discrimination--are increasingly vocal and well organized. These twin developments present the established national gay institutions with the urgent need to rethink their missions and strategies, a challenge already taken up in some states.
This year and next, there are at least thirteen antigay referendums in the works around the country, with the likelihood of more to come. We've already lost the first one: In May, Royal Oak, Michigan, outside Detroit--the onetime home of the 1930s anti-Semitic radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, and now the gayest suburb in the state--repealed an antidiscrimination ordinance for gays by a crushing margin of 2 to 1. Like last year's successful rollback in Ferndale, the Royal Oak campaign was organized by the Michigan arm of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's American Family Association; based in Tupelo, Mississippi, the AFA, which boasts a $17 million annual budget, is rapidly becoming the new spearhead of the antigay Christian right (its latest target: the Girl Scouts, for not discriminating against lesbians). The Michigan AFA, led by Gary Glenn, a former anti-labor mercenary from Idaho, has gotten measures on the ballot this November to repeal gay rights protections in Kalamazoo and Traverse City, and similar campaigns have begun in Grand Haven and Huntington Woods. The six other Michigan cities that have such ordinances are also on Glenn's eventual hit list.
It's back to the future in Florida, where--more than two decades after Anita Bryant's infamous Save Our Children crusade persuaded voters to repeal an antidiscrimination ordinance passed by the Dade County Commission--the Christian right has coalesced under the name Take Back Miami-Dade to revoke a 1998 amendment including gays in the county's human rights ordinance. Led by the Christian Coalition, the antigay forces collected 51,000 signatures (more than the 35,000 needed) to place the measure on the ballot, but the progay coalition, Safeguarding American Values for Everyone (known as SAVE Dade) mounted a legal challenge to the validity of the signatures, and now it's up to the courts to decide whether the measure will be on the ballot this fall. (The AFA's Center for Law and Policy is plotting strategy and footing the legal bills for the antigay crowd.) In Fort Lauderdale, a gay vacation mecca that is also home to the Rev. D. James Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries--which organized the "gays can be cured" national ad campaign three years ago--Coral Ridge's political arm, the Center for Reclaiming America, is well on its way to putting repeal of the local gay rights ordinance on the ballot this fall.
In Texas--where the Texas AFA, the Christian Coalition and the Eagle Forum have seven lobbyists working in Austin on a gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act--Houston gays are girding to fight antigay municipal initiatives this fall and next. In Maryland, the gay civil rights law pushed through the legislature by Democratic Governor Parris Glendening in memory of his gay brother (who died of AIDS) is being targeted for repeal by a petition drive. In Massachusetts, there's a drive to place a ban on gay marriage and on domestic partnership benefits for state workers on the ballot; Nevada will see a rerun of its antimarriage initiative next year; in Oregon, professional antigay crusader Lon Mabon and his Oregon Citizens Alliance will have little difficulty placing a reworded version of his "no promo homo" initiative on the ballot again next fall; Arizona's sodomy law, repealed by the legislature, will be the subject of a referendum to reinstate it. (Not only are these measures pernicious themselves; the homo-hate they unleash legitimizes gay-bashing, which always increases in their wake.)
Add to all this the 311 gay-related bills--nearly half of which are gay-hostile--now pending in state legislatures, and it's clear that, more than ever, the cutting edge of the fight for full gay civil rights has moved from Washington to the states, as I have argued in these pages [see Ireland, "Rebuilding the Gay Movement," July 12, 1999]. Luckily, that's also the view of the new director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), Lorri Jean, who took up her duties in June. A powerhouse fundraiser--as director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, she expanded the center's budget from $8 million to $32 million--Jean says that she "remembers [openly gay Representative] Barney Frank telling a conference I was at back in 1994 that unless there's backup from the grassroots, we're not going to make progress inside the Beltway. Look at ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act for gays]--we actually lost ground under a Democratic administration." (In the year when ENDA failed to pass the Senate by one vote, the Clinton White House didn't lift a finger to lobby for it.) Adds Jean, "State and local organizing is where the future is for our movement--it's time to wake up and smell the coffee."