Same-Sexers Under Siege
There's a reason Oregon was the only place to defeat an antigay referendum last year (even though the progay forces spent only half what it cost to beat back previous initiatives). Under the leadership of Jean Harris--an ex-deputy mayor of San Francisco who is one of the savviest gay organizers in the country-- Basic Rights Oregon, the statewide gay group, built a voter ID file of 125,000 gay and gay-friendly voters and, with those numbers as leverage, sparked the creation of a Progressive Voter Coalition with labor, choice and environmental groups that has become a deciding factor in state elections, thanks to the half-million voters on its combined lists.
Now the Oregon model is being consciously replicated elsewhere. Take Florida, where, says Nadine Smith, the African-American who runs the statewide gay group Equality Florida, "in just two years we identified 150,000 progay voters by November 2000, and by building an alliance with other progressive organizations willing to pool their databases, we now have a Progressive Voter Coalition with 400,000 ID'd names." Smith and Harris linked up through the Federation of Statewide Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Advocacy Organizations, which Smith now co-chairs. Smith says the federation, through its twice-yearly meetings, "has become a real think tank place to get new tools to do this work, and to get training for grassroots organizing, with a lot of emphasis on get-out-the-vote campaigns."
One of the federation's success stories is the Arkansas Equality Network, which in less than two years of existence has already recruited 600 members. Says its director, Anne Shelley, "The federation has been an invaluable, incredible tool to connect with other statewide groups, especially those doing rural organizing, like the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, which shares our progressive values." That means, says Shelley, that her group works in coalition with allies like the NAACP National Voter Fund and the Citizens First Congress (an alliance of more than fifty grassroots organizations) on a common legislative agenda. And the group's emphasis on developing and training strong local leaders is mobilizing gay folks in some surprising places--like Fayetteville, a small town of 50,000, where it helped start a Gay/Straight Alliance in local high schools that now has seventy-five members.
Meanwhile, Basic Rights Oregon's Jean Harris has moved back to California to take over the new statewide gay group, California Alliance for Pride and Equality (CAPE). Harris initiated CAPE's Raise a Million Voices project to identify a million progay voters--in just one year, CAPE has already ID'd 260,000, while also maintaining a full-time lobbyist in Sacramento, all on a budget of only $500,000. Harris hopes to raise that to $1 million next year: "If we can establish a local base of small donors, get those $50 donors to join and support statewide organizations, we can keep them progressive and coalition-oriented instead of relying on foundations or national organizations," which often insist that grant recipients stick to "gay issues" only, says Harris. (The federation is conducting a means analysis to see what statewide groups need help the most, and what kind. Tax-deductible donations that will go to state and local organizing, not to some national bureaucracy's overhead, may be sent to the Federation of Statewide LGBT Advocacy Organizations, c/o Equality Florida, 1222 South Dale Mabry, Suite 652, Tampa, FL 33629.)
At the same time all this is going on, gay conservatism is coming out of the closet with a vengeance. The Republican Unity Coalition, a group of pro-Bush gay conservatives led by public relations consultant and longtime Bush friend Charles Francis, is asking for $5,000 donations from new members, and just received a matching grant of $120,000 from former GOP Representative Michael Huffington. Founded by the "Austin 12"--the group of gay conservatives who met with George W. during his presidential campaign--this group of Bush loyalists aims to be an alternative to the Log Cabin Republicans, the gay group whose leaders supported John McCain in the GOP primaries. Ironically, Michelangelo Signorile recently reported in his Gay.com column that the Log Cabins are now soliciting large contributions from other national gay groups and well-heeled AIDS organizations on the grounds that "we have the access" to the Bush Administration. (They reportedly asked the Human Rights Campaign--the nation's wealthiest national gay lobby--for $200,000.) The new head of the White House AIDS office, Scott Evertz, is a leading Wisconsin Log Cabinite--that state's chapter disavowed the national group's attacks on Bush.
Some leading Republicans welcome these gay conservatives with open arms. As Grover Norquist, dubbed "the Lenin of the contemporary right" by the Washington Post, recently said to me, "The GOP got a quarter of the gay vote for President last year and a third of the vote for Congress, and smarter people in our coalition aren't writing it off."