Rebuilding the Gay Movement

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 crystalliz


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).

The most important test of gay clout at the polls in 1999 will come this fall in Dade County, Florida (which includes Miami), where in December the County Commission passed by 7 to 6 an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Two decades after orange juice queen Anita Bryant led a Christian right referendum repealing a similar ordinance in a landmark defeat for gay rights, the battle will be fought all over again. This time, the gay community is better prepared, with the gay-led SAVE-DADE coalition (the acronym stands for Safeguarding American Values for Everyone) planning to raise $1.5 million to defeat repeal. Already on board are the Spanish American League Against Discrimination, the NAACP, the county AFL-CIO, the United Teachers of Dade, the textile workers’ union UNITE, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and more than 130 members of the clergy.

“The Christian Coalition, which is leading the repeal effort, is going to use Miami and Dade as a fundraising spur,” says SAVE-DADE chairman Jorge Mursuli, an openly gay Cuban-American. Against the expected avalanche of Christian right money, says Mursuli, “we’re going to have an organizing campaign that is heavily focused on the grassroots. As part of a larger stateside effort to identify 100,000 gay or gay-friendly voters, we’ve already started canvassing households in targeted neighborhoods–we’ve ID’ed 10,000 voters already.” Despite fears that changed demographics–fewer Jews, more Roman Catholic and Pentecostal Hispanics–over the past twenty years have made for an even more culturally conservative electorate, a December Miami Herald/NBC poll taken just after the ordinance became law showed support for it across the board: 53-33 percent overall, 49-36 percent among Cuban-Americans, 51-33 percent among other Hispanics and 52-30 percent among blacks. SAVE-DADE sees coalition-building on non-gay issues with blacks and Hispanics as crucial: “It’s like taking care of your house–if you only take care of your room, and the rest of the house falls down, it affects you,” says Mursuli.

As Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the statewide gay group, puts it: “Look, I’m black, a woman and a lesbian, and to ask me to be a single-issue organizer is to park at least two of my identities at the door–we have to build coalitions.” She points to the fledgling Florida Progressive Voter Project–modeled on the Oregon example–as “having created tangible ways of working together,” with more than 50,000 progressive voters already tallied.

Furthermore, says Smith, “every gay group has to measure its success by how it strengthens local groups–if somebody belongs to Equality Florida and not to their local group, then we’ve failed in our mission.” This strategy has led to local victories: Gainesville last year finally passed a gay-nondiscrimination ordinance after a seven-year fight, and both Monroe and Broward counties have passed domestic partnership legislation for government employees that includes same-gender couples.

But gay organizing is far from achieving its potential in some surprising areas of the country. A paradigm for the tensions bedeviling many urban gay communities is Chicago, where, despite a large gay population and a thriving and visible gay commercial ghetto along North Halsted Street, the state of gay politics is rather “sedate,” says Louis Weisberg, metro news editor of the Windy City Times, the city’s most important gay newsweekly. “It’s really frustrating how complacent everyone is,” he adds. In part, that’s because the Second City’s mayor, Richie Daley, has managed to co-opt much of the gay community with a shrewd combination of patronage and symbolic gestures: The city has provided domestic partnership benefits to its employees since 1997, and as part of his citywide gentrification and urban renewal program, Daley spruced up Halstead Street, adorning it with gay rainbow markers. Daley’s former official liaison to the gay community, Larry McKeon–an HIV-positive former cop–is now the only openly gay member of the Illinois legislature. When Daley ran for re-election this year, he plastered predominantly gay Northside neighborhoods with signs bearing his name superimposed over pink triangles. The gay primary vote went overwhelmingly to Daley.

As in many other large cities, the AIDS crisis has sapped a lot of gay energy and money: Chicago has an impressive skein of AIDS-related social service institutions and healthcare providers, but they take little active part in politics (despite the fact that the city provides only token AIDS funding–around $7 million). Many gay groups are career-oriented or social: One of the largest, the Chicago Professional Networking Association, gets fifty to 120 people to its mixers (“It started a dozen years ago as an alternative to the bars–it was a closet group then; you had to know about it to find it,” says its president, funeral director David Kulawiak). And there’s a gay chamber of commerce, a gay group for the building trades (architects, landscapers, contractors, plumbers) and gay employee groups at corporations like Ameritech, Commonwealth Edison, AT&T, Arthur Andersenand the like. But there is no citywide gay organization that does political organizing (a recently hatched Stonewall Democratic Club is still in its infancy and tiny).

“The Chicago gay community suffers from the same kind of divisions that permeate the city–segregation on race, gender and class lines–which means that huge numbers of people are not enfranchised in the gay movement,” declares editor Weisberg. Feisty black lesbian Renae Ogletree, who runs the Chicago Youth Agency Partnership (a coalition of more than forty social service groups), argues that “the gay environment and its politics are very controlled by white, gay men–and it would be a compliment to say they’re even mildly interested in issues of concern to black folk. They’re interested in gay marriage–we’re interested in housing and employment. We not only have to fight to be at the table, we have to make sure we get the same damn food, or that they haven’t co-opted one of us, or that they haven’t had the real meeting beforehand.” Ogletree points out that the Rocks, the annual black lesbian and gay festival held on Gay Pride Sunday at Belmont Harbor–which draws 20,000 people and is regularly frequented by black politicians–there is no recruiting by any white-led gay organizations (“They’re intimidated,” she chuckles).

The largest gay political group is the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, which has 3,200 members statewide and a budget of $220,000. “We’re different from other states in that we have a working relationship with the Republican Party,” says federation executive director Rick Garcia. When the Democrats nominated a rabid homophobe, Congressman Glenn Poshard, as their gubernatorial candidate last year, gay support went massively to the successful GOP candidate, George Ryan, who, as Secretary of State, had promulgated a policy of nondiscrimination against same-sexers in his office. Ryan subsequently appointed four open gays to his transition team, including Garcia. But the attempt to add sexual orientation to the state’s human rights law has been kept from a floor vote in the Republican-controlled Senate, while in the House (where the Democrats have a two-seat advantage), Speaker Michael Madigan–a Daley crony–keeps Democratic legislators from swing districts from voting for it. Playing the insider game, the federation has hired two contract lobbyists who are political pros, one Democrat and one Republican–but neither of them is gay. Despite a letter of endorsement from Ryan and the four other top GOP state officials, another bill, which would have extended protection of Illinois’s civil rights laws to same-sexers, was defeated in the state House by two votes at the end of March.

Office seekers are, perforce, coalition-builders, and some recent victories reflect that fact. A shining example is Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who last November became the first openly gay or lesbian person ever elected to Congress (other gay members came out after they were elected). With universal healthcare as her key theme, Baldwin–a well-liked state legislator–stitched together an alliance of labor, students and women (she was also the first female US rep ever from her state) in a campaign that emphasized field organizing, with thousands of volunteers.

Openly gay state legislative candidates also won first-time victories last year in Massachusetts (Liz Malia), Connecticut (Evelyn Mantilla), Arizona (Republican Steve May), Wisconsin (Mark Pocan) and New York, where City Councilman Tom Duane–a staunch ally of the labor-based Working Families Party–became the first gay State Senator in New York and the most senior openly HIV-positive elected official in the country. These wins brought the number of openly gay state legislators to thirty-one–and there were also recent victories for gay city councilors in the District of Columbia and Long Beach, California; judges in Dade County, Florida, and San Diego, California; and a lesbian sheriff in Baltimore.

However, thirty years after the Stonewall riots against police brutality in New York City launched the modern gay movement, same-sexers are faced with a paradox: As more and more people have come out, and as the commercialization of gay culture and gay images has amplified our visibility, the national movement has become more and more conservative. For instance, when the Christian right last year launched its poisonous “homosexuality can be cured” ad campaign, the HRC initiated an expensive newspaper ad blitz of its own. But as longtime activist Leslie Cagan–who helped organize several of the earlier gay marches on Washington–puts it, the HRC’s ads “presented images of gay families that in essence said, ‘We’re just as good as any Christian, white American family,’ which simply bought into the right’s definition of who’s an acceptable American.”

Then, the HRC and the national Metropolitan Community Church unilaterally called for a Millennium March on Washington in 2000 around the theme “Faith & Families” without any meaningful consultation with other national organizations–let alone with state or local groups. In protest, two leading black lesbians who had received HRC awards for their work–Mandy Carter, field director of the National Black and Gay Leadership Forum, and author-activist Barbara Smith–returned their awards to HRC. The organization was also roundly criticized for refusing to send a representative to a New York City Town Hall meeting in February on the “crisis of accountability” in national gay organizations (although other groups did). And at the end of April, when HRC executive director Elizabeth Birch and other HRC leaders finally appeared before a critical audience at New York’s Gay and Lesbian Community Center to defend the D’Amato endorsement and the Millennium March, paranoia was running so high that HRC spent precious gay dollars to hire two plainclothes security guards with walkie-talkies to protect its contingent (something of a first for a community meeting of gay activists).

Interviews with some sixty state and local activists for this article revealed little enthusiasm for the HRC-led march. Now, NGLTF executive director Kerry Lobel has resigned from the March’s board of directors for refusing to “open itself to greater input and scrutiny from the communities we claim to represent” and for concealing “information about March management and finances.” Lobel also demanded “the linking of our agenda to those of other groups working for social justice.”

Urvashi Vaid, who directs the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, rightly notes that “the movement has focused too much on elites with money and access, but that has brought us little change and no national civil rights laws: The situation with the DC-based organizations has deteriorated as our movement has gotten too cozy with power by trying to be insiders. There is no movement at the national level that is challenging Bill Clinton strongly enough.” And, adds Vaid, the HRC endorsement of D’Amato–a right-to-lifer–confirms HRC’s willful drift to the center-right (its political director is a former Bush Administration official), even though “there can never be a separation between reproductive freedom and sexual freedom.”

The increasingly conservative style and agendas of Washington “gaycrats” are only part of the problem in our top-heavy movement. As Diane Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, argues, “Our national organizations’ budgets together spend some $40 million, while all the statewide lobbying groups put together have only $3.5 million–and over half of that is in New York,” where the Empire State Pride Agenda’s budget this year reached $2 million (half of which goes for fundraising–a troublingly large percentage).

NGLTF is by far the national political organization that tries hardest to support grassroots organizing. Its annual Creating Change Conference is one of the few national venues where local organizers can meet and network, drawing 2,500 activists last November from around the country to its Pittsburgh conclave. And NGLTF–together with the Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Statewide Organizations–organized this year’s Equality Begins at Home Campaign, which staged rallies, lobby days, prayer breakfasts and other activities in all fifty state capitals, as well as Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, March 21-27. Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the Gill Foundation, the creation of computer mogul Tim Gill, founder of Quark, the Task Force was able to donate $5,000 for the campaign to every state group. But the NGLTF’s annual budget of $3.6 million is dwarfed by the HRC’s $15 million, and in any case is only a drop in the bucket compared with the money spent by the religious right on its anti-homosexual organizing beyond the Beltway. Even the Task Force is not exempt from elitism: As Washington’s only gay state legislator, Seattle Representative Ed Murray–a progressive Democrat–recounts: “When the HRC or NGLTF come to town, they never call me–an NGLTF staffer actually explained to me that ‘it’s because you’re not the gay leader with the Microsoft stock’–and they’re supposed to be grassroots?”

Unfortunately, none of the issues raised here got any serious attention at the annual Aspen retreat of the Gill Foundation’s Outgiving Project, a closed-door conference for gay fatcats who give at least $10,000 each year to gay groups. Although the foundation divides its funding roughly 50-50 between local and national activities, a study it prepared for the retreat of organizations and their needs focused only on the latter.

That gay funders should be determining the gay agenda with their checkbooks is itself problematic. As Joo-Hyun Kang, director of the Audre Lord Project–a Brooklyn-based community organizing center for nonwhite same-sexers–puts it, “Only funded organizations get surveyed, and nonfunded groups get passed over; it becomes a vicious cycle. There are over thirty lesbian and gay people of color groups in New York City, for example, and only a couple of them get any funding at all. A concomitant of the corporatization of our movement is that we’re becoming a social service industry, and that’s where the money is increasingly going.”

Ultimately, though, the direction the gay movement takes will depend not on checkbook activism but on the kind of energy and commitment that people bring to work in their own communities. This may involve some nasty battles with more conservative gay elements and force the debate into the open–but the ultimate goal is victories that last, and that’s worth the fight.

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