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 Ferndale, Michigan, voters repealed a local ordinance barring discrimination against same-sexers.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onetime home of the 1930s anti-Semitic radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, and now the gayest suburb in the state–repealed an antidiscrimination ordinance for gays by a crushing margin of 2 to 1.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.”
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.”
Then there’s the odd creation calling itself the Independent Gay Forum (IGF), a group of gay writers that up until now has been mainly a website (indegayforum.com) featuring conservative commentaries. On it one can find articles attacking university gay studies programs, arguing that gays should carry handguns, decrying the need for laws to protect gays against discrimination, swiping at caricatured queer theory and so on. The forum, however, is only a front for BQ-Friends, a secret, exclusive, e-mail listserv network. BQ-Friends takes its name from Beyond Queer: Challenging Gay Left Orthodoxy, a 1996 anthology (now out of print) of writings by gay conservatives. Its members include New Republic columnist Andrew Sullivan, National Journal‘s Jonathan Rauch, Log Cabin president Rich Tafel, Cato Institute head David Boaz, Bruce Bawer, Deroy Murdock, Paul Varnell and Hastings Wyman (whose column runs in a number of gay papers and who also publishes the Southern Political Report).
Now, with seed money provided by the Gill Foundation (funded by Tim Gill, the openly gay founder of Quark, and the largest single giver in the gay community), the IGF is about to become “a full-service political operation,” to quote Wyman’s June 4 column; the plan for the new, souped-up entity is being drawn up by Tim Russell, a former aide to then-Governor Tommy Thompson, now Bush’s Health and Human Services Secretary. The chairman of the IGF’s board is Steve Herbits, a former GOP Senate staffer and executive vice president of Seagram’s, who also worked as a consultant to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Herbits is also a former “senior counselor” for Window Communications, a gay PR firm that hired itself out to corporations facing criticism from the gay community. Example: When United Airlines sued the city of San Francisco over the city’s requirement that companies who do business with it extend domestic partnership benefits to same-sex couples, United was hit with a boycott for discrimination initiated by the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual Democratic Club. To help break the boycott, United hired Window Communications, whose president was William Waybourn, former managing director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).
What makes all this even more disturbing is that another company of which Waybourn is president, Window Media, is now the owner of a significant chunk of the gay press. After gobbling up the Southern Voice chain of papers, serving Atlanta, New Orleans and the mid-South, and the Houston Voice (combined readership: 200,000), Window Media acquired two mainstays of the gay press, the Washington Blade and the New York Blade, for another roughly 200,000 readers. Waybourn says his PR firm no longer exists, but Window Media has the same phone number and some of the same personnel. Blade employees, fearful of the new corporate-coddling ownership, have reached out to the Newspaper Guild to organize a union.
The growing concentration of gay media ownership is underscored by the recent merger of the largest national gay media outlets–The Advocate and Out magazines, the Internet companies Gay.com and PlanetOut, the largest gay book publisher, Alyson, and more–into one giant conglomerate. These outlets are, for the most part, entertainment and lifestyle oriented, with only truncated political coverage (what little there is tends to be sappy and shallow). That’s also true of many of the remaining locally owned gay papers (some 180 across the country, ranging from weeklies and biweeklies to monthlies and quarterlies). No wonder NGLTF’s Jean laments, “It’s hard for me to see where the forum exists anymore to have honest intellectual debate.” The aggressive search for advertising dollars from corporate America, which is increasingly targeting the gay market, has undoubtedly contributed to the homogenization and depoliticization of the gay press. And when corporate money begins to flow to gay conservatives who share most of the right’s economic agenda, as it inevitably will, who will say them nay?
Certainly not the Human Rights Campaign, a fundraising behemoth with a $18 million annual budget that increasingly seeks corporate sponsorship for its activities (like the Millennium March on Washington, which has yet to open its books–more than a year after it was held–despite a cloud of financial problems, including the theft of hundreds of thousands in proceeds, now being investigated by the FBI). And not the ever-more-tamed gay press.
Only when state and local organizing reaches critical mass by reflecting the gay community’s diversity from the bottom up will there be a chance to renew the kind of healthy debate that is the sine qua non of political education. That also means, as Carla Wallace of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance puts it, that “the line that demarcates our movement can’t stop at sexual orientation and gender identity. Successful community organizing and electoral strategy must anchor our movement in a broader progressive vision of racial and economic justice as well. When people say, ‘These aren’t gay issues’–well, what ‘we’ are we talking about? Coalition-building is the only way to win and to defend our rights, which, we must never forget, can be taken away.”