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Los Angeles and New York may be the country’s cultural poles, but Washington sets the tone. The web of executive decisions, bureaucratic regulations, Supreme Court rulings, legislation, and all the rest touch the lives of Americans from sea to shining sea.
Accordingly, the capital city is home to numerous non-profit organizations who hope to impact that tone, including those groups that advocate for GLBT civil rights and HIV/AIDS issues.
While it might take an earthquake to rock San Francisco, or a hurricane to rattle Miami, a presidential election year is all it takes to send reverberations through D.C.’s foundations. The 2004 elections emphasize this point in the extreme. Scarcely more than two weeks after the Nov. 2 election, it can still be difficult to find Washingtonians talking about much else.
The Washington-based leaders of the national organizations advocating for gay rights and related issues are, rightfully, taking center stage now to help gay Americans make sense of an election year that, many say, saw them demonized and exploited for the sake of manipulating the electorate. But the 2004 elections are finished. Voters returned George W. Bush to office, and 11 — out of 11 — states voted in favor of ballot measures to restrict the rights of gay people. To a large degree, America has set the course for the next four years. The D.C.-based leaders have the best vantage point to look at the map of where we’re going. Can they lead us through a hostile landscape?
A Bump in the Road
Nov. 2, 2004 brought the highest percentage of voters to the polls than any U.S. election since 1968. It was also the most expensive U.S. presidential election in history. It was the first chance for Americans to vote their feelings on the Bush administration’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks, to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to tax cuts, and a host of other issues that have polarized much of the electorate.
An issue of particular interest to gay voters was the president’s support of a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. The Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) was presented as a response to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that barring same-sex marriages was counter to that commonwealth’s constitution, along with a flurry of same-sex marriage certificates issued in San Francisco and other cities in Oregon, New Mexico and New York. But the FMA wasn’t alone. The tone set in Washington sparked winning ballot measures banning same-sex unions in 11 state constitutions.
While few gay organizations made formal endorsements in the presidential election, gay sentiment was clearly with Democratic candidate John Kerry — or simply against Bush. Exit polls point to roughly 80 percent of the gay vote going to Kerry.
Even the Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay organization that endorsed Bush in 2000, shied away in 2004, citing Bush’s support for the FMA.
“Bush increased his percentage among every category of American citizen,” says Patrick Guerriero, president of the LCR, noting that the gay vote bucked the national trend. “We were one of the only groups that saw a lessening of support….In the middle of a war on terrorism, if he’d stayed the course he could’ve gotten 30 to 35 percent of the gay vote. With his support for FMA, it was closer to 24 to 25 percent.”
As LCR leaders merely turned their backs on Bush this time around, the nation’s largest gay rights-advocacy group went on the attack. The Human Rights Campaign’s D.C. headquarters sported a large banner reading, “George W. Bush ‘You’re Fired!'” The HRC’s anti-Bush campaign popped up around the country, as the organization pumped millions of dollars and untold hours of labor into defeating Bush and the anti-gay ballot initiatives.
Cheryl Jacques, HRC’s executive director, remembers the mood on Nov. 3. “We were as heartbroken as much of the country, and most of our community, about the loss and ballot initiatives, and losing good friends like Senator Tom Daschle [D-SD].”
Since the election, some political pundits have credited same-sex marriage as the issue that got the vote out among Bush supporters. Exit polls suggest that the amorphous umbrella term “moral values” did weigh heavily among voters who went for Bush. Jacques acknowledges that same-sex marriage was used as a wedge issue in the election, but she rejects the notion that gay marriage was the key to returning Bush to the White House.
“While gay marriage was used by [presidential adviser] Karl Rove to energize a conservative base, that was in no way more responsible than any other one issue,” Jacques insists, pointing to other items important among Americans, such as abortion and the war on terrorism. “It’s a combination of all of these.”
An issue important to many Americans, gay or otherwise, given arguably slight attention during the campaign was HIV/AIDS. Here, both sides of the political fence seemed ill-prepared to deal with the reality of HIV in America. During the sole vice-presidential debate, moderator Gwen Ifill asked the question: “I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?”
Neither Vice President Dick Cheney nor John Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, offered a substantial response. Terje Anderson, executive director of the National Association of People with AIDS, publicly noted the lackluster responses. “[W]e are shocked the Vice President said he is unaware of the disproportionately high rate of HIV infection among Black women in the U.S,” Anderson wrote. “[W]e are disappointed Senator Edwards lost an important opportunity to discuss how HIV affects African American women.”
Anderson followed that statement with another, summarizing the Nov. 2 results. “At a time when voters were concerned about ‘moral’ issues, we must be clear: responding effectively to HIV/AIDS is a moral issue,” he wrote, in part. “At a time when our country is justifiably concerned about the possibility of terrorism, we cannot forget that the security of our citizens is about much more than just the risk of another attack….The lives of Americans are needlessly endangered by disease, by poverty, by homelessness, by racism, by addiction.”
Another issue of interest to gay people discussed in both the presidential and vice-presidential debates was Mary Cheney. The vice president’s openly lesbian daughter, an employee of her father’s campaign, was a hot topic. Was she fair game in election debates? That question remains to be answered conclusively. Nevertheless, she made history by standing with her partner, Heather Poe, onstage with President Bush as he made his victory speech on Nov. 3. The gay community cannot be faulted if it has a little trouble interpreting the mixed messages of an administration that welcomes an openly lesbian couple into its onstage entourage while simultaneously arguing that the Constitution should be amended to ensure they’ll never be allowed to wed in the United States.
“There’s a change that we have to take heart in,” Jacques concludes. “The vice president’s daughter and partner onstage, that’s an important symbolic moment. Gay people live in every corner of the country, and are part of everyone’s family, including the vice president’s. It’s a good eye-opener.”
In this immediate post-election period, one exceptional measure of the heartbeat of gay America may come from Creating Change. This annual meeting of gay activists, sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, wrapped up last weekend in St. Louis. It was the first large-scale meeting within the gay community since the election. Matt Foreman, NGLTF executive director, offered a fairly blunt assessment to attendees in his keynote address Nov. 12.
“First off, there’s no putting lipstick on this ugly pig,” said Foreman, according to a copy of the speech. “The Bush Administration and its frontal assault on our community will go on for another four painful years. Sadly, on Nov. 2, 14 million people — 67 percent of the voters in 11 states — affirmatively acted to enshrine our second-class citizenship in their state constitutions. Everywhere there is hurt, bewilderment, and trauma. So, here, in this room our movement’s best and brightest fighters, our leaders and activists, let’s not pretend that it doesn’t hurt. Let’s not pretend that it doesn’t feel like we are all walking targets, more than ever.”
Despite all its hairpin curves, rough starts and sudden stops, the election part of this trip is finished. What’s left for the leaders of the gay-rights movement is to look back on the lessons of the last four years, and find ways to apply them in charting a course for the next four.
The Road Traveled
In examining the first Bush term, LCR’s Guerriero says he remembers things starting off well before souring. “In the first two years, there were promising signs,” says Guerriero, citing openly gay Bush appointees, Bush allowing the Bill Clinton policy protecting federal employees from sexual orientation discrimination to stand, domestic and foreign funding on HIV/AIDS, among other gay-friendly nuggets. “The second half tilted more toward Karl Rove’s strategy, using gays and lesbians as a wedge issue.”
It was during that second half, once the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign was underway, that the National Center for Transgender Equality tried to engage the GOP political machine.
C. Dixon Osburn
“We tried very hard to reach out to both major parties to find out how transgender people could become more involved,” says Mara Keisling, the center’s executive director. “We encouraged trans people to get involved. We were embraced by the Democrats and totally ignored by the Republicans. The Bush-Cheney campaign wouldn’t return our calls. The Kerry campaign had a trans person on their LGBT steering committee. The Democratic National Convention had eight transgender delegates. As far as we know, the Republican convention had zero. There was a really big difference.”
Using a different Democratic benchmark — the Clinton Administration — some gay-advocacy groups did not note such a marked difference.
“There’s been very little access to the White House under President Bush,” says C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. His group works to protect military personnel harmed by the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military instituted by Clinton. Aside from the lack of access, the past four years have passed with no major engagements with the administration for SLDN. “Most things, from a regulatory point of view, have stayed exactly the same. There was nothing revolutionary. [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld made only one comment in the past four years, essentially that he hadn’t given the policy a lot of thought.”
HRC’s Jacques points to a string of gay victories during the past four years, all outside the purview of the executive and legislative branches. “After the last election cycle, the years ahead brought us the Lawrence decision, the Massachusetts decision and Canadian same-sex marriage,” says a seemingly optimistic Jacques. In the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Te xas law banning consensual sex between members of the same sex was unconstitutional. The Massachusetts ruling was handed down earlier this year. And in Canada, the Ontario Court of Appeal, followed by other provincial courts, ruled in 2003 that same-sex couples are eligible for marriage licenses.
Craig Bowman, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition sings a more pessimistic tune. “It had a huge impact on us,” says Bowman of the president’s first four years. “There have been really difficult changes in policy: a shift in high-quality HIV-prevention, to abstinence-only prevention with funding off the charts. We’re concerned that it’s going to continue to go downhill over the next four years. For many progressive people, these past four years have been tough. But we’ve managed to hold on. A lot of us were feeling that we needed to win this one to get us moving. That didn’t happen.”
Although the past four years may have been a mixed bag, nearly every gay leader interviewed for this article reckoned that a Kerry win would likely have made his or her job easier in the coming four years. Regardless, there is no turning back. Bush has won a second term, along with Republican majorities in both the House and Senate to bolster him. There are no indications of an easy road ahead for gay Americans.
The Road Ahead
The emotional extremes of Nov. 3 have begun to dissipate. The federal government is a juggernaut that never stays still for long. Anyone trying to affect policy — from any angle — knows that political forces will drive right over anyone standing still in the middle of the road.
As the leaders of the various gay-advocacy groups mapping the future get to work on what comes next, their courses seem fairly similar. The calls are for steadfastness, dialogue, and connecting with grassroots America to a much greater degree.
“This is not the time to be fearful. This is the time to face the music and keep talking,” insists Donna Payne, vice president of the National Black Justice Coalition. Payne has her work cut out for her, as the NBJC is targeting African American churches as one arena for talking about equality for gay people. She and Karl Rove are targeting the same audience.
“Karl Rove started a panic,” says Payne. “He put out a shocking message, pictures of gay people marrying in front of the evangelical sector, scaring them. Telling African American ministers that they will lose tax-exempt status for their churches if they don’t allow same-sex marriages. Fear is the leader here.”
Payne nonetheless sounds confident about her chances of winning hearts and minds. “African Americans understand justice,” she says firmly. “They understand civil rights. They wouldn’t want to take anyone’s rights away from them.”
Matthew Gallagher, the executive director of Dignity USA, an organization for GLBT Catholics and their families, similarly argues that gay activism can win in the religious arena. Before the election, his group challenged Catholic bishops who tried to dictate how Catholic Americans should vote.
Following the election he says, “I hope we can come together as a group and show we are people of faith, of morals, of values, and counter the lies that were put against us.”
Jacques says the next four years will also see HRC bringing the battle to the faithful. “HRC will not shy away from the religious conversation,” Jacques says. “We’re going to engage and have conversations with evangelicals and fundamentalists, who I believe are good-hearted and fair-minded people.”
Jacques adds that the media-savvy HRC is recruiting religious leaders who support equality for gays to provide the sound bites demanded by the media when the news of the day involves religious issues. “There are other voices that speak very differently from the Jerry Falwells,” says Jacques.
Some groups, by design, already work primarily at a grassroots level. Leaders of these organizations naturally have plenty of advice for politicking in the “red” states — otherwise known as the Bible Belt, the Heartland, Middle America.
“There is a lot of good work already going on, outreach in conservative communities,” offers Ron Schlittler, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. His organization recently wrapped up a national conference in Salt Lake City. Utah is a tried and true red state. Schlittler, however, says that PFLAG families exist in red states just as readily as in blue.
“Our PFLAG families did not come to be advocates overnight,” says Schlittler, explaining how straight families and friends of gay people are often from the same backgrounds as the very same grassroots Americans the gay civil-rights movement should be courting. “Many of them walked through a very different road [than most gay-rights advocates] to come to a place where they have become advocates. That’s a metaphor for the journey that a lot of people around the country need to take.”
Robin Brand, vice president for campaigns and elections at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute, which works to increase the number of gay officials around the country, says that regardless of whatever the Nov. 2 results may imply, the voters she’s worked with around the country are fair-minded people, ready for dialogue.
“Openly gay candidates can find common ground with the people they want to represent,” says Brand of rural voters. “The public is open to electing openly gay candidates to represent them on the issues that they care about. I think that’s very telling. Though voters may not be quite ready to support gay marriage, they are open to openly gay representation.”
That fair-minded sensibility is something the gay civil-rights movement desperately needs to reach out to, says LCR’s Guerriero. His group, he says, offers a familiar face for greeting these rural, conservative voters — a Republican face.
“Southern states and rural areas [are] where Log Cabin is growing the fastest,” says Guerriero, adding that dialogue with straight voters in these areas is overdue. “Why would people who seem pretty decent oppose our basic rights? It’s because we haven’t talked to them.”
Guerriero elaborated in a Nov. 8 statement. “Much more important than increasing attendance at all our organizations’ expensive black-tie dinners is the work we should be doing hosting rural barbecues and town hall meetings for honest discussions with people who disagree with us,” he wrote. “Far too many Americans believe that we value Prada shoes, Botox injections and party drugs over hard work, family, and patriotism.”
As the nation’s gay Republican organization, Guerriero adds that LCR has already begun a dialogue at the other end of the spectrum, with the second Bush Administration. “We’re talking to people involved in the campaign, who work in the administration, who may have disagreed with our absolutely principled stance not to have endorsed the president,” he says. “It’s going to take some time to build back trust and communication.”
Despite his group’s obvious affinity with a GOP administration and Congress, Guerriero says he hopes the Nov. 2 election will help GLBT groups work together, despite various political differences. “The notion that there is an LCR is often used as a punch line in gay humor,” Guerriero laments, pointing to the larger gay activist community that often holds up the term “gay Republican” as an oxymoron. “[The election] is kind of a wake-up call,” he warns. “It’s important that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the last year or two.”
It appears Guerriero may get his wish, as he says a new dialogue among gay civil rights groups has already begun.
“We can be a big part of it, but we certainly can’t be alone in it,” Guerrerio says, citing LCR’s alignment with both the Bush administration and the GOP-dominated Hill, as well as rural, conservative voters. “It’s really going to take the whole community. There’s a great deal of conversation off the record, behind the scenes. We have this unique time with new [gay] leadership across the board. We should at least do a gut check and some soul searching.”
Just as Guerriero says he’s hoping this moment in American politics will pave the way for LCR to earn more respect among core gay-advocacy groups, NYAC’s Bowman is hoping the same for gay youth.
“Certainly we work with all the national LGBT organizations. I think it’s important right now that we find ways to work together,” says Bowman. “We’re excited about a lot of energy out there among young LGBTQ people. If our movement can tap into that energy, passion, creativity, skill and wisdom, then I think we’ll not only get through this, but make progress. But there must be a role for LGBTQ young people. This is the only movement that hasn’t had a defined role for young people. For the next four years, NYAC’s role is to make sure that that happens.”
Transgender people also have not always been readily welcomed into the gay civil-rights movement. Keisling has her own wisdom to share about how the movement might be more inclusive, not only of transgender people, but of anyone.
“We always talk about building coalitions,” Keisling observes. “What that seems to mean in the LGBT movement is finding people who will help us on our issues, not going out and finding people who need our help and helping them on their issues. That is a strategic mistake and, I believe, an ethical mistake.
“We should support local and state groups without the angle of, ‘What’s it going to do for the national group?’ Raising money in Iowa that goes to Washington and then gets doled out back in Iowa doesn’t make sense.
“Make it easy for people to participate. Make it open and welcoming….There’s nothing about Washington that makes us smarter than anyone else.”
Looking into the future of the next four years, each group moving its own particular component to the larger push for gay equality, all the leaders interviewed seem optimistic. Granted, some are more guarded in their optimism than others. Some say they need a bit more time to heal before rolling up their sleeves. Still, Jacques’ positive outlook best sums up what her activist peers here in D.C. emote.
“From Stonewall to AIDS to Matthew Shepard, we surge after setbacks,” Jacques assures. “We will surge after this setback. America is moving with us. Full equality is not a question of if, but of when. We lost, but we’re not losers.”