Big Show of Fence Mending

Big Show of Fence Mending

HRC joins 21 other national LGBT groups in tele-conference announcing statement of purpose

After a fractious two months of controversy following a hotly contested presidential election, 22 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups issued a joint statement on Wednesday, in what moderator Joan Garry, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, described as an “orchestra of voices” delineating a “message of hope and inspiration” for the gay rights movement in America.

The announcement is a bold statement of purpose, “our state of the union,” Garry said.

The statement reiterates some long-sought aims and underscores other interests that reflect the changed nature of what was once simply a call from the barricades for the liberation of sexual expression.

From federal and local employment anti-discrimination protections, hate crimes laws to prosecute bias-motivated violence, increased HIV and AIDS education and schools that crack down on anti-gay bullying to protections for the growing numbers of children raised in gay and lesbian households, the announcement on January 12 also took aim at what participants called the unfettered bigotry of the “radical right.”

Underscoring that proactive strategy, said the coalition, is the undiminished fervor to “continue our vigorous fight for the freedom to marry,” a direct reproach to electoral setbacks that include the reelection of Pres. George W. Bush and lawmakers intent on amending the Constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage as well as the approval of 13 state constitutional amendments in total last year forbidding the recognition of such marriages.

The coalition’s statement contains few unheard of initiatives, but rather seeks to recalibrate how to attain major goals in the near future, with preeminence placed on the solidification of the toehold same-sex marriage achieved in Massachusetts in 2003.

Aside from the articulation of particular objectives, said Winnie Stachelberg, the political director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), opponents of gay rights ought to note that the multitude of non-profit gay groups, often infighting for scarce dollars and sometimes at philosophical odds, have endorsed one overriding strategic statement of unity.

“That it is all of us together sharing this is new and quite frankly historic,” Stachelberg said.

The announcement comes against a background of stinging defeats in the November elections and then a painful controversy surrounding the subsequent firing of Cheryl Jacques, the executive director of HRC, the country’s largest LGBT rights organization. HRC still refuses to disclose the reasons Jacques was let go, but her allies claim that her aggressive stance on gay marriage ran afoul of the board of directors’ plans.

When The New York Times reported in early December that HRC was backing off on same-sex marriage as a feasible goal, many of the 22 who signed on to Wednesday’s statement, sent a joint letter to all members of Congress saying “that some in the LGBT community are ready to pull back on our struggle for freedom to make everyone more comfortable politically,” but that “nothing short of full equality and protection granted to all other American citizens is acceptable.” The letter, drafted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s executive director, Matt Foreman, was seen as effectively undercutting the authority of HRC, distracted by internal wrangling, to claim a national gay bully pulpit, the organization’s tacit mission in light of its fund-raising prowess.The announcement Wednesday was not intended as a detailed working plan for the organizations, and it contains no specifics as to how the groups intend to coordinate their efforts. Even its very preparation miffed some leaders of the groups.

“There was some stumbling,” said Roberta Sklar, the communications director for the Task Force, “and there is continuing poor communication.”

But Sklar agreed with Stachelberg’s assessment.

“What happened today was unique,” Sklar said. “I don’t recall all of these organizations speaking to one another, so a statement of substance was developed, arrived at and signed on to.”

The challenges facing the groups in improving their working relationships will come, say many advocates, in coordinating their grassroots political organizing and advocacy work in the states. Despite HRC’s Washington base—with the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights staff and a $30-million budget—a hostile congressional leadership, emboldened by increased Republican gains, and answering to a president who demands loyalty, most likely precludes any federal legislative advances or policy making influence.

Nevertheless, Stachelberg said that the group’s top priorities for the new congressional session must not waver from assuring increased funding for the Ryan White CARE Act, a $2 billion program that provides assistance to people with HIV and AIDS, and “tax and benefit issues that we believe have a chance of passage.”

In a telephone interview, Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, the Congress’ longest serving gay member, said that he agrees partly with Stachelberg and would like to see a push for domestic partnership benefits for federal workers. However, Frank, added, “getting Social Security survivor benefits is going to be very difficult.” Frank also indicated he now favors a federal hate crimes bill that includes protections for transgender people, a position he was often criticized for not supporting earlier.

HRC expects the Republican leadership in Congress to reintroduce the Federal Marriage Amendment, whose defeat last session HRC considers one its landmark accomplishments.

One leader thinks that stymieing anti-gay legislation in the states needs to happen during bills earliest planning phases.

“The winning in D.C. is all about stopping bad stuff right now,” said Toni Broaddus newly named leader of the Equality Federation, a consortium of state gay rights groups.

Broaddus said that HRC is wasting valuable resources in Washington and not focusing organizational money where it really matters.

“State leaders have been saying for years that we need a shift in resources,” Broaddus said. “Obviously, we need to have a federal presence, but most of the significant advances recently have been in the states.”

According to Stachelberg, HRC intends, among other initiatives, to expand its work outside of Washington. But it is that idea, still in the planning stage, which might produce future conflicts with the local groups over turf.

“We’re all waiting to see what direction HRC is going to go,” Broaddus said. “We wouldn’t want HRC to start proposing their own legislation or hiring their own staff. That would be crazy.”

“It’s been really important for our movement that HRC has been able to grow and talk about rights for LGBT people,” she added, “but HRC is in a real transition period, and there’s so much more they could be doing.”

HRC has appointed a search committee that will find a new executive director.

Broaddus cautioned that internal bickering, long a characteristic of movements fighting long-established histories of oppression, is a pitfall to be avoided.

“One of the things that troubles our movement is our tendency to kick down our leaders,” said Broaddus. “The majority of our leaders are trying to do what’s right for the movement. Public dialogue and constructive criticism are important,” she said, adding, “The tendency to increase the drama and publicly trash people you don’t agree with is not.”