In Order to Defeat Right Wing, Gays Need Consensus

After losing 11 referenda on gay marriage, can gays win any victories against right-wing Republicans during the next four years?

Recent news stories about divisions in the gay activist community revolve around the difficulties of creating a four-year plan for opposing President Bush and his anti-gay allies.

Will the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community continue to improvise or can it develop a strategy that will appeal to a majority of Americans, and help gays be part of a new majority in the next presidential election?

Strategists are debating questions like these, and no consensus has emerged. The activists did not ask for this attention, it was dropped in our laps by the right-wing referenda on gay marriage. Our opponents pressed these buttons because they see LGBT advocates at a serious disadvantage.

The same-sex marriage movement is playing a double role. It has advanced at the grass roots level in a way that demonstrates enthusiasm and rank and file support, yet the issue has left our allies nervous. Marriage has become the litmus test for whether or not LGBT individuals achieve full equality. Yet, since the beginning, it has been clear that many Democrats had problems with advocating for gay marriage.

The right wing recognized that the discomfort of Democrats presented its partisans with an opportunity and they elevated gay marriage into a threat against the American way of life and its traditions. The right wing found a way of attacking the gay rights movement that had a broad popular appeal and threatened to split the Democratic Party. Almost every strategist is responding to this challenge.

Everybody in the gay community understands this, and there is no disagreement on the necessity to defeat any constitutional amendment that seeks to ban gay marriage. But defeating something is reactive and defensive; gay advocates are yearning for a chance to go on the offensive and be proactive.

Feeding this demand for proactive change is the anger provoked by Pres. George W. Bush and his fundamentalist allies. While those of us who live in the blue states are demanding action, other members of the Democratic Party are wondering if it is time to reconsider their support of gay causes. It is a treacherous situation that requires diplomacy and creativity.

On the one hand anger at George Bush makes the LGBT community yearn for a militant response. On the other hand, the defeat gays suffered in 11 state referenda causes some activists to favor a cautious approach. These cognitive dissonances — one group supporting militancy, and the other advising caution — can easily provokes splits and divide the movement for gay rights. Everyone is trying to avoid this outcome.

Winnie Stachelberg, the political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the most visible gay lobby in Washington , emphasizes flexibility – “no one-size-fits-all” approach. Stachelberg responds positively to many suggestions, but seemed to place a priority on narrow issues like “hospital visitation rights,” tax equity issues and Social Security survivor rights. She adamantly insists that marriage equality remains the ultimate objective of her organization.

Presumably, if the Human Rights Campaign ever floated a Social Secruity privatization balloon, since pulled back, it was making a cold-blooded calculation that is the one issue where the Bush administration will be at its weakest and need allies. The controversy around gays supporting Bush’s proposal is that the LGBT community would trade support for privatization legislation in return for a provision like survivor benefits. Rep. Barney Frank, (D-Mass.) who is gay, has denounced this trade-off, as have many other Democratic activists. The quick disavowal of the idea by HRC is not surprising.

Ethan Geto, who was the New York State campaign manager for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, has been talking about making employment issues a priority in Congress. Ending employers’ right to discriminate against lesbians and gay and repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Pentagon ban on gays serving openly, are Geto’s targets. There is an acute shortage of skilled personnel in Iraq and Congress will have to increase enlistments. During this debate, Congress should be reminded that thousands of soldiers are forced out of the armed services because of their sexual orientation. As has been seen, many gay and lesbian marines, sailors and soldiers have highly specialized abilities, like fluency in Arabic and Pashto, combat leadership experience and special forces training. The need for good soldiers, regardless of their sexual orientation, makes the ban a foolish policy.

On the other hand, Congressman Frank wonders why there is a push to emphasize employment safeguards when legislation to punish gay hate crimes enjoys majorities in both houses, but is being sidelined by congressional leadership.

Both Winnie Stachelberg and Barney Frank warn that the Republicans control both houses of Congress, and they will be setting the agenda and timing votes for maximum political advantage. They have no qualms about triangulating gay issues in order to hold on their power. Taking the offensive sounds appealing, but when the Ryan White AIDS funding legislation comes up for a vote, the LGBT community will have to fight anti-gay amendments to this nuts-and-bolts gay issue. It is an open question how much political capital the gay community has left after it fights the attacks of the right. And activists in Washington keep warning they do not control the agenda because the Democrats are in the minority.

National issues like same-sex marriage always get ensnared in Washington’s thickets, making ever more clear the need for the LGBT community to improve its state level infrastructures. Creating new statewide lobbying organization is a priority whose importance has grown as the right has adopted a “federalist” approach to rolling back or stymieing gay rights. Congressman Frank sees state lobbies as perhaps even more effective at influencing members of Congress than a centralized national lobby based in the capital. Thus, state lobbying groups strengthen the cause at the state and federal levels.

November exit polls showed that 60 percent of the public supports either gay marriage or civil unions. One tactic that is creating excitement calls for placing a second referendum supporting civil unions on ballots meant to outlaw same-sex marriage. Thus voters could choose a ban on gay marriage and at the same time support civil unions. Ethan Geto says, “How can the right claim an anti-gay victory if voters support a civil union referendum? Offering these choices could make the public ambivalence on these issues clear. America is going through a period of change, but it is moving towards more acceptance of the LGBT community. A state ballot initiative for civil union would strengthen this trend.”

The bottom line is that while conditions exist for splitting the gay rights movement, we should be able to reach a consensus and stay united.

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