Task Force Honors Howard Dean

National gay rights group recognizes an ally in the new DNC chairman

The massive ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel in northwest Washington easily held the more than 400 people gathered around two bars beneath the rhythm of quiet dance music. They showed up this past Thursday, April 7, for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s (NGLTF) ceremony to award Howard Dean, former Vermont governor, and Democratic National Committee (DNC) chairman, with a lifetime achievement award.

The well-dressed crowd included Rep. Adam Ebbin, a gay member of the Virginia Legislature, and Kate Michelman, former NARAL president, as well as D.C. lobbyists and the occasional man of the cloth.

“We are honoring Dr. Dean for a lifetime of leadership in progressive causes, which not only includes LGBT issues, but also in the areas of choice, health care, labor, education and the environment,” said Matt Foreman, NGLTF’s executive director, in an interview after the event.

For his part, Dean began his acceptance speech with the caveat that he was not speaking on behalf of the DNC. He then quickly launched into a crowd-pleasing talk that more than once prompted loud, spontaneous cheers.

“We measure the greatness of our society by how we treat those who have been outcast,” Dean said. “Will we now create a community that includes every American.”

He said the same attitudes that prevailed in the civil rights struggle of African Americans would ultimately prevail when it came to the equality of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Americans.

“It’s impossible for a decent person to say that some people don’t deserve the same rights they enjoy,” Dean said. “And most Americans are decent people.”

The loudest applause was reserved for near the end when Dean did finally talk as the DNC chairman.

“We will defeat the party of deficits, divisiveness and dishonesty, piece by piece and vote by vote and we will build an America that stands for liberty and justice for all Americans,” he said.

Everyone among those attending who was asked said the award was an appropriate honor for the first governor in the United States to sign a civil union law that gave gay and lesbian couples in Vermont the same rights and privileges of married heterosexuals.

In 2000, when the Vermont Supreme Court ordered that the state must either allow gay couples to marry or enter into civil unions, Dean chose civil unions rather than marriage. When asked during his 2004 presidential campaign if he supported gay marriage, Dean said the religious implications of marriage prevented him from conceding that right to gay couples. He did say he believed gay civil unions should confer the same federal rights and responsibilities as marriage

NGLTF advocates for full federal, state and local recognition of gay civil marriages.

“Signing that civil unions law was an incredibly brave thing for him to do,” Foreman said. “We may not feel that way at the moment, but civil unions cost Dr. Dean 20 points in his re-election. He could have done what [Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney has done—obstruct, fight and delay gay marriage in his state. It was a watershed moment for our community.”

Despite Dean’s reservations regarding gay marriage, John Marble, spokesman for the National Stonewall Democrats, a national gay Democratic organization, said his organization’s members were very happy with the former governor.

“He’s an excellent partner when it comes to achieving progress for our families,” Marble said. “He understands the things that impact our community on a very deep level, certainly more so than Ken Mehlman.”

Foreman also marked the night by announcing that NGLTF will soon launch a new initiative—the Movement Building Department, meant to increase the size and effectiveness of state-level gay advocacy organizations.

“The department will work with these groups to build organizational capacity,” Foreman said. “The day-to-day challenges of most state organizations are incredibly resource and time-draining. We will work with them to build the size and strength of their organizations and implement long-term plans.”

Foreman said the NGLTF was engaging staff and outside consultants to help local organizations formulate what he called “a multi-year holistic approach,” namely, aiding with the immediate tasks of board development, building information technology infrastructure, increasing membership and learning the best way to raise money, as well as formulating long-term strategy.

Two groups that have already said they would participate in the new venture are Equality Maryland and the Kentucky Fairness Alliance.

“As a growing organization, and one on the forefront equal-rights issues, we are particularly excited about working with a capacity-building consultant,” said Dan Furmansky, Equality Maryland’s executive director.

The Maryland Legislature recently passed laws giving gay couples the same rights as married heterosexuals for hospital visitations and property taxes, as well as a hate-crimes bill that includes sexual orientation. The bills are awaiting the governor’s response.