Printer Friendly

The power brokers.

In the ongoing political battles for equal rights, these are the people leading the struggle--when they're not struggling with each other

Kerry Lobel, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, learned about it from a press release. The Human Rights Campaign, her group's crosstown rival in Washington, D.C., was announcing its plans to sponsor a huge rally in 2000--a gathering that Lobel had made known in no uncertain terms she opposed as a wasteful diversion of scarce local political resources. Feeling angry and betrayed, she called Elizabeth Birch, HRC's executive director. "I felt we had intentionally been left out of the decisionmaking process," Lobel says. "I made it clear that something of this magnitude should not be done without consulting a lot of different people."

Lobel and Birch have since mended fences. And in their ensuing conversations with other gay leaders, each got what she wanted. They agreed to join forces for the Millennium March, which they hope will bring hundreds of thousands to Washington on April 30, 2000, to be preceded by "Equality Begins at Home" marches on every state capital in the spring of 1999. "I believe we have moved from lots of competition and little cooperation to lots of competition and lots of cooperation," Lobel says.

The sometimes heated debate over the Millennium March offers a rare peek inside the nation's gay and lesbian political establishment, a small, close-knit group that possesses tremendous influence over the future of the gay rights movement. The organizations range from the massive HRC, which has 60 staff members and a $13-million annual budget, to the relatively tiny National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, with nine staffers and a $610,000 budget. Two of the groups, NGLTF and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, are each celebrating their 25th anniversary. The newest, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, opened its doors in 1993. The Advocate spoke to the executive directors of several of the groups involved in the march debate to get a better idea of how they work--and don't work--together.

Each group, of course, is vying for its share of all-important fund-raising dollars and scarce press coverage. But more contentious still are the ideological divisions, pitting sometimes dashing visions of the movement's future against one another. The long-simmering debate over the proper relationship between national and local politics has been one source of division, but race and religion have also played roles.

HRC and NGLTF offer perhaps the clearest example of contrasting styles and philosophies. HRC focuses primarily on Capitol Hill, while NGLTF is known for its political organizing on the state and local level. The politics of the groups is reflected in the personalities of their leaders. Elizabeth Birch went to HRC from Apple, the stylish Generation X computer maker. One of her first acts was to commission a redesign of HRC's logo, now a simple blue-and-yellow equal sign. Under Birch the group has experienced phenomenal growth with its budget increasing from $7 million in late 1994 to $13 million today.

The growth already is allowing HRC to pour more than $1 million into fighting an anti-gay- marriage ballot measure in Hawaii. And to address concerns about HRC's less-than-stellar presence at the local level, the organization has added a top-flight field office headed by Donna Red Wing, a veteran political organizer from Oregon. Birch also has raised the group's profile by enlisting celebrity speakers, including Candace Gingrich and Betty DeGeneres. In May Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, actress Anne Heche, signed a letter to raise money to fight the Hawaii initiative. Birch returned the favor by lobbying ABC to retain Ellen.

In November Birch pulled off a coup when President Clinton addressed an HRC dinner that pulled in more than $250,000. At the dinner Birch and her partner, Hilary Rosen, sat at a table with DeGeneres and Heche.

Birch and Rosen live in a huge house that Birch describes as a "Zen Buddhist temple" in the tony Washington suburb of Chevy Chase, Md. The couple has held so many fund-raisers at the house that Birch jokes she is looking forward to the time when "we won't have to charge our friends admission."

Despite the star-studded company she keeps, Birch views life in Washington as decidedly unglamorous. "People forget that I came out of a very heady position with Apple that was in many ways more glamorous than political work." And despite the group's wealth, she has kept a lid on expenses. Staffers work out of a nondescript second-floor office in downtown Washington, and when on the road they are encouraged to lodge with local HRC members.

With growth has come tensions. Birch has sparred repeatedly with gay journalists--from Out columnist Michelangelo Signorile to former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan. "Although gay journalists need to be journalists first and foremost, I sometimes feel that they employ a divide and conquer strategy for no other purpose than to sell magazines," she says. "I just wish that the gay press would see that the true enemy is the far right, not us."

And so far Birch has fallen far short of what she describes as her "obsessive" goal: passage of the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw on-the-job discrimination. Birch has pledged not to leave gay politics until the bill is passed. She may be in for a long stay. Since its takeover of Congress in 1995, the Republican leadership has been hostile toward the bill, and it shows no sign of changing its attitude.

NGLTF's offices, in contrast to HRC's, are located in the heart of the funky ethnic neighborhood of Adams Morgan. The group's lease in the handsomely renovated concrete-and-glass building is up this summer, but Lobel is not worried about a rent increase. Few organizations, she explains, would choose to locate so far from the White House and the Capitol, outside the downtown area's magnetic political field.

Such a determinedly outsider status is in keeping with Lobel's vision for the group, which has forged a reputation as the most progressive of the national ones. "Some groups tell you that to be a gay person you have to leave your race, gender, or socioeconomic status behind," she says. "We try to represent people who are disadvantaged in a number of ways because they don't always have a voice in politics."

Like her organization, Lobel's life is determinedly unpretentious. She lives in Brightwood, a working-class Washington neighborhood, with her partner of seven years, Mary Reed, 37, a clinical researcher, and three dogs and two cats. Moving to Washington from Little Rock, Ark., where she served as lead organizer of the Arkansas Women's Project, Lobel and her partner chose to reside within the district's boundaries to lend their support to the beleaguered city's dwindling tax base.

Lobel downplays the animosity between her group and HRC, which reached its apex several years ago when HRC proposed folding NGLTF into its own programs. "We all have different jobs to do, and it's essential that everyone respect each other's work and how it is different from their own," she says. "The problem comes when one person or group tries to speak for the entire movement. There ought to be a diversity of voices."

One often overlooked component of the movement's diversity is the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum. Located on U Street, the heart of Washington's historic black cultural district, the group has fought for better representation of people of color in national gay organizations' program positions. The march debate was no exception. "A lot of our members felt left out," says Jubi Headley, who assumed the group's executive directorship in March. Like NGLTF, the black leadership forum defines its mission as much broader than gay rights: "We feel it's important to stand up for immigrants' rights and against housing discrimination and welfare reform, which disproportionately affect African-Americans and the poor," Headley says.

Headley moved over to the forum from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he was senior staff associate on health issues. Immediately after Headley assumed his new post, African-American football star Reggie White declared publicly that homosexuality is a sin. Headley fired off a letter to White asking for a meeting. White has yet to respond, but Headley believes he will eventually find an opportunity to confront him. "The people most affected by his comments, gay and lesbian people of color, were left out of the debate by the media," he says. "It's our job to make sure we are heard."

At age 36, Brian Bond is already among the most seasoned gay leaders, having spent seven years with the Democratic National Committee. As executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington-based group that helps elect gay and lesbian candidates, he was one of the first to raise questions about the march, distributing a blistering memo excoriating its timing and the diversion of resources from crucial local elections.

Bond shares Lobel's concern that the march will not benefit local activists. "We have some wonderful statewide organizations, but it takes a lot of money to organize locally," he explains. "Local [gay] groups face a lot of obstacles other movements don't. A lot of gay people still don't want to call their congressman because it's another form of coming out. When national groups come in with their pretty toys and suck up a lot of local money, it sometimes takes away from local efforts."

But Bond says that in the march debate, he detected evidence of a new pragmatism among gay leaders. Indeed, Bond has worked closely with Rich Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans on the reelection bid of Chuck Carpenter, a Republican member of the Oregon legislature. "I sparred with Rich in the press over gay support for Clinton-Gore while I was at the DNC in 1996," he says. "My job was to slash and bum Log Cabin. But when it came to Chuck's race, we were buddies. Sometimes politics makes strange bedfellows."

Tafel says Log Cabin is accustomed to such unusual alliances and adds that disparate groups can find they have commonalities. "Log Cabin and the task force could not be more different," he says by way of example. "They favor a socialist model, while we are free-market. But there are no turf battles between us because we have very different constituencies, and we both work on a grassroots model." Before moving to Washington five years ago, Tafel earned a degree at Harvard Divinity School. "My spirituality has helped me remember who I am apart from politics," he says.

Tafel lends his voice to the growing chorus that former House speaker Tip O'Neill's famous adage "all politics is local" is more true than ever. "For a long time, there was a belief that if we could only change laws in Washington, we could override all the horrible antigay activists at the local level," he says. "Now there is a better realization that change occurs in people's hearts."

But GLAAD executive director Joan Garry says the national-versus-local dichotomy is false. For instance, she points to a collaboration between GLAAD and local gay and lesbian community centers across the country. "We provide media training and work together to raise money both for us and the community center," she says.

Like Birch, Garry offers a corporate background to gay politics. Before arriving at GLAAD last year, she was a senior executive at Showtime Networks Inc. "Corporate America is much more results-oriented," she says, "and I think I can bring that perspective to my political work." Garry lives with her partner, Eileen Opatut, a senior television executive, in Montclair, N.J., an affluent, racially mixed suburb of New York City. The couple are raising an 8-year-old girl and 3-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, of whom Opatut is the biological mother.

Garry's experience was sorely tested in March. Chastity Bono, GLAAD's entertainment media director, was quoted as saying Ellen was "too gay-specific" to attract a large audience. In the controversy that followed, GLAAD was criticized for undermining DeGeneres's unsuccesful campaign to convince ABC to retain the show for another season. "It was a trying time," Garry says. "It was especially ironic because GLAAD tries to shape the media's view of the world. That particular incident confirmed a perception that Ellen was too gay, which is not what we wanted. Chastity's views of things were distorted. But I felt we tackled a difficult issue head-on."

The controversy surrounding the Millennium March is nothing new to the Rev. Troy Perry, moderator of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. Perry founded the church in 1968 in the living room of his Los Angeles home, and during the past 30 years, he has organized dozens of marches. At each stop some activists have objected to MCC's high-profile role in gay politics, and the upcoming march was no exception. "There are some antireligious sentiments in the community, to be sure," he says. "Gay people have been told they are sinners, so it's no surprise they have a problem with religious folks. But I think even the most secular gay people search for spirituality, even if it doesn't always end up in the Christian or Jewish traditions."

Perry, who lives with his partner of 13 years, Phillip DeBlieck, in the heavily gay Silver Lake region of Los Angeles, has weathered past controversies and, by most indications, come out better for it. MCC now owns $75 million worth of property and is building a $20-million Cathedral of Hope in Dallas. "The biggest obstacle facing the gay movement is learning how to be pragmatic," he says. "I've worked on every march, and each time people told me why we shouldn't do it. But over time we have learned to come together. When we do that, no one can stop us."

RELATED ARTICLE: Taking our issues to D.C.

A who's who of the most influential gay and lesbian leaders whose national organizations are shaping the debate on equal rights.

Elizabeth Birch

* Executive director

* Human Rights Campaign Budget: $13 million Staff: 60 Founded: 1980 Focus: lobbying for lesbian and gay rights

Kerry Lobel

* Executive director

* National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Budget: $2.8 million Staff: 20 Founded: grassroots organizing for lesbian and gay rights

Brian Bond

* Executive director

* Victory Fund Budget: $1.5 million Staff: 7 Founded: 1991 Focus: helping to elect gay and lesbians candidates to political office

Rich Tafel

* Executive director

* Log Cabin Republicans Budget: $500,000 Staff: 5 Founded: 1978 Focus: advocating for gay rights in the Republican Party

Joan Garry

* Executive director

* Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Budget: $2.3 million Staff: 18 in six offices Founded: 1985 Focus: accuracy in portrayals of gay men and lesbians in the media

Jubi Headley

* Executive director

* Black Leadership Forum Budget: $610,000 Staff: 9 Founded: 1988 Focus: black gay rights

The Rev. Troy Perry

* Moderator

* Metropolitan Community Church Budget: $15 million Staff: 350 Founded: 1968 Focus: gay-affirming ministries

Kevin Cathcart

* Executive director

* Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund Budget: $3.8 million Staff: 46 Founded: 1973 Focus: civil rights and legal services for gay men, lesbians, and people with HIV and AIDS

C. Dixon Osborne and Michelle Benecke

* Executive directors

* Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Budget: $886,000 Staff: 8 Founded: 1993 Focus: legal aid and watchdog services for military personnel

Martin Ornelas Quintero

* Executive director

* National Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization Budget: $1.1 million Staff: 12 Founded: 1987 Focus: Latino/a gay rights
COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 Reader Opinion

Title:

Comment:



 

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:includes profiles on gay and lesbian leaders; equal rights leaders
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Jun 23, 1998
Words:2579
Previous Article:What goes up must come down.
Next Article:Out to represent Boston.
Topics:


Related Articles
Slick imaging.
You can go home again.
Are we really asking for special rights?
Mixing religion and politics.
Playing the ex-gay games: the Right is desperate because we - queers and feminists - represent the most serious obstacles to its efforts to achieve a...
Stay involved, stay focused.
The best defense.
Continental divide.
Lesbians and gays in Mexico at the end of the millennium. (Rights).
Pro-peace, pro-health care, pro-gay: Howard Dean is catching the country's attention by being everything he says President Bush is not. (Campaign...

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters