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Wrap-up on the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference

Sunday, November 19, 2006

The purpose of the International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference is to give openly LGBT elected and appointed officials a chance to hear war stories about running for public office, and share ideas and approaches on how to run successful campaigns.

There were about 200 in attendance at this conference, a record, according to Denis Dison, the VP of communications for the Gay & Lesbian Leadership Institute. This year, there were 67 Victory Fund-endorsed candidates who were elected to federal, state and local offices, and several of the folks at this conference were the first openly gay or lesbian candidates ever elected in their cities, states or legislative bodies.

I was at the con to serve on the Election Analysts Roundtable (see the description here). It was a 90 minute session, but we really only had about a half-hour at the end of the slot, because of Howard Dean's speech and a segment on stats about the election from two pollsters from Zogby.

First, let's talk about what Howard Dean had to say. Here's the MSM view of it. (AP):
Howard Dean said the Democratic Party needs to look beyond its dated goal of getting gays and minorities a place at the table and instead work toward getting them on the ballot.

...Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said little about issues such as same-sex marriage or civil rights, and instead addressed broader Democratic agendas such as raising the minimum wage.

Flush from big Democratic gains in last week's elections, Dean emphasized that the "new Democratic Party" reaches out to all citizens, even those less likely to vote for them.
He's right on one major point, we need more minorities...and OUT gays on Dem tickets. And by out, I don't necessarily mean candidates running on gay issues alone. The voters need to see out, proud candidates whose primary concern at the local level is, as a prospective elected official, to address issues their constituents care about, be it potholes, education, jobs, family issues. The candidate just happens to be gay -- but those issues are ours as well.

That's how you win over voters, particularly in states where there are no openly gay officials -- trailblazers like the ones I met on Saturday who were elected in red states. They weathered the blows, but in the end it was their ability to connect with the common interests of the voter. If you're in a state where an amendment exists -- such as Alabama and Texas -- the only way to change the public tide is to be out of the closet, unafraid and force the establishment to deal with openly gay and lesbian elected officials.

Patricia Todd, in the women's roundtable later in the afternoon, said it best when describing a seemingly innocuous event -- filling out information forms for newly elected officials. There was a line on the form for "spouse" and "children." She noted that this was an historic act in Alabama - she placed the name of her partner and child on the form. The folks in the legislature will now have to deal with that in its public communications, such as its web site (let's see what they put up there, once she's in office).

But I digress, back to Dean's speech -- here's coverage from the Houston Chronicle:
"My advice to - not just this community, but every community that plays an important role in the Democratic Party, and this one certainly does - is to try not to do everything at once," he said.

"We need a careful, narrow, targeted agenda to make it clear what the difference between the Democratic Party and Republican Party is before we go into the next election."

Dean, like other national politicians at the four-day International Gay and Lesbian Leadership Conference, said the political shift should make life easier for gays and lesbians.

However, the DNC chairman added, Democrats have only two years to prove themselves before the presidential election, which he called "the big enchilada," and said effective governing could mean putting some issues before others.
As you can see, there's a running suggestion here that LGBT folks need to be patient and to wait, lest there be a backlash of some sort in two years if we push too hard for pro-gay legislation that has languished under Republican rule. This, of course, was after he mentioned more than once during his speech that no Dems who took a position against the federal marriage amendment lost -- a real disconnect, huh?

I hate to say it, but the room was also full of too much backslapping during Dean's speech over the Dem takeover of the House and Senate; I couldn't believe it when Chairman Dean positively glowed over the fact that a third of evangelicals crossed over to vote Dem in this election. I hate to break it to him, but in the states with amendments on the ballot, those evangelicals, even as they crossed over because they were digusted with the GOP, still chose to vote for a marriage amendment. Is he ok with that? While that crossover might bring on cheers in another venue and encourage the party to further court The Base, for LGBT folks that's not exactly comforting.

What we can celebrate is that the changeover in Washington and many state houses means no active legislation further eroding our rights, but whether we will see actual gay-positive legislation passed is another matter with the historically gun-shy, spineless Democratic Party that has run from serious discussion of gay issues as fast as it can in the past. As we've said before here on the Blend, Dems at the national level will only advocate once the coast is clear, having had their fingers in the wind to see which way it's blowing. Leading isn't a strong suit in this area; they've been content to take our money and do zero as amendment after amendment has passed.

Dean cited the Arizona amendment as a victory for the community, not mentioning of course that the organizations responsible at the grassroots level for successfully defeating the ballot measure, almost immediately released a statement saying it received no help from national organizations. It's hard to take credit for a "win" when they had to work in isolation.
The big national gay organizations have been notably absent there, and the campaigns have been smart about attracting voters from both conservative Phoenix and liberal Tucson with targeted messages and tactics. "We did this with no national help," says [Cindy Jordan, chair of No on 107], "this grassroot's effort was local."
The amendment failed because of a couple of factors, which I mentioned while at the conference: 1) the voters were targeted about how the amendment would affect unmarried seniors and heterosexuals, and almost completely ignored the "fairness" argument, avoiding the use gay couples in promotional materials, and 2) Arizona has a libertarian, government-out-of-my-business streak that further eroded support for the amendment. The latter is one of the reasons that the amendment nearly failed in South Dakota.

The fairness argument was used extensively in Wisconsin; gay families were prominently featured by Fair Wisconsin, and the anti-amendment forces were well-funded and organized, yet the measure easily passed. The difference? -- people vote their self-interest. Sad, but true, fairness really isn't enough of an argument unless you have a critical mass of het allies who are well-informed and motivated to do the right thing -- our movement, desperately needs to educate our allies; way too many straight folks simply don't have equality issues on their radar even in states like Wisconsin, where people thought there was a chance to defeat an amendment.

Which brings me to the other matter that Dean didn't talk about -- the party's "endorsement" of putting the civil rights of gays and lesbians on the ballot -- Howard Dean giddily mentioned how "the voters have spoken" in tossing out the GOP control of the Hill. Unfortunately, the voters have also spoken on our rights because both the Democrats and the Republicans at the national level have no problem with "leaving it to the states."

This is morally wrong, and the responsibility for the strategic political decision to punt on the civil rights of gays and lesbians by allowing candidates to hide behind a position of "leave it to the states" lies at the Democratic Party's door. We have 27 states that now have marriage amendments in place, many that precluding any civil unions or domestic partnerships. Those measures profoundly affect the lives of everyday, working class gay families who don't have any political power aside from their vote -- and they are in the minority.

The overarching view from the establishment perspective is that the patchwork of rights granted will end up in SCOTUS and eventually be resolved there, which is true OK, then what do you say to gays in Tennessee, for example -- its amendment passed with 80% of the vote? Move? "I'm sorry, but it's too damn bad?"

Black homophobia

I hated to be a wet blanket on all that "good news" and high-fiving/Dem Kool-aid drinking going on in the ballroom, but when moderator Ari Shapiro of NPR asked me to discuss black homophobia and how it manifested itself in the election -- and the lack of discussion about it -- I took the opportunity to talk about the above in context.

The irony of this election is that the GOP's tactics on turnout by placing these amendments on the ballot backfired in some respect. It brought out many voters who might have stayed home -- and a lot of them voted Dem because of their dissatisfaction with the failed Bush administration. (Advocate):
The effort to defeat Virginia's proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage apparently pulled thousands of progressive voters out to the polls, sending Democrat James Webb to the U.S. Senate by the thinnest of margins and handing the upper chamber to the Democrats for the next two years. A 10-to-1 spending edge by gays and their allies depressed the final majority in favor of the amendment to 57%, a far cry from the 75% support that has typified amendment election results in the past.

A glance at the six most populous left-of-center counties and urban areas tells the story. Roughly 588,000 people voted on the marriage amendment in these regions, with nearly 60%, or about 350,000, people voting no. The other two relatively uncontroversial ballot measures passed handily. But they passed without the participation of roughly 25,000 voters who weighed in on the marriage amendment but took no stand on the other questions one way or another.

Did those voters also vote for James Webb? It appears they did. Webb won the six regions 64%-36%, taking 377,000 out of 593,000 Senate votes cast in these locations.
However, there is a disturbing trend hidden in those numbers. In the case of amendments in Virginia and Arizona, a majority of blacks voted for them. Celinda Lake, a pollster who was also on the panel, chimed in to concur and added that the data shows religious black women are particularly hardcore in their views in opposition to marriage equality and Latino men are an equally troubling demographic in this area. The GOP saw big losses in the Hispanic vote this election cycle; while the Dems see an opportunity in this demo, silence on the homophobia that exists in this groups comes directly at our expense when our rights are placed on the guillotine of the ballot box.

I put this into context by pulling quotes that Blenders are quite familiar with and read them out loud right there in the ballroom.


Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Baptist Missionary in Atlanta, Georgia. "Woman is the soul of man. She is his flesh consciousness. In essence, God made Eve to help Adam replenish the earth. Woman has the canal…everything else is an exit."

and


Willie Wilson of Union Temple Baptist Church in D.C.: "When you get down to this thing, women falling down on another woman, strapping yourself up with something, it ain't real. That thing ain't got no feeling in it. It ain't natural."

"Any time somebody got to slap some grease on your behind, and stick something in you, it's something wrong with that. Your butt ain't made for that. You got blood vessels and membranes in your behind. And if you put something unnatural in there, it breaks them all up. No wonder your behind is bleeding."

Yes, I actually read those quotes. And I pointed out that Falwell and Robertson would have been held accountable for these unbelievable statements -- but black pastors like those mentioned have been given a pass time and again in the MSM. I explained that the reason for the radio silence by Democratic establishment and political figures of any stripe is because, as we've discussed here -- race is a third rail topic -- whites are afraid of being called racist, blacks are defensive. It leaves everyone unable to address basic, common sense issues of accountability.

Instead of calling these bigoted pastors out, no one wants to talk about the matter for fear of offending a significant voter base. How cowardly is this? For those out there who believe they are "not qualified" to talk about race, there is no reason on earth that anyone should be afraid to call out naked bigotry and homophobia, no matter the color of the person uttering it. These men are in charge of large churches and I only wish I had time to read more quotes I have from other black homobigots in the pulpit (if you click here or here).

After that I waited for the tomatoes for lobbing that bomb -- there actually was applause. Whew. I was asked about how can these issues be addressed openly, particularly because for many blacks, the use of "civil rights" to describe the LGBT struggle is a landmine. It is, and shouldn't be, but it must be addressed nonetheless -- the rights of an oppressed minority are not a zero-sum game. There isn't a measure of how oppressed a minority should be to be worthy of using the term civil rights. Ultimately, what other minorities need to understand is why it matters that what gay families want are simply the same rights they take for granted -- and it has nothing to do with religious marriage. Blacks can understand why rights of a group shouldn't be on the ballot, but no one has bothered to reframe this argument for fear of the race landmine.

I actually had a lot of folks come up to me after the panel to thank me for raising the issue, or to say that it was "something the group needed to hear." I even had more than one person say that they it made them think and realized that they needed to call it out when they saw it. I certainly didn't expect a positive reaction from it all, but any way to get this on the radar of establishment politicians, gay or not is a good thing. Alexander Robinson of the National Black Justice Coaltion, which does stellar work in this area, also came up to me afterwards. The org is holding its 2nd Annual Black Church Summit for pastors in March in Phily, and hopefully I can attend -- that's surely a place where there may be fireworks.

This is an all-hands-on-deck issue, because it's clear that the only thing keeping religious, socially conservative blacks (or Latinos) from crossing over to vote Republican is the GOP's addiction to using race when the chips are down (see the Harold "Call Me" Ford ads), and brain dead policies (see Katrina). Ken Mehlman and Karl Rove had the right idea to target the black social conservative vote. This is fertile ground, and right now the Dem party seems content to look away as long as this demo votes Democrat, even if they vote marriage amendments.

LGBT folks (and allies), watch out on this front, don't drink the Kool-Aid. They want our votes and our money, but it's clear that they LGBT vote is not the demographic that matters -- to either party -- when they are strictly counting votes. We have to prove we have the numbers to make it worthwhile for them to act, not simply listen and then pat us on the head, whether or not they are in power.

What it does mean is that we have to organize, lobby strategically, and educate widely in order to continue to push public opinion our way -- and the message is still that we are still largely on our own when it comes to changing hearts and minds (and votes).

It's sad to say that, but our strongest ally has been corporate America, which does realize the value of the LGBT market and employees. Our elected representatives and instutions at the national level are definitely not leading the way.

**

At lunch I met Virginia Delegate Adam Ebbin (Blend posts here), who worked tirelessly with many others on fighting the marriage amendment that recently passed in the Commonwealth. (we've corresponded but not met before). He and fellow delegate David Englin (a straight ally that I interviewed on the Blend) must find it difficult working in a legislature with so many fringe right delegates.

Barney Frank gave an interesting speech during lunch about the election results, and the likely legislation that will be pursued in the next Congress. Both he and Rep. Tammy Baldwin (I spoke with her for a good while after my panel was through) believe the strategy of holding extensive hearings on ENDA -- since it is anti-discrimination legislation about fairness in the workplace, will provide greater understanding and reasoned debate, bringing forth witnesses to put a face on what it is like to be fired because one is gay. This, they believe, will then pragmatically lay the groundwork for hearings on the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (which would repeal DADT). It's certain that the federal hate crimes legislation will pass this time, but we all know Chimpy may choose to veto.

Lengthy hearings give everyone on all sides the chance to bring people forward to testify, in a sane setting, and allow the American people, legislators, and the Pentagon hear the stories, discuss and -- and ultimately build support for the legislation by contacting their legislators and letting them know that their gay constituents and allies are looking to them to act on our behalf to effect change. Rep. Frank noted that the Right has been excellent at preparing and mounting grassroots campaigns on this front, and we cannot be complacent -- simply winning back control of the Hill and thinking the legislation will pass itself on merit alone is a big mistake.

***

There was a women's roundtable in the afternoon, where a wealth of experience in running successful campaigns was shared by the panelists there,



Back row: Rosanna Flamer-Caldera, Co-Secretary General, International Lesbian and Gay Association; Elena Guajardo, City Councilwoman, District 7, San Antonio, TX; Patricia Todd, House District 54, Birmingham, Alabama; Robin Brand, senior VP for Politics & Strategy, Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund. Front: Sue Lovell, Councilmember At Large Position 2, Houston, TX; Hon. Annise Parker, City Controller, Houston, TX; panel moderator Neda Ulaby, reporter, NPR.

It was a lively session, and I had the pleasure of finally meeting Patricia Todd and her partner Jennifer. Patricia recounted the rollercoaster ride she's been on to be elected to serve district 54 (see Blend posts here).

Howard Dean mentioned in his speech that he had to intercede with a few phone calls in this race, which had unbelievable combination of race-card playing (by black kingmakers who wanted to overturn the results of the primary), homophobia, gentrification and Southern politics that threatened to tear apart the community and undermine the democratic process (see my post Gentrification is at the heart of the Alabama House 54 debacle). Fortunately, Patricia and her supporters, trusted the process, lobbied for fairness and ultimately prevailed.

One of the interesting points I raised in the discussion about the Todd race was the role blogs played in raising the profile of the dust up. Local blogs, such as Blender Kathy McMullen of Birmingham Blues played key roles in getting the story told from a local perspective (see a couple of her posts here and here). Kathy was on-site at the hearings in Montgomery and saw the inside politics first hand as matters played out during the debacle, and even kindly cross-posted items here on the Blend. Kathy's work was picked up by Americablog, and plenty of mainstream media descended on Alabama to cover the race.



While we're down in Birmingham for Christmas, we're going to get together with Patricia and Jennifer -- and Kathy to celebrate a job well done -- the people of House 54 will be in good hands.

Also on the panel was rising star Houston City Controller Annise Parker, who may just be Houston's next mayor. She and Elena Guajardo discussed the problems openly gay lesbians have in terms of image-making -- everyone has an opinion about what you should wear, the amount of makeup you need, the kind of haircut you must have in order to lower the "fear factor" with potential voters -- it can be ludicrous. One interesting thing about all of the women on the panel -- they won in Red states, none of them hiding their orientation, all of them stressing the competencies that they would bring to the position -- and voters listened.



Parker later asked me about blogs, campaigns and the impact on elections. It's hard to say -- either from the bloggers or pol's perspective, what it all really means. It's clear that blogs can help -- and hurt campaigns because the turnaround is so fast, and reaches so many. There's no set of standards for blogging -- anyone can mouth off about anything, of course, but it's clear that the new medium cannot be ignored altogether. It's safe to say that over time, politicians, gay or straight, have to engage the blogosphere. There are no standards, no guidelines other than the principles of the blogger and their reputation, if one reads them over time.

***

It was inspiring to see all the pols -- at all levels of public office, who put themselves out there, particularly in Red states. They are trailblazers for choosing to be out and proud -- and savvy about it, even as they knew the lumps they were going to take from opponents. What everyone can agree on is that we need more openly gay representation (in both parties, mind you) and the numbers are steadily growing.

I'm know I've left out a lot, having met so many folks in the whirlwind of the last 36 hours, so apologies, even though this is a lengthy post.

I didn't get to see much of Houston, of course (since I flew in Friday afternoon and left Saturday PM), but it was quite funny that for a city with the George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport, there was a good bit of griping about the Chimperor that came up unprovoked. My shuttle bus driver to the airport was going off on the current White House occupant, saying "the man has destroyed the country." I asked him jokingly if they (Texans) were looking forward to having him back full-time in Crawford, and he said "the idiot spends half his time on vacation here anyway."

We pull up to a traffic light, and outside on a median are people with placards on that have a picture of George Bush sitting on Dick Cheney's knee with "Democrats: Impeach them now!" Wow (I noted in the comments that pursuing impeachment would be a disaster for Dems). And I thought Austin would be the only place I might see something like this in the Lone Star State.

[I also wanted to mention that it was good to see fellow North Carolinian Mark Kleinschmidt, who attended the conference and has blogged about it. He kept me calm before going up on the panel, lol. Mark serves on the Chapel Hill Town Council and is one one of five openly gay Tar Heels to be elected in the state.]