Mission Drift at Gay Inc.
Two weeks before Christmas, Geoff Kors lingers over the finishing touches to an op-ed piece he's writing for The Bottom Line, a gay magazine based in Palm Springs. Dressed in black jeans, a dark-gray sweater and black-leather shoes, he sits in his small, two-window office in San Francisco and stares intently at a wide screen. The founding executive director of Equality California wants people to know exactly what he has accomplished in nine years.
In the op-ed, Kors announces that in March he will step down as the leader of one of the most powerful gay rights groups in the nation. To many, it's a big surprise. Kors, an energetic, exceedingly smart 49-year-old, seemed wedded to his high-powered job.
"It has been a true honor and a privilege to lead Equality California and serve the state's LGBT community," Kors writes in the op-ed. "When you think back to how far we have come in less than a decade, it is breathtaking."
Kors, a former attorney, is indeed leaving a legacy. As he writes, he and his staff have helped to elect gays and lesbians to public office, co-sponsored successful gay rights laws and helped build a social services network for the LGBT community.
During Kors' reign, the state has become one of the most gay-friendly in the country. Among its many pro-gay laws, California offers expansive domestic-partnership rights for gay and lesbian couples, hate-crimes protections and antidiscrimination protections in the workplace.
Supporters and even critics of Kors don't think it's a coincidence that these political victories happened on his watch. Both camps generally believe a statewide gay rights lobbying group was necessary, and many applaud Equality California's work in Sacramento.
As in his farewell op-ed in The Bottom Line, Kors has been quick to take credit, sending out a crush of press releases and e-mail blasts often accompanied by a plea to contribute money to Equality California — a Kors technique that has made the organization cash-rich.
Yet as he prepares to leave, Kors and the group are drawing criticism from surprising quarters. Former state senator Sheila Kuehl, the first openly gay person elected to the California State Legislature, who worked on many gay rights bills until she was termed out in 2008, tells L.A. Weekly, "Equality California never really convinced legislators on their own [to pass a bill], but inevitably something would pass — and they'd send out a press release taking all the credit. I never thought they were team players. They would take credit, and it was more credit than they earned."
Those press releases and e-mails touting Equality California as a supremely effective lobbying team have meant great riches for the group, whose efforts affect the rights and lives of some 850,000 gays and lesbians in California. Equality California receives millions of dollars from the gay community each year.
In April 2002, Kors was hired to lead a small operation with troubled finances, a handful of staff, a $384,282 annual budget and about 2,000 contributors. Equality California now has a $7 million budget, more than 20 paid staffers and a membership of 700,000 people — 143,200 of them monetary contributors.
Former Equality California board president John Duran says, "Geoff came in and fixed it. Not only that, he grew it — tenfold. He was the right person at the right time."
Kors built an impressive lobbying group that other U.S gay rights organizations try to emulate. "All of us turned to Equality California because it was so successful," says Marc Solomon, former executive director of Boston-based MassEquality, who later worked for Equality California.
But Kors has become a controversial figure. He played a key, and widely criticized, role in the failed campaign to stop Proposition 8, California's 2008 anti–gay marriage ballot measure. A top player on the No on 8 campaign's executive committee, Kors strongly influenced TV ads and field operations as polls showed the measure to block gay marriage was foundering. After voters turned tables and approved the gay marriage ban, the group's campaign decisions were roundly attacked for being created in isolation by Kors and other gay rights insiders.
In particular, they failed to detect or address strong anti–gay marriage sentiment among Latino and black voters in big, Southern California cities like Los Angeles, and in working-class inland counties such as San Bernardino and Riverside.
L.J. Carusone, a gay rights activist who worked with Kors at Equality California, describes the executive director as a "tyrant." "It's funny how strong and forceful he can be," Carusone says, "but when it comes to people, he lacks people skills."
Critics charge that Kors, intent on building an empire, makes a critical error by snubbing the smaller, grassroots gay rights organizations that bring new blood, ideas and contact with ordinary people. For critics, Equality California, instead of helping to create a stronger gay rights movement, is a key part of what some derisively call "Gay Inc." — a handful of gay rights groups that operate as self-focused money machines.
"They become very high-profile and they get a lot of access," says Ivy Bottini, a longtime gay rights activist. "They fall in love with power, and that's the kiss of death for an aggressive gay rights movement."
California State Sen. Mark Leno, a leading gay politician from San Francisco and one of Kors' closest political allies, acknowledges, "He could potentially interact more with other organizations. But you're trying to run a multimillion-dollar organization and keep it afloat. He's only human."
In 2008, Kors' approach backfired when the No on 8 campaign spent enormous sums yet failed to tap grassroots activists and organizers to supply troops for an effective field operation to reach uneasy voters, particularly blacks and Latinos.
Critics suggest Equality California does only what's best for Gay Inc. "Equality California works in a reactionary way," says gay rights advocate Robin McGehee, a gay leader who works on difficult turf in conservative Fresno. "So if someone is doing something good, Equality California finds a way to get connected to it and raises money from it. But the engagement is not authentic."
Kors shakes off his critics, telling the Weekly, "Different people have different agendas that aren't just about advancing equality. And I don't think you can be effective if you're not going to rankle some people along the way."
One harsher assessment, from Scott Schmidt, a gay rights activist and president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Los Angeles, is: "He's a lightning rod. Some people don't want anything to do with him."
Now, with Kors' departure weeks away, "Equality California will have to do some real careful thinking," suggests gay rights veteran and Harvey Milk confidant Cleve Jones, who says he has "no ax to grind" with the group.
Equality California's legislative agenda in the state has mostly been accomplished, and 2010 will go down as a watershed year for gays nationally, with Congress repealing the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on Dec. 18. "Everything has changed in the past two years," Jones says.
McGehee sees a chance for a dramatic change in the state's gay rights movement, led by a rebranded, cash-rich, post-Kors Equality California.
"It would serve California well for someone in Equality California to see things differently and do things differently and get the people activated," she says. "California could be a beacon for the rest of the country, and show how coalition building in a gay rights movement can really work."
On an overcast day in San Francisco, Cleve Jones is standing in the middle of the Castro District, gay rainbow flags everywhere. He's enmeshed in a highly publicized local battle with the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights lobbying group based in Washington, D.C.
To the deep disapproval of Jones and many other activists, HRC — a well-staffed, well-funded group often criticized for being ineffective over the years — wants to open an "action center" in the space where Jones' mentor and close friend, Harvey Milk, once operated his camera store.
The Castro District retail space holds a place in gay political history, having served, in Milk's time, as a kind of command center for gay grassroots activists.
Milk, the first openly gay man elected to public office in the United States, was assassinated by another elected San Francisco supervisor in 1978, and he's viewed as a gay martyr and hero in the United States. After the release of the 2008 film Milk, featuring the Oscar-winning performance of Sean Penn, just weeks after voters approved anti–gay marriage Proposition 8, Milk also became an internationally known gay icon.
HRC's plan to move into the historic storefront is seen by many as an attempt to cash in on Milk's legacy. Up the street, the HRC already has an action center that's more like a gift shop for gay tourists who flock to the Castro. Staffers sell T-shirts and Harvey Milk mugs and play Milk on several TV monitors.
HRC's plan irks Jones no end. The Human Rights Campaign, similar to Equality California, represents a type of corporatization of the gay rights movement that Milk, in Jones' opinion, would have abhorred: "It's the antithesis of what Harvey stood for," he says.
The controversy over Milk's old storefront is a classic example of the Gay Inc. problem, whose membership is identified by gay bloggers and activists as comprising Equality California, the Human Rights Campaign, the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and other major groups.
The organizations raise millions of dollars, work as insider lobbyists seeking alliances and favors from mostly Democratic politicians, host swanky fundraisers for wealthy contributors, and try not to do anything that will antagonize the elected Democrats and major donors upon whom they rely.
"Gay Inc. are organizations with folks who are more concerned about their jobs than advancing gay liberation," says San Francisco blogger and gay rights activist Michael Petrelis, one of the most tenacious critics of Gay Inc. groups.
Gay Inc.'s brand of activism is polite and, critics say, elitist — the opposite of Harvey Milk's people-power politics — and it aims to maintain and increase the groups' power and influence to keep the money coming in.
"They need everyone to be loyal to them and to write checks to them," says gay rights veteran Bottini, who for decades worked on the front lines of the movement and sits on the West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board. "It's all about the money."
On the other side of the movement are the smaller, grassroots gay groups. Often run by passionate, unpredictable volunteers who want to stir up the status quo, these groups say they are not seen as friendlies by Gay Inc., even though they also are trying to win equal rights.
"The folks in the national organizations have been all about controlling what's going on and stifling independent, grassroots action," says Jones, who began working in the gay rights movement in 1972. "They don't really understand what a social movement is."
Jones, Bottini and other longtime activists note that Gay Inc. grew out of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and '90s, when the gay community, out of necessity, formally organized itself, started nonprofits and obtained money from government and private funders to take care of sick and dying gay men. The model worked: The nonprofits got access to money and power while the more outsider, grassroots groups such as ACT UP demonstrated in the streets.
Equality California and others soon patterned themselves after the nonprofit model of the AIDS era. But instead of delivering health-care services, Gay Inc. promised donors a fight for full equal rights. As a result, "checkbook activism," as it's often called, replaced much of the knocking on doors, holding rallies, creating coalitions with other groups and keeping politicians publicly accountable.
Over the years, the Gay Inc. model has created deepening problems. "People sign checks to the large gay organizations and then they go away," Bottini explains. "Now we handle only one big issue at a time. Back in the day, we could handle more than one issue because we'd have different grassroots groups working on different issues."
One result is that groups like Equality California and the Human Rights Campaign don't stand up to the Democratic politicians they've long courted.
Says Bottini, "You don't want some grassroots group protesting a politician's office if you're trying to court him. But that's the thing that gets politicians to move, and big organizations don't understand that."
Richard Zaldivar, a longtime gay rights- and AIDS activist who founded The Wall — Las Memorias Project on L.A.'s Eastside in 1993, dreams of "a movement of many people, and not a supper club–type of movement," referring to the black-tie fundraisers the big groups rely on. "The decisions now in the movement seem to be coming from the people with money."
With money and power on the line, Gay Inc., including Equality California, has carved out political turf that has meant turning against the noisier — and some say far more tuned in — grassroots gay groups.
"There are numerous examples of Equality California trying to usurp [a grassroots group] and then kill it," says McGehee, who heads Fresno-based Get Equal.
In 2004, Kors and Equality California teamed up with an emerging grassroots group called Marriage Equality California. It ended badly for MECA leaders Molly McKay and L.J. Carusone, who saw their mission shelved after the merger — but the move helped turn Equality California into the lobbying and money-raising powerhouse it is today.
In 2000, McKay and Carusone founded the modest Marriage Equality California, three years before a group known as California Alliance for Pride and Equality took the similar name Equality California. "MECA was one of the sole grassroots groups to push for marriage equality," says McKay, an attorney who's now the media director of Marriage Equality U.S.A.
MECA was launched as a reaction to voter passage of Proposition 22, the "Knight Initiative," which in 2000 banned same-sex marriage in California. It was struck down by the California State Supreme Court in 2008. "A lot of us who fought Proposition 22 were very unhappy with how that was fought," Carusone tells the Weekly. "There was so much anger and fallout after Proposition 22."
McKay worked in Northern California and Carusone in Southern California, helping activists start local chapters. "There was a long period of time when we struggled to get the [gay] community to care about marriage," McKay recalls.
Then, in February 2004, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom made headlines globally after he directed the city-county clerk to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. McKay and her wife, Davina Kotulski, were among those married at San Francisco City Hall. MECA suddenly began to draw massive interest from the press and the gay community, and McKay emerged as a national spokeswoman for legal same-sex marriage.
She soon got a phone call from Geoff Kors, and they talked about working together. "We were always limited by a lack of resources," McKay recalls. "We thought we'd get more for the grass roots."
Two months later, McKay and Carusone joined the Equality California staff. Marriage Equality California, in their eyes, would be a "project" funded by Equality California and encouraged to expand its grassroots organizing. McKay, who's hesitant to come down too hard on Kors and Equality California for what happened next, calls the move a "merger."
Carusone doesn't pick his words so carefully. "There was a hostile takeover by Equality California," he recalls. "They promised to give us money and help us build our chapters. But they weren't able to deliver."
Kors describes the arrangement as Equality California coming to MECA's rescue. "MECA didn't have staff or offices," Kors tells the Weekly via e-mail, "and was having difficulty raising money and getting grants to hire staff."
But aside from McKay's public persona, there was one dramatic asset that made MECA enticing to Kors: McKay and Carusone had painstakingly built up an e-mail list of nearly 20,000 people throughout the state — and not only living in major cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The statewide e-mail list, four years of work in digital form, was a priceless asset absorbed by the Equality California database.
McKay and Carusone, who both believe Equality California is an important lobbying group and praise Kors as intelligent, also brought with them a large group of committed volunteers who pounded the pavement for Equality California between 2004 and 2006. During those years, McKay and her chapter leaders gathered contact information from "tens of thousands" of individuals, according to McKay. That also went into the database.
Equality California makes good use of that vital information today, without having to work with McKay and Carusone. The group regularly sends e-mail blasts to promote Equality California's work and to request money. In 2010, Kors says, approximately $600,000 came from e-mail contributions, nearly 10 percent of Equality California's annual budget.
Yet when asked about that period of time, outgoing Equality California Board President Cary Davidson, an election-law attorney who joined the board in 2005, says he doesn't even recall much about Carusone or McKay.
McKay remembers, and vividly: "Volunteers were putting in 30 to 40 hours a week, and they didn't always feel appreciated by some of the Equality California leadership."
Kors responds via e-mail, "Molly and L.J. are former staff of Equality California, and while I cannot discuss personnel matters, I believe their contributions were appreciated."
Equality California's membership and staff grew "exponentially," says McKay, between 2004 and 2006. Equality California records prove this. In 2003, Equality California had seven staff members and a budget of $760,296. By the end of 2006, Equality California had 16 employees and a $2.9 million budget. The organization kept growing from there.
But during those years, tension erupted between Kors and Carusone. Carusone wanted to establish chapters in local communities, and then let those chapter leaders launch public-education efforts about gays and gay issues.
"The concept was that the only way to change people's minds was to have one-on-one conversations with the public throughout the state," Carusone says.
He turned out to be right: Equality California years later bent to Carusone's approach, but only after California voters, in their surprising Yes vote, banned gay marriage via Proposition 8.
In 2005, though, Kors wasn't going for the grassroots education route. McKay and Carusone say they weren't getting the money to properly perform such work. That year, Kors was working with then Assemblyman Mark Leno to persuade the California State Legislature to pass a gay marriage bill. The bill passed, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, saying he would not go against the voter-approved gay marriage ban of 2000.
Carusone suspects Kors didn't want anyone from his grassroots team rocking the boat as he wooed legislators. "Equality California really wanted to control the messaging," Carusone says, "at least around marriage."
Carusone was ordered to take a desk job working on the Equality California website, and by the end of 2005 he decided to quit. "They essentially dissolved the organizing we were trying to do," Carusone recalls. "One of my happiest moments was leaving Equality California." He describes Kors as a "very serious, focused man" who didn't like delegating power. "It was a very stressful work environment."
McKay describes it more cautiously, saying, "Instead of letting us operate as a project, they wanted to fold us in." She tried to hold out for better times, but by mid-2006, she reluctantly left Equality California behind — and all those thousands of e-mail contacts. "I tried my hardest to make that marriage work," she says now. "To the point where it almost caused my real marriage not to work. I worked my ass off for that organization."
Carusone watched from the outside as the No on 8 campaign went on to make numerous mistakes, including its poor use of TV ads, its wildly unorganized campaign and its failure to effectively reach people of color. He says Kors' dismantling of MECA was a major contributing factor: "We didn't have a grassroots operation to bring our message to the voters in different communities," he says.
Kors responds that Carusone is "incorrect," and that a grassroots effort was attempted.
One thing is certain: Equality California hit the jackpot in 2008, raising nearly $15 million from private contributors, most of which was spent on No on 8. Carusone and other critics say the money spent on the campaign — some $40 million — was wasted thanks to Kors' decision, two years earlier, to halt efforts to build a solid grassroots movement in California.
In 2009, Equality California raised another $6.3 million by promoting a pro–gay marriage ballot measure for 2010 or 2012. Kors spent some of that 2009 largesse to open field offices and to hire Massachusetts gay rights activist Marc Solomon to create a grassroots operation for Equality California.
Solomon created a volunteer program of some 4,000 people who pounded the pavement in places such as East L.A., South L.A. and Orange County, knocking on doors and talking with voters.
But Kors shut down the year-old grassroots project this fall, two months after Proposition 8 was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in August. Solomon, who left the group in October, defends his former boss as "one of the most creative legislative thinkers I've ever known."
Today, Kors concedes Proposition 8 was a "terrible loss" personally and professionally. "You have 10-plus million people voting, and they voted as they voted. What's really important is continuing to do work to move people and learning from each and every campaign."
But former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl says it's time the activists shook up their old system. "I thought for a long time Equality California needed different leadership — it needs to be more collaborative," she says.
That doesn't seem to be the thrust of Equality California board members Shannon Minter and Cary Davidson, who will hire Kors' replacement. Davidson says, "It's hard to think how we could have done better."
Minter, the legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, another Gay Inc. group, sees Equality California continuing its lobbying efforts for gay youth laws, transgender rights and gay senior-housing issues.
Neither man brought up the idea of building better coalitions, and both praised Kors when asked about flaws he might have had as his organization's leader. Then Minter pulled an old public relations trick, suggesting one of Kors' strengths — a strong work ethic — was his weakness.
Former Equality California board member Ron Buckmire, co-founder of the black gay rights group Jordan/Rustin Coalition, says the group should hire someone with a proven track record in building strong relationships with groups inside and outside the gay rights movement — not just a CEO who gives that lip service. "[Equality California] could think about strengthening a better statewide coalition," he says.
AIDS activist Richard Zaldivar is worried about the business-as-usual messages from Equality California as it changes leadership. He wants the too-isolated board to meet face-to-face with gay folks in a statewide search for the next executive director.
"The board members should go out to South L.A., East L.A., the Central Valley, and hold public discussions," Zaldivar says. "They should take notes and make decisions accordingly."
In May 2009, Geoff Kors was in Sacramento, lobbying with Mark Leno's help for a bill to establish a statewide holiday in honor of Harvey Milk. With heavy criticism still coming his way over the surprise passage of Proposition 8, Kors may have had a motivation beyond honoring Milk. Consistently described by his admirers and critics as a die-hard political strategist, Kors also seemed to be in search of an upbeat headline that would take the focus off his role in Proposition 8's victory.
Leno got Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who had just won an Academy Award for the film, to testify before a California State Senate committee, with Kors giving him a ride to the hearing. Because of Milk, Black had become very active in the gay rights movement, and had drawn tremendous positive publicity as its screenwriter. He was more than willing to help Kors and Leno.
After Black gave a short, impassioned speech to the Legislature, Kors tried to introduce the screenwriter to various elected officials with offices in the Capitol. For Black, that was fine if it meant getting votes for Harvey Milk Day.
But the two men got the cold shoulder, stunning Black. Legislators refused to see Kors or the Oscar-winning screenwriter. "I quickly got the impression that Geoff wasn't the most beloved figure in the Capitol," Black says. "To say it was a cool reception understates it."
At one point, they waited 20 minutes to see a legislator, until Black realized the meeting wasn't going to happen and told Kors they should leave. (With the film and Milk's story still fresh in politicians' minds, the Harvey Milk Day bill ultimately passed, and Schwarzenegger signed it into law.)
Then, some weeks after Black's visit to Sacramento, a legislator approached him. He apologized for not greeting the screenwriter the day he came by but said he couldn't stand to be around Kors.
The remark left Black ill at ease, making him wonder if Kors had worn out his welcome in Sacramento — and if the gay rights movement in California could be hurt down the road.
"I wanted to like the guy," Black says, sounding a theme repeated by many of Kors' critics, "but I've seen a pattern of mistakes. Equality California could use some fresh blood. ... There are a lot of people I love and value in Equality California, and it's an important organization to have."
Two weeks after Black's interview with the Weekly, Kors announced he was stepping down. Sometime soon, Equality California board members will choose a new leader. The decision could start a new era of gay rights activism in California that likely would influence the way that work is done in other parts of the country. Or Gay Inc. could continue on its comfortable, old path.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.