Los Angeles gay and lesbian political activists are struggling to replace the LIFE Lobby, a 12-year-old organization dedicated to gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender and HIV/AIDS issues, which formally dissolved last week due to mounting debt.
With a staff of four operating out of offices in Sacramento, the LIFE Lobby was the only organization of its kind in the state, and unified some 100 organizations under one banner.
During its tenure, the organization successfully lobbied for California’s 5-year-old law against sexual-orientation discrimination in the workplace, and fought a host of bills from the religious right designed to curtail rights of gays, lesbians and people with AIDS/HIV, said Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sheila Kuehl (D–Santa Monica). One recent victory: helping to kill legislation requiring mandatory AIDS testing for newborns.
California Assemblywomen Carole Migden (D–San Francisco) and Kuehl both said they are concerned about the loss of the only organization in the capital devoted solely to gay/lesbian political issues. “The work of the lobby is extremely important,” said Kuehl in an interview. “And no one else was doing it.”
The organization had long-term financial difficulties and was mired in $70,000 of debt, including $50,000 owed to its sister organization, the LIFE Institute, a think tank on issues of importance to the queer and HIV/AIDS community, organizers say.
“It was a sick, crisis-ridden system,” said Ken Collins, co-chair of the lobby. Collins said that funds had dwindled to a point where there wasn’t enough money to service the debt the organization owed and that some staff members had not been paid in months.
The financial woes of the LIFE Lobby are likely to prove fatal to the LIFE Institute, said Los Angeles attorney John Duran, who sits on the institute’s board. The institute will meet soon to decide how to respond to the bankruptcy of its major creditor, he added.
The end for the lobby came this spring, after Los Angeles attorney and activist Carol Anderson was brought in to salvage the lobby with new, well-heeled members. Anderson insisted on a new set of bylaws that would reserve key decision-making powers for the board, but the membership refused to ratify the changes.
Collins was among those who voted against the bylaw changes, saying they would have taken the organization away from its core membership of grassroots activists.
The resignation of Carol Anderson dealt the final blow to the beleaguered organization, according to Laurie McBride, former executive director for the lobby.
Anderson then joined with Duran — the LIFE Institute board member — to form a new PAC/lobby, dubbed GALE (Gay and Lesbian Equality). GALE will focus on gay and lesbian politics, and leave the HIV/AIDS issues to others, Duran said. “AIDS is no longer a gay, white-male issue, and we can’t own it,” he said. “We hope someone else will form an HIV/AIDS lobby.”
GALE was incorporated on May 7, but has floundered as members have failed to agree on a direction for the new organization. A June 16 meeting was called to ratify bylaws, but bylaws did not materialize. Anderson split with the new group that night, contending that a more diverse board was needed.
The organization has also failed to garner support from outside Southern California, Duran acknowledged.
“We asked four people of color to serve on the board, and two said yes,” said Duran. “We asked six women, and three said yes. We asked five people in Northern California, and they all said no.”
He said GALE members are now studying other successful PAC/lobbies, such as the Human Rights Campaign.
After the June 16 meeting, a core group of 12 — each of whom has pledged to raise or donate $10,000 a year — agreed to hire a professional organizer, Duran said.
“We are all too busy to devote a lot of time to putting the organization together,” he said.
Duran believes it will be crucial for the gay and lesbian community to have a strong presence in Sacramento after a new governor is elected.
“This is a watershed year,” he said. “Through the end of the year, Wilson won’t allow any progressive legislation to get through. And since the Democrats control the Legislature, any hostile legislation can be killed in committee. The sense of urgency is in 1999.”
He added, “If [Gray] Davis is elected, there will be a paradigm shift, and we will need to move into high gear to get legislation through. If [Dan] Lungren is elected, we will play defensive politics, which we are good at.”
Meanwhile, as Election Day nears, bickering continues to divide activists.
Anderson — whose vision for a new statewide lobby includes a broad campaign for 100,000 members and a war chest of $10 million — is now trying to put together a new organization with former LIFE Lobby members, including some from San Francisco.”We want one lobby,” she said. “We don’t want to divide up the state, and a Los Angeles–based lobby will lack clout.”