Didn‘t they hear Jesus Christ was gay?
Friend of Bill: David Mixner
Seeking justice for all: Urvashi Vaid
Recalls her evening with Bill: Torie Osborn
protesters, clinton and mixner, vaid: apwide world; osborn, robert hale
Gays euphoric about eight years of unprecedented prosperity and power in the Clinton era now face a political nightmare: the prospect of a George W. Bush victory in November.
Concerned figures as diverse as L.A.’s fund-raising mogul David Mixner and New York‘s grassroots activist Urvashi Vaid see the progress rolling back if Bush fools the country into buying his Orwellian “compassionate conservatism.”
Imagine the end of hate-crimes legislation, an even more militantly conservative Supreme Court, the elimination of executive orders protecting gay federal employees from job discrimination. Imagine more witch-hunts of gays in the military, the loss of hundreds of gay appointees in all branches of government, the end of unprecedented access to the White House, the collapse of 287 gay-affirmative bills in state legislatures across the country. Imagine a halt to domestic partnership, the overthrow of Vermont’s civil-union victory giving gays all the rights of married people but the license, the end of laws protecting gay high school kids from discrimination. Imagine the Bush who hobnobbed with Bob Jones University students seizing a bully pulpit to weaken gay rights.
This disturbing peek at Life After Clinton has led to renewed appreciation of the substantial gains won by gays over the last eight years, under a Democratic administration. This is not to say that Clinton‘s record on gay issues is without fault. Memories of his reversal on the rights of gays in the military are enough to prove his fallibility. But, without a doubt, Bush would be much worse.
If anyone still needs evidence that gays must redouble their efforts to hold on to their political power, look no further than Proposition 22: The Knight Initiative, which says only unions between a man and a woman can be recognized as marriage in California, passed by a huge margin. The No on Knight campaign has been widely criticized for resting too much on its media-savvy laurels, demonstrating a dereliction of duty when it came to firing up people to go all out to beat the homophobic proposition. “Have we learned nothing from this debacle?” asks Carol Anderson, who is organizing a new statewide grassroots organization, California Alliance for Pride and Equality (CAPE), in response to the failure of No on Knight to organize the new generation of young gays and lesbians. “Are we in denial or what?”
Just exactly what Bush’s stand on gay issues is, is unclear. It is this uncertainty, perhaps, that helps him. “We are too complacent,” says Anderson. “We say there is no chance they are going to decriminalize sodomy, and it doesn‘t matter who is in office, and that Bush would never become president because he’s such a moron. Some gays talk about voting for Bush because it‘s better for the pocketbook. That is one of the most self-hating things I have ever heard. To put money over one’s political life is plain stupid. I recall that line from Ship of Fools where the Jew is talking and saying, ‘They can’t eliminate all 6 million of us.‘ That’s just the way we gays and lesbians are now. I am concerned that there is a good possibility that Bush will be elected — he is nine points ahead of Gore in the polls — and that Congress will stay Republican, and if so, we are in deep doo-doo.”
To activists, these gilded times don‘t seem all that different from 1930s Weimar Germany, when the prevailing liberal forces had no inkling that Hitler could ride into absolute power. “Gays in pre-Nazi Germany experienced more freedom of expression than they probably had in any other time and country besides classical Greece,” argues activist Wendell Jones. “After Hitler became chancellor, Magnus Hirschfield’s library was looted and its contents burned, and gays either fled, entered the fascist SS or went to concentration camps.” The image of a pink triangle, used by the Nazis to identify gay prisoners, is now the symbol of gay pride, meaning “never again.”
All this is not to say that Bill Clinton has been the perfect president. “Personally speaking,” says Jon Davidson, senior lawyer at the Los Angeles office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, “Clinton has been a disaster on all levels, but as my father used to say, you don‘t vote for a president, you vote against the other guy.”
Davidson’s words are slowly becoming the rallying cry behind what is shaping up to be the greatest fight for a presidential candidate the gay community has ever seen. In 1992, the Democrats‘ embrace and the Republicans’ repudiation of gays led to the emergence of a one-party gay voting bloc (an unparalleled 9 million gay votes) and of huge sums of gay-identified money directed to the Democrats. In 1992, gays contributed $2 million to the Clinton campaign, placing them among the top Clinton donor groups in the country. That $2 million landmark figure was actually surpassed last October, when the L.A. gay-and-lesbian community held a fund-raising dinner to “Take Back the House,” during which Clinton, Patrick Kennedy and California Governor Gray Davis clamored for photo-ops with the state‘s richest gay men and women. More than $1.2 million was raised, making this the single largest political fund-raiser in gay and lesbian history.
“The money is pouring in,” says David Mixner, who organized the gala through the L.A.-based Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality (ANGLE). “It is not a hard sell.”
“Every gain we have made since 1992 can be erased with the stroke of a pen,” frets David Elliot, spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
Adds Torie Osborn, executive director of Liberty Hill Foundation, an L.A.-based progressive organization, “We either build on what we’ve achieved with Clinton, or we go back to spending our time fighting a real enemy and re-creating the goddamn wheel.”
Osborn witnessed how gay and lesbian political life changed inexorably on May 18, 1992, in the Hollywood Palladium. In his first campaign for the presidency, Bill Clinton actually embraced each of the 700 or so gays and lesbians in attendance. During the days leading up to the fund-raiser, Osborn, then executive director of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, had been “exhaustingly skeptical” — that is, until Clinton walked onstage and looked her in the eyes. “If I had a magic wand and could cure AIDS,” he said to the rapt crowd, “I would give up this campaign in a second.” She heard a collective intake of breath and then some muffled sobs, including her own. “He became the accepting father we never had. We gave him all the financial, political and moral support we could.”
This blind grasp for approval proved to be the gay community‘s Achilles’ heel. While videotapes of Clinton‘s L.A. speech could be seen playing in gay bars throughout the country, so-called “close” gay “Friends of Bill,” such as Los Angeles’ Mixner, grew increasingly irate when Clinton, soon after he was elected president, turned out to be a worse-than-typical Judas on major policy issues. Despite the seeming naivete that led Mixner and Clinton into pushing Congress too fast on the gays-in-the-military issue, Clinton‘s compromise position — “Don’t Ask, Don‘t Tell” — resulted only in more serious harassment of gay and lesbian servicepeople than before. Furthermore, Clinton proved unable to push the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) through Congress to make it illegal to fire a gay person for being gay. As it now stands, only 11 states have laws protecting gays against job discrimination; in 39 others, it is perfectly legal to hang a sign saying, “Gays Need Not Apply.”
To make matters worse, anticipating political catastrophe in his own party during the upcoming 1996 election, a humbled Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, a federal law that mandated that marriage could only be considered as taking place between a man and a woman. “It was not one of Clinton’s finest moments,” grouses the Task Force‘s Elliot.
These failures look good in comparison to Bush’s record, because Clinton did at least some good in terms of opening his administration to gays. For that reason, gays and lesbians are realizing that when they vote for a president, they‘re also voting for all branches of government. “Clinton brought gays and lesbians in unprecedented numbers into his administration,” says Gwenn Baldwin, executive director of the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center. “He brought us into the Department of Justice, into the Department of Housing and Urban Development, into the Office of AIDS, into Health and Human Services — you name it, there was someone gay andor lesbian in almost every major division.”
So much of federal policy is made outside of the legislative bodies that gays are taking a fresh look at the incremental gains won through executive actions. Clinton, for example, issued executive orders forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in federal civilian workplaces. Would George W. Bush do that? Clinton was the first president to have a formal liaison, Julian Potter, to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community. Would Bush do that? President Clinton appointed openly gay James Hormel to the ambassadorship to Luxembourg. Would Bush do that? Clinton repealed differential treatment in security clearance for people who hold federal positions. Would Bush do that? Clinton ordered federal officials to include gay and lesbian issues in surveys a of national health problems. Would Bush do that? Elliot’s answer: “Hell, no.”
None of what Clinton did for gays has any lasting power if Gore loses. The failure to translate the gay community‘s crush on Clinton (and especially Hillary) into solid legislation has as much to do with Clinton’s ability to sweet-talk as it does with the failure of gay leaders to push their agenda. (Sometimes gay leaders are more concerned with trying to assimilate into the heterosexual power structure in this country than with accentuating their innate and special differences.) “We failed to capitalize on our unprecedented access by allowing ourselves to get ‘mainstreamed,’” argues Vaid, who directs the Task Force‘s Policy Institute in New York.
“Before Clinton, we were outsiders pushing as hard as we could on the door barring government access to us. Suddenly, the door opened and we came tumbling through, so giddy that we failed to convert access to power into material and lasting gains for our community, and now we’re vulnerable to the worst.”
How bad could it get? Davidson answers with two words: “Supreme Court.”
There have been a series of split 5-4 rulings that could have gone the wrong way had the Republicans seized the executive branch and added just one more conservative justice. It takes only one change in the composition of the court to lead to significant changes in interpretation of people‘s constitutional and statutory rights. Gwenn Baldwin expects the next president will appoint two, if not three or even four, justices. That executive ability to shape the law of the land for an entire generation has the power to tip issues from progressive rulings to severely reactionary and homophobic ones.
In 1992, for example, the Colorado Legislature amended its state constitution to prohibit any sexual-orientation or anti-discrimination laws from being enacted. In 1996, the Supreme Court held that that state move violated the federal Constitution. “The Romer vs. Evans decision, which won by one vote, 5-4, would have gone the other way but for Justices Ginsburg and Breyer, the two moderate justices appointed by Clinton,” comments Lambda’s Davidson. Another case this past year, Bragdon vs. Abbott, involved a Maine dentist‘s refusal to treat an HIV-infected patient. The Supreme Court ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act prohibited discrimination against HIV-positive patients who had no symptoms.
The next few months will see similarly significant Supreme Court decisions regarding the civil rights of gays and lesbians, including the infamous Boy Scout case. The Scouts argue that, as a private organization, it has the right under the First Amendment to discriminate against people — in this case, openly gay assistant scoutmaster James Dale — whom it finds morally questionable.
Davidson worries that a Supreme Court under Bush will be more sympathetic to religious groups — or private groups such as the Boy Scouts — who argue that, if homosexuality violates their religious or secular belief system, it would be unconstitutional for such “innocents” to be forced to comply with sexual-orientation anti-discrimination laws.
Another Supreme Court decision affecting gays centers on the ability of grandparents to seek parental-visitation rights. “Gays,” explains Davidson, “have a powerful interest in this case, especially in situations where a gay and lesbian family breaks up and one parent is stripped of visitation rights and is barred from the family, or if a gay and lesbian family is raising a child and homophobic grandparents sue for access.” Last Monday’s ruling upholding parental rights won praise from Lambda Legal Defense and provoked concerns that such progress won‘t last in the event of a Bush administration.
A Bush presidency doesn’t just threaten the moderate votes on the Supreme Court for a generation. The Task Force‘s Elliot explains that presidential elections tend to have what he calls a “down ballot” effect on congressional elections. If Bush wins, he is going to bring with him a lot of new congressional representatives from his own political party. “Keep in mind that only six seats separate Republican domination from Democratic leadership in the House,” Elliot warns. “And in California, you have three seats that are already under incredible competition, especially the controversial race between the right-wing incumbent James Rogan and state Senator Adam Schiff, which could turn out to be the most expensive race in the country.”
In Alabama, a bill that would add sexual orientation to the state’s existing hate-crimes law passed the full House and the Senate Judiciary Committee, the first time a hate-crimes bill inclusive of sexual orientation has advanced this far.
“Such progress would be unthinkable under Bush, and even more hopeless if Congress kept its Republican majority,” comments Elliot.
In California, a number of bills advancing the equality of gay people are currently moving through the legislative process, with the help of openly lesbian Assemblywomen Sheila James Kuehl and Carole Migden. AB 2142 would amend the state‘s anti-discrimination law to include transgendered people; AB 2418 would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the process of jury selection. SB 118 would allow employees to take family-care and medical leave to help a same- or opposite-sex domestic partner, grandparent or sibling, or anyone who lives with them and depends on their care and support.
In addition, AB 2047 would grant registered domestic partners legal and economic benefits, would allow a domestic partner to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner, would allow one domestic partner to inherit from another if one partner dies without a will, and would allow domestic partners to participate fully in conservatorship proceedings.
“You tell me that progress like this has nothing to do with having Clinton in the White House,” says L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center director Gwenn Baldwin. The “down ballot” syndrome is also likely to have a chilling effect on what remains the single most impressive political victory sustained by gays over the last eight years. In Vermont last December, the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a historic civil-union bill. The bill, which will take effect in July, will give same-sex couples the right to form state-sanctioned civil unions and enjoy more than 300 benefits, rights and responsibilities currently available to heterosexual married couples. These include the right to make medical decisions in case of emergency, transfer property, inherit estates, oversee funerals and file joint state income-tax returns. Stories abound of family members coming in after the death of one partner of a gay couple and having every legal right to evict the surviving gay man from the home he shared with his lover, with nothing but the shirt on his back, because his name wasn’t on the mortgage and no will had yet been made.
Bill Lippert, the openly gay vice chairman of Vermont‘s House Judiciary Committee, told The Advocate, the national gay newsmagazine, that he believes the Vermont law will provide a renewed sense of hope to gays and lesbians nationally, especially in the wake of Proposition 22, the anti-gay-marriage ballot measure passed in a landslide by California voters last March. Others are more skeptical. “You think you will see the alliance between the judicial and legislative branches that you saw in Vermont in a country where the president, and maybe even the Congress, are Republican?” asks Liberty Hill’s Osborn.
Worries about a Bush victory are accomplishing more than just banding together the few grassroots activists who have survived AIDS and corporatization. Carol Anderson, the organizer behind the fledgling statewide grassroots organization CAPE, wants to do for young gays what No on Knight failed to do: Give the new generation of young gays and lesbians a “political meaning and purpose besides substance abuse and acting out as a way of holding themselves together.” Her group represents California‘s first effort to put together a statewide grassroots network that can mobilize gays at the drop of a hat when a Bush or a Rogan threatens gay civil life and make California the next state to pass a civil-union law like Vermont’s. More socially progressive than the Sacramento-based LIFE Lobby, which died a financial death two years ago, CAPE is poised to join with other socially progressive groups and bring gay liberation back to America as a force for civic involvement and social transformation.
Anderson isn‘t the only gay leader “sick and tired” of single-issue politics and the gay-community infighting and assimilation that accompanies the current breakdown of the gay-liberation vision. “I believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered folk are not just here on this Earth to get their equal rights,” comments the Task Force’s Vaid, “but to band together with others who care about fairness, economic equality and social justice so as to birth a more mature society. If people are naive enough to think that we can continue on this single-issue path for the next 30 years, not only will history pass us by, but we will have sacrificed what is most essential and contributive about our queerness just because we were so desperate to fit in.” Torie Osborn agrees: “It‘s up to us to see the hypocrisy of trying to put together a democracy based on the concept of equality while secretly getting off on an economy with ever greater degrees of economic inequality. But right now we’re in the dark as to how gay pride can unite us in a stronger sense of community and society.”
Perhaps that‘s because assimilation manages to kill the unique “gay spirit” that brought forward the gay-liberation movement in this country in the first place, in 1950 (Harry Hay’s Mattachine Society) and then in 1969 (the Stonewall Rebellion). In other words, gay people are not like other people; they are the only ones who hear a “call” to love differently and are forced to break from family values — a difficult thing to do — if they are to love with any dignity.
Denying the likelihood of a Bush presidency is the very problem that creates oppression: Gay people haven‘t a clue about their true power and potential. Come November, this could mean that the gay community as a whole will be asleep at the wheel while the Trojan horse of “compassionate conservatism” steamrolls its way into national power. It will take more than a few gays — and not just the so-called leaders — to wake up and stop it.#