In a national political climate where it is pretty much open season on limiting or rolling back gay rights, you would think the National Stonewall Democrats, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender group within the party, would be on the defensive. But the attitude at Stonewall’s organizing convention in San Diego last weekend was one of optimism about the battles ahead next year.Despite resounding defeats in more than a dozen statewide constitutional amendments last November, not to mention the GOP sweep of the White House and congressional races, Stonewall Democrats believe they have learned enough from 2004 to better prepare them for 2006, when another 12 states, including California, are expected to take up constitutional amendments that not only would ban marriage but disallow any rights for same-sex couples. For Eric Stern, executive director of Stonewall, the first step is shaking off the denial of some straight party leaders who feel GOP marriage attacks are something they can ignore during the 2006 midterm elections.“The issue of marriage is not going to go away, and the Republican scapegoating of our community is not going to go away,” he argued. “We’re working to make sure the party has a strategy for how to respond to what we know are going to be the same attacks from 2004.”That means facing anti-gay-marriage amendments head-on, avoiding the professional Democratic political consultant groupthink that warns against using the word marriage at all costs in campaigns, says Toni Broaddus, who runs a national federation of statewide gay advocacy organizations.“We learned from all the ballot measures that conservative messages don’t work,” Broaddus explained. “The messages that tried to avoid the issue of marriage are not winning messages for us.”A new strategy is being put to the test in Texas this November, when state voters will vote on an anti-gay-marriage amendment along with nine other amendments. While last year many Democratic groups shied away from taking a stand on marriage amendments, in Texas virtually all big county organizations as well as the state committee have come out against the amendment. Shannon Bailey, president of the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus, has formed alliances with other progressive groups and all the major Democratic county committees to try to defeat all 10 amendments.“We’ve got to keep hammering the message, telling our stories, and giving people time to absorb them,” Bailey said, noting that his organization is working with former state Representative Glen Maxey, the openly gay Dean for America Texas chair who continues to organize with his fellow former Deaniacs.With no state or federal races this November, Bailey is expecting a 12 percent voter turnout, which makes it easier for his side to explain through personal stories why laws limiting rights hurts gay couples with kids. “In our community we’re engaging with our families and our houses of faith,” he explained. “We’re engaging on the marriage issue, and talking about equality.”The fight for marriage equality is also encouraging gay Dems to fight the re-election of some of their biggest obstacles, which in the case of Pennsylvania means seeking the ouster of U.S. Senator Rick Santorum in 2006. Renee Gilinger, a Stonewall board member, is also the co-founder of Liberty PA, a group that is organizing volunteers to identify gay-supportive precincts and develop get-out-the-vote canvassing. “A week doesn’t go by where he doesn’t say something inflammatory and hateful and aggressive,” she says of Santorum. But Gilinger says Liberty PA isn’t making the same mistake many progressive organizations made in 2004, when the kids from Brandeis and Yale were bused into communities they didn’t know in battleground states to stump for losing presidential candidate John Kerry.“In a non-urban setting, you need a local face,” she says. “Local face, local message. The folks when you’re at the door, you want to have a quality, engaging conversation.”Targeting opponents doesn’t mean just going after Republicans. More than a few convention attendees said it was high time gay Democrats stop enabling opponents within the party. “They have to feel some sting,” said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, a group leading the fight for marriage equality in the Golden State with a bill in the Legislature that would legalize same-sex nuptials.Although party leaders may scoff at the thought of a queer backlash, in Massachusetts gay political groups joined with other progressives and went after vulnerable conservative Democrats in the Legislature who voted against marriage in 2004, fronting primary challengers who beat several of the anti-gay incumbents. Those votes may be crucial — next month the Massachusetts Legislature must vote on whether the issue of same-sex marriage should go on a statewide ballot in 2006. With the new Democrats now in office, it looks like there will be no referendum, and marriage for gay couples will continue in the state unthreatened.In turn, straight allies who have been there are expecting more from groups like Stonewall. One of the big convention hits was San Diego mayoral candidate Donna Frye, who first made a mark when, only months into her first council term, she took the controversial stand of voting against a sweetheart leasing deal with the Boy Scouts, arguing their ban on gay Scout leaders was discriminatory and that San Diego shouldn’t do business with the organization.“If I believe in something, I’m not going to go mealy mouthed and mumbly about it,” she thundered to a cheering crowd, chastising gay voters in San Diego made uncomfortable by her in-your-face campaign. “?‘We don’t know if Donna Frye can win because she supports our issues,’?” Frye recalled being told. “What’s a girl to do?”Ken Yeager, an out San Jose City Councilmember who is running for a seat on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, says this doesn’t mean gay activists will see a slew of victories in 2006, but it sets marriage proponents up for success over the long haul.Says Yeager: “We just have to work harder, and work smarter.”

LA Weekly