Good For The Gays?

A widening rift over the political direction of America's gay rights lobby

There's a gathering crisis in gay politics, and its flashpoint is a possible endorsement of Senator Alfonse D'Amato by the Human Rights Campaign, the Washington-based, $13 million­a-year gay rights lobbying group. At press time, HRC is still arguing internally over whether to back D'Amato or to remain neutral. An endorsement of hisDemocratic challenger, Charles Schumer, has reportedly been ruled out (though HRC insists he's still in the running). Schumer ranks higher than D'Amato on HRC's own scorecard of gay rights votes.

Like HRC's controversial call for a gay "faith and family" rally in Washington in April 2000, the endorsement question brings long-submerged issues to the surface: How wise is single-issue organizing, especially in the face of a right wing that attacks on several fronts at once? What, in fact, should be the agenda of the queer movement?

Defenders of a D'Amato endorsement point to his votes in favor of AIDS funding and ENDA--the bill that would extend workplace antidiscrimination policies to gays and lesbians. D'Amato has also championed Fred Hochberg and James Hormel, gay men whose appointments were opposed by Senate conservatives. (Hochberg was eventually confirmed, but the Hormel nomination is still on hold.) For these supporters, HRC's cozying up to D'Amato represents the gay electorate's "political maturation," as a Times story put it--or its "coming-of-age," as a New York piece declared.

But for detractors, it represents a betrayal of the queer movement's dearest principles: a commitment to every individual's bodily sovereignty (D'Amato is a leading opponent of abortion, running also on the Right-to-Life line), a vision of social and economic justice (D'Amato votes against good-government initiatives and gun control, and for strict welfare and immigration laws), and a commitment to traditional allies like African Americans, women, and the working class (D'Amato's record is hostile toward all these groups). What's more, the senator repeatedly gets top ratings from the Christian Coalition. And as HRC's critics point out, D'Amato has failed to use his muscle to force State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno to move the long-stalled gay rights bill.

"Endorsing D'Amato isn't a new maturity," notes Urvashi Vaid, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute. "It's the same old politics." Indeed, if anything is new, it's simply that gays and lesbians have been let in on the old game. The result, as with other issues at the center of intense D.C. lobbying, is a widening disconnect between what inside-the-Beltway rules of playdemand and what folks in the streets actually want. Just as the American-Israel PAC pushes positions far to the right of those held by most American Jews, HRC may be emerging as a conservative voice in queer politics, steered more by wealthy donors than by grassroots concerns.

But why, in the era of Trent Lott and Jesse Helms, would a Republican want the stamp of approval from a gay organization? After all, it's not likely that D'Amato will make much of a dent in the gay vote. According to Rutgers political scientist Robert W. Bailey, who has studied gay voting patterns in several elections, gays and lesbians tend to support education and health care spending, and to oppose defense buildups--positions consistently at odds with D'Amato's. And an independent poll conducted last week for the New York Blade News showed gay voters backing Schumer by more than 3 to 1.

But in a race that remains a dead heat less than two weeks before election day, a few thousand votes, or even stay-at-homes, can swing the outcome. Having squeaked by Robert Abrams in 1992 by a single percentage point, D'Amato has since taken a cue from other Republicans--Giuliani is a master--who have used particular high-profile votes or photo-ops to target traditionally Democratic voters: Latinos, African Americans, women, Jews, gays. There's no intention of moving huge numbers of these voters, but shaving off a percentage point here and there can make a huge difference in a close contest. The tactic is already bearing fruit for D'Amato. A John Zogby poll released Monday showed D'Amato gaining on Schumer by snagging 35 percent of support from Jews, and 18 percent from African Americans.

Even more important, suggests openly lesbian state Democratic committee vice-chair Emily Giske, an HRC nod would help D'Amato mollify suburban women who lean toward Republican candidates but are queasy about the senator's indifference to women and disadvantaged groups. HRC helps him present himself as a moderate--with the added advantage that the words lesbian and gay don't appear in its name. "He can run an ad in the Albany Times-Union, saying he's endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign," explains Bailey, "and it sounds good to everybody."

Everybody, that is, except local gay folks. Some aghast New Yorkers have been searching for the inside scoop that might explain how HRC could even contemplate getting behind D'Amato. Pointing to meetings the senator began having with the group several years ago, they suggest that his backing of Hochberg and Hormel--one a former cochair of HRC, the other a founder--racked up the group's debt. HRC's political director Winnie Stachelberg would not countenance such speculation. "HRC has a longstanding policy of endorsing incumbents," was all she would say, "and there's one in this race who supports the legislative agenda HRC is pushing."

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