Good For The Gays?

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

But even hostile observers say you don't have to look for any backroom bargaining to understand why HRC might support a recent progay convert over the more steadfast candidate. (And because Schumer, like D'Amato, voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, he left himself open to criticism.) HRC claims to be bipartisan and, especially under pressure from the gay Log Cabin Republicans, it has been bending over backwards to find Republicans to help them live up to the claim.

HRC's realpolitik wager is that if D'Amato wins and the Republicans retain a majority, the group will have some chits to collect in a hostile Congress. (Never mind that they might be helping Republicans gain a veto-proof majority.) And if Schumer wins, he's not going to back down on his principled gay-rights stands to punish HRC. "From within the logic of Washington lobbying," says HRC's New York cochair Tim Smith, "they're in a win-win situation."

But that logic doesn't play in Poughkeepsie. "No gay person in New York can judge D'Amato by such narrow standards," explains Paula Ettelbrick, legislative counsel for the Empire State Pride Agenda, the statewide lobbying group that announced its endorsement of Schumer last week. "D'Amato has constructed a Republican party here that is so homophobic, we can't move milquetoast legislation." Yet even the Pride Agenda is subject to the system of payback. "If D'Amato had delivered on the antidiscrimination bill in the last session," says Pride Agenda executive director Matt Foreman, "we'd be in the same position as HRC right now."

Byt there's more than a good-for-the-gays calculus to HRC's electoral spin. When an organization borrows the corporate model, using focus groups rather than principles to shape its agenda, it can end up distorting--if not dismissing--its base.

Openly lesbian New York state assembly member Deborah Glick cites a recent HRC ad meant to counteract the right's summerlong campaign touting hetero "conversion." The HRC rejoinder proclaimed, "We're living proof that families with lesbian and gay kids can be whole, happy and worthy of all that this great country promises"--chiming in with the right-wing assertion that some Americans have to prove their worthiness of citizenry. And are focus groups showing anti-immigrant sentiment across the country? Why not milk it? The ad continues, "We are a typical American family, with old roots in the heart of America. . . . We cross country ski. We're Republicans." For Glick, "the disturbing thing is HRC seems to believe that homogenization equals equality." Add to that a funding base driven by black-tie, $1000-a-plate dinners, and the organization ends up speaking for the folks who write the checks. "That inside-the-Beltway strategy is very keyed to well-to-do white people, predominantly men," Glick says. Between the "Millennium March" and the courting of D'Amato, HRC's drift to the right is igniting a backlash. "It's been a sort of rallying point," says Jeffrey Tooke, Buffalo-based chair of the Federation of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs, citing calls from folks all over the state offering to volunteer for Schumer. More broadly, a loose network of longtime activists and new queer radicals is beginning to assert itself as a revitalized progressive wing of the movement. Next month's Creating Change conference in Pittsburgh will be preceded by an open meeting to address "the increasingly conservative direction" of the movement's national leadership. "There's been a breakdown in gay leadership," explains activist Bill Dobbs, railing against gay support for Giuliani, Peter Vallone, and D'Amato. "Never have such significant enemies been recast in progay terms."

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