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 Yorkpiece 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 lesbianand 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."

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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