Life After SONDA

Gay Politics Will Never Be the Same

But then, hadn't Duane—and other gay Democrats who know reporters—attacked ESPA for its elitism? And hadn't the assembly cut a chunk of change from certain gay programs that had been funded (but not permanently) by the governor? ESPA had promoted these non-HIV programs, and now it felt smacked by the Democrats for cozying up to Pataki. The battle was on.

Instead of buddy hugs after SONDA passed, David Paterson, the newly elected leader of senate Democrats—and an eloquent advocate for gay rights—got a harangue from Jeff Soref, a major gay fundraiser and former ESPA board member. "I told [Paterson] he had lost control," says Soref. "He sat idly by while Tom bellowed." Soref was already pissed at Paterson for backing the amendment, and as for Duane, among the milder epithets Soref uses to describe him are "bully" and "demagogue." Their animosity is likely to play out in more than verbal ways. It is widely believed that Duane would like to run for Manhattan borough president when Virginia Fields's term expires in 2005. He will need all the help he can get in a crowded field likely to include a lesbian candidate, Councilmember Margarita Lopez. Duane could garner key party support by justifying the Democrats' attack on ESPA. But when it comes to attracting money, Soref is a serious liability, since he wields great influence among the handful of wealthy homosexuals who give generously to gay political campaigns.

Duane looks back on SONDA's passage with a certain irony. "The Christians were praying for my soul," he quips, "but my allies were telling me to go to hell."

Tom Duane, hero or demagogue? It Depends on where you stand within the queer movement.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Tom Duane, hero or demagogue? It Depends on where you stand within the queer movement.

The greatest irony is that all of these combatants are Democrats. In fact, Soref is a member of the Democratic National Committee, reportedly in line to become its treasurer. But sources say that after ESPA endorsed Pataki, Soref received angry phone calls from leaders of the national party. "I can't say people are pleased with me," he says, "but I would support anyone who backs this agenda." So, apparently, would ESPA's board, though it is composed entirely of Democrats, according to executive director Matt Foreman. He, too, calls himself "a die-hard Democrat," but adds, "I'm no longer going to stand on statements that sound good and get us nowhere. We want deliverables."

In keeping with this show-me attitude, ESPA paid former state Republican Party head Bill Powers more than $100,000 to push SONDA, despite the many times Powers courted Conservative Party support for GOP candidates by citing their opposition to gay rights. Retaining Powers shows that, like him, ESPA prizes efficacy over ideology. More than any other pressure group in New York's gay movement, this one knows how to play the game. That leaves Duane and Glick at a disadvantage, since they are loyal members of a party that controls neither the governor's office nor the senate. The relative powerlessness of the Democrats makes it inevitable that a gay lobby interested in "deliverables" will build bridges to the dominant Republicans. That's what key unions did in the last election, and the Democrats suffered their defection without attacking them. But, as Foreman points out, "They're happy to point to the key gay group and say, 'Oh, we're offended!' Cut me a break."

Flush with victory, ESPA has its guns set on winning "full equality under the law within 10 years." The group's agenda includes reforming the state's human rights code (by changing the word sex to gender) and shortening the time it takes to adjudicate a case (more than 400 days on average). Even same-sex marriage is not beyond Foreman's imagining, "but we need to do this the professional way, and that involves focus groups, polling, and testing messages with targeted subgroups of the gettable middle." This is not Duane's idea of an effective strategy. As a product of the gay liberation movement, his approach is to form alliances with other minorities and move from a fired-up activist base. Transpeople are a natural constituency for him. But most of ESPA's members are what cops call "citizens": people of some means. They are unlikely to bear the brunt of budget cuts, so they have little to lose from making alliances with Pataki—and little to gain from pushing the trans agenda. For Duane's people, it's the reverse.

The battle of SONDA raises a larger question for the queer movement. "We still have not resolved the debate that's raged for 30 years about who is part of our community and who gets shut out," says Charles King, co-president of Housing Works, which advocates for people with AIDS. As long as all homos were members of an out-group, this class conflict was kept relatively in check. But as the movement succeeds, the division between gay haves and queer have-nots is exploding on many fronts. The contours of this schism were visible in the two queer groups that took separate buses up to Albany last week: one, supporting SONDA, was mostly well dressed and white, while the other, backing Duane's amendment, was decked out and diverse.

Every group that enters the corridors of power goes through a clash between those who are poised to benefit from the system and those who are not. Success breeds struggle, and in that sense SONDA's passage marked the moment when gay politics became typical. The left-outs have yet to find a leader, but they will. A queer Al Sharpton is slouching toward Stonewall to be born—and s/he will probably be a trannie.

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