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Equality Forum Day 5: What Now?

May 1st, 2009 2 comments

After a political eternity, several bills directly relevant to LGBT equality are queued up before Congress. In order of both expected ease of passage and anticipated timeline, these are: hate crimes, which has already passed the U.S. House, and is expected to navigate the more treacherous waters of the Senate and be signed, possibly within a couple of months; the bewhiskered Employment Non-Discrimination Act (“ENDA”), which could go through by the end of 2009; repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which seems to enjoy broad support but is trickier because it involves the military; and repeal of all or part of the Defense of Marriage Act (date and prospects less clear).

Friday’s National Legal Panel seemed in remarkable agreement on these issues, and more cheered by these seemingly modest anticipated developments than might have been expected. After all, Obama’s in office and the Democrats hold power in both houses of Congress (even a looming filibuster-proof majority in the Senate now seems very likely, given Arlen Specter’s party flip). As the ACLU’s Chris Anders asked rhetorically: “What’s the problem?” Why shouldn’t all of these agenda items so long sought, and for which so much laborious lobbying has been done, sail right through?

Welcome to the sausage factory! All of these bills have to be introduced, go through committees, survive amendments, and then go to the floor for  passage. Then there’s reconciliation of possibly differing versions of the legislation between the two chambers. According to Georgetown law professor and legislative expert Chai Feldblum, the complexity of the process and the list of backed-up agenda items from various constituencies means that we’ve been “given” two slots for this legislative session: one for hate crime and one for ENDA. Time is the most precious resource on Capitol Hill; getting the “face time” you need is vital to move things forward.

The hate crimes law (“The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act“) isn’t strictly a “gay rights bill,” because it also covers criminal acts motivated by a victim’s race, religion, disability, national origin, or gender. It thus has a broad coalition working toward its passage. ENDA is trickier; whether the version that’s passed will offer “gender identity” discrimination is unclear. That’s the goal, but the TG community could be thrown overboard to get the bill enacted. I wouldn’t be in favor of  such a bill, because no one needs workplace protection as much as those who are gender nonconforming, and if they’re not included now — forget it. They’ll never get a bill through on their own.

Penn law professor Tobias Wolff, who advised the Obama campaign on issues of interest to the LGBT community, offered a rich and complex account of Obama’s support. Wolff said he “lost count” of the number of times Obama mentioned issues of gay equality on the campaign trail, even when his audience (say, a conservative black church) might have been less than fully receptive to it. Yet Obama never did a presentation before any of the national LGBT advocacy groups; which was also unprecedented (this time not in a good way) for a Democratic candidate. This might be looked at as less than supportive, but Wolff’s interpretation was that Obama preferred to construct coalitions that were more broad-based, and not especially associated with any particular interest group. He also related that Obama isn’t going to independently decide to do things for us; he expects advocacy and persuasive arguments, and can be moved by them. So in an odd yet paradoxically exhilarating way, there’s more work to do with a sympathetic President and Congress, not less.

According to Hayley Gorenberg, Deputy Legal Director for Lambda Legal, much less promising are the prospects for any kind of substantial help from the U.S. Supreme Court on marriage equality or the military policy. Here the situation is markedly different from that of the state level, where courts have often been strong allies, especially in recent marriage equality cases and on family law questions, such as second-parent adoptions. Although the Court has some good precedent cases (Romer v. Evans, which declared anti-gay animus an unconstitutional basis for legislation; and Lawrence v. Texas, striking down statutes that criminalize intimate sexual conduct between consenting adults), they’re very deferential to the military and not likely to require marriage equality any time soon. The Court might be receptive to the carefully crafted challenge to the part of DOMA that denies federal benefits to legally married couples; that case, though, has just been filed and would take years to reach the Court. By then, perhaps DOMA would have been repealed.

At least as far as “don’t ask, don’t tell” is concerned, though, the Obama Administration could adopt some internal policies and rules that would greatly lessen its arbitrariness and devastating impact on dedicated military personnel. And that interplay between decisional law, legislation, and regulatory law was consistently emphasized by the panelists, especially Feldblum. Moderator Nan Hunter, a Georgetown law professor, did a nice job in getting the participants to explain these relationships, and the law itself, in a way that the “lay” audience could understand.

What we’d have trouble understanding is a lack of movement. If these initiatives fail, the panelists agreed that we’d be forced to take responsibility for that failure. This prospect, though, wasn’t enough for anyone to seek the return of the Bush era.

Equality Forum Day 4 (Part 1): Politics 101 (Domestic)

April 30th, 2009 No comments

How important is bipartisanship in pursuing full equality for the LGBT community? Is it better to work on the state law level, or to push for national policy changes? How are our issues connected to larger issues? And what will be the questions facing the community ten years from now?

Moderator Patrick Guerriero used these open-ended questions to stimulate dialogue and a healthy level of disagreement among the members of Thursday’s National Politics Panel, attended by an audience of about 70 enthusiasts. Perhaps in an effort to achieve balance,  there were two identifiable Republicans on the panel (former Mass politician Guerriero and former Log Cabin Republican leaader Richard Tafel), one identifiable Democrat (Jon Hoadley, the Executive Director of Stonewall Democrats so young that he was apparently put on the panel to remind me of my own mortality), and two women whose politics seemed generally progressive,  yet practical (Toni Broaddus, Executive Director of Equality Federation, a national network of state-based LGBT organizations, and Darlene Nipper, Deputy Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force).

The Republican Party came in for a beating, despite Guerriero’s effective advocacy on behalf of some of the GOP’s courageous figures: a Massachusetts Republican(!) who ran against an entrenched Democrat who was ready to support a constitutional amendment overturning the Goodridge marriage equality decision; the Iowa Supreme Court Justices who allowed the Varnum marriage decision to be unanimous; and an ultraconservative district attorney in Colorado who zealously prosecuted the murderer of the transgendered Angela Zapata under the state’s newly enacted hate crimes law.

Tafel, to my surprise, appears to have had a sort of conversion experience (perhaps I should avoid that term). He grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, where he and everyone else (OK, not everyone else) was Republican.  Now, he says, all of his nieces and nephews under the age of 30 are Democrats. He supported Obama, and urged moderate Senators Snowe and Collins of Maine to join Arlen Specter in the exodus from the increasingly depopulated and brain-dead GOP. When another panelist worried that activists shouldn’t put all of “their eggs in the Democratic basket,” Tafel didn’t seem worried. The GOP will “wander in the wilderness for a long time,” he opined. This was a culture shift on the order of FDR’s.

So, aside from Guerriero’s qualified defense of the GOP, what was there left to argue about? With the tiresome two-party debate on hiatus, other issues swam into focus. All panelists had their eyes on the big national prizes (ENDA, hate crimes, repeal of DOMA and of “don’t ask, don’t tell”), but were in general agreement that, to use Hoadley’s term, advocacy groups that didn’t get to the grass roots level were “Astroturf organizations.” Nipper explained Hoadley’s point to be that effective advocacy had to address the “issues that actually matter to people.” Obvious, right? But national groups1 have often been criticized for not taking sufficient account of these voices.

Broaddus and Nipper were particularly compelling in their account of the many interconnected ways in which state-level work needs to be done. Nipper was just in Maine, working with 150 field workers who came from several local states. (Somehow, I had no idea that this was going on.) That state is on the threshold of marriage equality, and these boots (on the ground) are made for lobbyin’. Broaddus emphasized the need to work on all fronts: through the courts; the legislature; and with the people directly. Iowa supplies a great example here. The state was targeted as a likely success on marriage, because (1) the court was fair and progressive; and (2) the constitution is hard to amend — but not impossible, of course, so advocates worked behind the scenes for some two years to lessen the chance that the legislature would initiate the amendment process. These actions  must be further supplemented by door-to-door efforts.

As for the federal level, this isn’t the first panel where I’m hearing a note of concern beginning to overlay and temper the community’s goo-goo eyes infatuation with Obama. If an inclusive ENDA  isn’t passed this year, then…when? Yesterday’s hate crimes vote in the House was the crumb we need to keep believing, for now.

When Guerriero asked the “where will we be ten years from now” question, I managed only with great self-control and muscular discipline to avoid  rolling my eyes. I hate questions asking for opinions about the unknown. But he must have known his panel, because they did a great job with it. Hoadley made the startling statement that he’d recently spoken to a group of young gays who had never known anyone who’d died of AIDS. His point was that each generation has different issues, new stuff to deal with. For his generation and the one right behind it, he’s hoping (so am I), that most of the basic equality issues will be resolved  in our favor by then.

Then we can get on with the more general construction of a more just society. Broaddus said that “Join the Impact,” an organization formed in angry response to the passage of Prop 8, was doing things like a food drive. There’s nothing particularly LGBT about that, except to the extent that the energy we’re harnessing in our current struggle is “the gift that keeps on giving.”

  1. “Give me an “H”! Give me an “R”! Give me a “C”! What’s that spell?”

Equality Forum Day 2 (Part 2): The Persistent Problem

April 29th, 2009 1 comment

You’ve got an accomplished, racially diverse panel; appropriately, since this was the National Racial Panel, the “closer” on Tuesday evening. H. Alexander Robinson has done national-level AIDS policy  work, and is now Executive Director and CEO of the National Black Justice Coalition, which describes itself as the only national Black, gay civil rights organization. Juanita Diaz-Cotto is an influential and prolific scholar at Binghamton University, whose work might be reductively summarized as focusing on the oppression of  Latina Lesbians. But as her webpage indicates, she has a staggering breadth of knowledge and expertise on a number of disparate topics. Glenn Magpantay, a staff attorney with the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is also Political Chair of the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York and is helming a national federation of  similar organizations. Last month, he testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on barriers to voting faced by the Asian-American community in last November’s election.

You could be forgiven for asking: Why the long-winded resume summaries? Because I was again struck, as I often am, by the difficulties faced by this and every other panel when it comes to answering these questions: What makes a great leader? Why do different groups within the LGBT community have so much difficulty working together?

It’s  not surprising that the first of these is a stumper, because no one really has any idea of how to create the next Mandela, Gandhi, King, or Christ. The only answer that had any traction with me was Robinson’s point that preparation and training were essential. This seemed obvious once I thought about it; each of the above examples certainly was prepared. But I’d say that preparation is necessary but not sufficient: For example, why does Gene Robinson have leadership mojo that Barney Frank — for all of his brainy, witty accomplishments and insight — does not? Who knows? I could listen to Frank for hours, but that’s not quite the same thing.

The inability to come up with a good answer to the second question is perhaps more puzzling. Professor Diaz-Cotto struggled to explain the difficulty of coalition-building, choosing instead to offer the one and only example (“an anomaly,” she called it) in her experience, of success in reaching across lines of race and class, even within the LGBT community. In one case,  she said, a group of 15 white women, one Asian woman, and Diza-Cotto herself worked together successfully on a project. Magpantay, if I understood him correctly, seemed at once to be both celebrating the uniqueness of the gay Asian-American community while trying to understand the problem. Robinson spoke of “inclusion” versus real inclusion as one of the problems; he’s  always “the race guy” at conferences, never the plenary speaker.  But he’s not giving up.

My only contribution to this discussion would be to note that any group trying to figure  out how to be more inclusive is limited by its own perspective; it’s like you need diversity to understand how to get the diversity you need.  Not easy, but I was heartened by the racial, class, and age diversity within the audience itself. Listening to concerns of others in the room (literally) and out of it (figuratively) is Step One.

Log Cabin (Republican) Syrup

April 23rd, 2009 1 comment

A gay friend of mine moved from New Haven, CT (he was a Yale professor) to Columbus, Ohio for a year. His dating life, he told me, was a disaster: “Every guy I met told me on the first date that he was a Log Cabin Republican.” There were no second dates.

http://www.otrcat.com/z/log_cabin_syrup_1938.jpg

For  those who don’t know, the Log Cabin Republicans are a gay advocacy group that, roughly, adheres to certain “old school”  Republican values like lower taxes and limited government (federalism, as convenient, too) while pressing for LGB (but not always T) equality. They’re mostly a bunch of well-to-do white guys. Their argument for existence is that they can work within to transform the Republican Party in what is, after all, a two-party system.

I’m not one of them. My politics are decidedly to the left, and I generally favor a substantial role for government in working towards social justice (while realizing the limits of this reliance, the benefits of markets,  and the importance of grass roots advocacy and effort). And my  view of the group wasn’t exactly improved after an argument in 2004 with one Log Cabin member who, to my astonishment, supported Bush over Kerry, even asserting that there was “no difference” between them on gay issues. We were (not close)  friends before this, not at all after that.

But there he was in late 2008, at a March for Equality in Philadelphia. We walked together. He stated that he’d been an Obama supporter, and that the Republican party was in danger of becoming a “fringe.” I then regretted my boorish behavior in 2004 (I wasn’t exactly civil, I’m afraid) and sent him an email of apology. His response was more than gracious, and he owned some responsibility, too. I wisely refrained from asking about his continued association with the Log Cabin.

Now I’m feeling a bit more charitable towards the group. A recent story reported that the Log Cabin had been involved in getting the leadership of the Republican Party in the New York Senate to allow its members to “vote their conscience” on the pending marriage equality bill. Given that at least four Democrats are poised to vote “no,” this step could spell the difference between success and failure. It would be neither fair nor charitable to deny that the group has had success in galvanizing what’s left of the moderate wing of the Republican party; as a sign of their effect, they and Meghan McCain apparently have a thing goin’ on, too. If she’s the face of young Republicans (or at least enough of them), then we can have a legitimate debate about policy that takes equality as a given and moves on from there.

But I’m still not syrupy sweet on the Log Cabin. They support formal equality, and their blog lists some recent accomplishments at the state legislative level that are, frankly, impressive. But what about addressing the deep and underlying inequities of race, gender, and even sexual orientation  and gender identity? Formal equality doesn’t really get to those messier issues. Marriage equality won’t help an adult woman who needs time off to take care of her ailing sister or grandchild, neither of whom is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. A law prohibiting discrimination in the workplace doesn’t address the issue of whether employees make a living wage.

But they’re not the only group that focuses on formal equality, and, if I’m being fair about it, they seem to be making more inroads lately than the national, non-partisan Human Rights Campaign, whose efforts on hate crimes, anti-discrimination laws, and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act have yet to bear fruit. (Here’s an example of their behind-the-scenes achievements, though.)

So am I ready to enter a post-partisan era? Nah.

Vermont Follows Iowa! (But in a Very Different Way)

April 7th, 2009 2 comments

I returned from class to learn that the Vermont legislature has just overridden Governor Douglas’s veto of marriage equality legislation. 100 votes in the House were needed for the override; exactly 100 were obtained. (The Senate’s override was by an overwhelming majority.) Now, we have the first state in which marriage for gay couples has been achieved by a legislature acting without being required or pressured to do so by a court. In this post, I offer some background and a few thoughts about what this might mean.

First I have to say that I was stunned. With all attention, including my own, focused on Iowa, I didn’t realize that the governor’s veto had already taken place (the Vermont house voted on the bill just last Friday, the same day as the decision in Iowa), much less that the override votes were taking place. Nor did I realize that there was a good chance of overriding the veto: When the bill passed, it did so with only 95 votes. Somehow supporters found the five additional votes they needed.

So Vermont now becomes the fifth state to recognize marriage equality.1  But it was the first to move very substantially in that direction. In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court decided Baker v. State, the first sort-of-successful marriage equality case. The five justices were unanimous that same-sex couples were entitled to the benefits of marriage, but stopped just short of requiring the legislature to grant them the right to marry.2 Instead, they held, the law-makers might choose to provide access to some parallel institution conferring all or substantially all of the benefits of marriage — but not the label. Thus was the civil union born.

In an earlier post, I wrote tongue-in-cheekily about the significance attached to this label, wondering whether same-sex couples might be entitled to “mariage” — with one “r” — since the word “marriage” seemed to be the problem. But from a purely political perspective, the court’s decision turned out to be brilliant: The civil union didn’t generate the kind of oppositional heat that “marriage” would have, gave straight Vermont citizens some time to settle into the truth that same-sex couples’ unions didn’t threaten theirs, and eventually led to a commission report finding that civil unions weren’t leading to the full equality that the Vermont court had hoped for.  Ten years later, marriage equality is achieved.

The significance of equality through legislative means can’t be emphasized enough. One of the most effective (though wrong) criticisms of the push for marriage equality is that it’s been achieved through the courts: “activist judges,” “fascists in robes,” and “philosopher kings” have pushed this on the public, according to the opposition. What will they say now?

Some of the most extreme complain that the legislature isn’t democratic either, conveniently overlooking the whole notion of representative democracy. Traction, this will  have none. It’s particularly unconvincing in a small state like Vermont, where the state legislators have a great deal of contact with their constituents. Here is the link to this morning’s House vote in Vermont and the few comment that preceded it. Note the respect that both sides urge; one opponent says that, even if he loses, he will, as a Justice of the Peace, respect the law and perform same-sex marriages. Here are legislators who are very respectful and close to the voters.

The California legislature twice tried to enact marriage equality, only to have the governor veto both bills. So Vermont becomes the first state to grant basic equality to gay and lesbian couples; again, without judicial compulsion of any kind. What might it mean? I’m hesitant to say too much so soon, but let me try this: The Vermont move could well energize other somewhat progressive state legislatures to follow suit: the other New England states (especially New Hampshire and Maine); New Jersey; and New York are the likeliest. Once that happens, I think the push for marriage equality in California becomes even stronger; Prop 8 could be repealed as soon as next year, even if, as expected, the California Supreme Court allows it to stand.

And apres California, le deluge.

  1. I’m including California among the five, because equality was recognized for a time. It’s currently on hold pending the Supreme Court’s decision on Prop 8.
  2. One justice wrote that the couples were entitled to full marriage equality.