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

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?”
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