Gay activists map strategy

Posted on 03 Feb 2009 at 12:09am
By Kristen Wyatt Associated Press

Obama’s victory gives NGLTF conference air of elation, but other losses bring in an undertone of gloom

DENVER — There’s a party mood at the nation’s largest gathering of gay activists after the inauguration of President Barack Obama. But amid the cheers is plenty of talk about what went wrong last year when anti-gay ballot measures passed, and concern that the economy has overshadowed gay-rights questions.

Some 2,000 members of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force erupted in whoops and applause whenever the president was mentioned, with the group’s head quipping that the name "Obama" will make an easy applause line before gay crowds for months to come.

But conference members also hunkered down to talk about their failures last year: Four anti-gay ballot measures that passed even as the nation voted for what organizers call the most gay-friendly president in history.

"We know that our moment has arrived," proclaimed the task force’s president, Rea Carey.

But Carey said the top priorities of gay activists — passage of a federal nondiscrimination employment law for sexual identity and repeal of the military’s "Don’t ask, don’t tell" policy among others — will have to wait until Obama and ruling Democrats deal with an economy in shambles.

"We’re not worried we’ll be left behind by the economy. Because we’re affected by this, too," Carey said.

If the group struck an optimistic tone about prospects in Washington, though, there was hand-wringing about setbacks at the state level. In California, voters overturned a state Supreme Court ruling allowing gay marriage. Arkansas, Arizona and Florida also adopted measures banning either gay marriage or gay adoption.

Conference attendees hashed out a long list of mistakes they made last fall: Not picking the right television ads in California. Relying too heavily on pollsters in Florida. Disagreement over whether campaign tactics were "too gay" in Arkansas.
In all states, activists conceded they weren’t sure how to fight religious arguments made by their opponents.

"Marriage is a hard issue. It’s not an academic question for most people, especially when they’re standing at the ballot box," said Barbara McCullough-Jones, executive director of Equality Arizona.

McCullough-Jones led an unsuccessful effort last year to defeat a same-sex marriage ban in Arizona. McCullough-Jones called the campaign "kind of a butt-kick."

The head of Florida Equality agreed that gay activists have a tough task combating emotional appeals from gay-rights opponents. Nadine Smith said academic arguments, such as appeals not to mess with the state constitution, fail against scary images of gay stereotypes.

"We connect with people in the head, and then they punch them in the solar plexus emotionally," Smith said.

The glum undertone carried through much of the conference. One session featured a psychologist from the University of Colorado talking about how to recover from political gay-bashing during divisive ballot debates.

Carey tried to rally the activists, telling them marriage equality is inevitable, though it’ll take work. She urged activists not to give up fighting, or turn against each other. She particularly called for an end to gay complaints in California that black voters were to blame for the proposition’s approval.

"The blaming of African-American voters was wrong, despicable and inexcusable," said Carey, who called on gay activists to "confront our own racism."

Activists at the conference seemed upbeat about their prospects, despite the losses in four states. They talked about the rising number of openly gay elected officials

"It’s a balance of defeat and optimism," said Rickke Mananzala, head of FIERCE, a New York-based activist group.

On the Net: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, www.thetaskforce.org

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