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State of the Gay and Lesbian Union – OutGiving 1996

“We must strengthen the capacity of state-wide gay and lesbian organizations to defend and expand GLBT civil rights. State groups need help building their infrastructure so it reaches into every county and precinct; to register voters, educate them as to the state legislative agenda and make it easy for individual GLBT people to weigh in and to win.”

This talk was given on May 17, 1996 at the Gill Foundation’s OutGiving Conference, which gathers donors to the LGBT movement. The Gill Foundation hosts this conference every two years.

My charge today is to speak about the state of the lesbian and gay union.  Such a subject is worthy of several books, one of
which I have risked your judgment to bring here today.  Given the talent, experience and service to the movement represented in this
room, and given the breadth of possible areas we could discuss –I will limit my talk to three broad realities we face today, as a
movement working for an end to sexual orientation prejudice and discrimination.

First, I want to delineate the impact of the broad debate over the roles of government, the private sector and the individual on the gay and lesbian movement.  I believe these big national debates require a shift in our thinking of how gay and lesbian rights and freedom will be won.

Second, given the heat our intra-community conflicts generate, I want to deal with the thermodynamics of gay and lesbian  movement  politics,  dynamics  which  stem  from  the  a complicated interplay of our race, gender, political and class
diversity on one hand and from the conflict between organizational leadership on one hand and movement leadership on the other.

Third, I want to discuss what holds us back in the creation of a genuinely powerful gay and lesbian political movement.

The Broad Debate

We are witness today to a bitter national dogfight about the role of government, on the shape of the new economy of the 21st century and the shift in family, community and individual responsibility that the changes under discussion would require.

Every day in the paper, we read one party — the Republicans –characterize the social service programs of the New Deal as a failure and demand that every one of these programs be cut drastically, or eliminated outright. Every day, we read the other major party — the Democrats — agree with the Republicans on principle but argue about the details, saying that in practice government programs cannot be that mean. Lost in the media reduction of this important national debate are the voices of independents — progressives, liberals and even traditional conservatives who might have helpful ideas about how to strike a balance between complete privatization and complete socialization. What disturbs me most is that entirely missing from this debate are the voices of LGBT leaders, speaking out on behalf of a gay and lesbian community that will be profoundly affected by changes in the way government funds or even provides social services, and whether those decisions are made at the national or state level.

Since nearly every piece of our agenda requires some form of government intervention and since the problems that gay people face require greater levels of public funding in order to be addressed, we ought not be shy or silent in the major debates now underway. We will certainly disagree, but we ought to have a thoughtful and informed kind of disagreement –one based on good solid policy analysis of how gay people will be affected by the different proposals being debated on medical reform,  health  care,  welfare,  medicaid,  educational  policy, housing and so on. Such policy analysis requires critical thinking — and such thinking requires far greater funding of the handful of think tanks we have in our movement today.

In a broad sense, the questions we need to consider involve the roles we see government and the private sector playing in our lives. The thoughtful gay leader Jeff Levi, who is now Chief of Staff at the White House Office of AIDS Policy, used to say that the gay movement went from wanting government out of our lives in the 1960’s, to wanting our fair share of government in the 1970’s, to asking government to save our lives in the 1980’s, to wanting government to affirm our lives in the 1990’s (through marriage and domestic partnership). Today, there remain great contradictions in our stance toward government. We say we want less — but our community’s social service agencies (youth programs, community centers, alcoholism programs, AIDS organizations, health clinics) cry out for more resources. Some say they want their taxes lowered, and yet we are a middle class, working class and successful people who have benefitted greatly from the very programs that lower taxes would hurt: loans for college education, public schools, even recycling! Gay men and lesbians would be among those most dramatically affected by cutbacks in government services: 50% of all gay men with HIV and AIDS rely on medicaid assistance to get health insurance, pay for drugs and get care; lesbians with cancer are pressing nationally to secure more government  funded  research  into  women’s  health,  and  more assistance for lesbian families dealing with cancer; Ryan White funding has been a multi-billion dollar lifeline for gay men dealing with HIV; anti-violence programs depend on funding for community-oriented crime prevention strategies; youth service programs require funding to reach youth at risk for suicide and HIV; alcohol and drug abuse programs at our community centers and social service organizations require us to be able to gain access to government dollars; gay seniors benefit from medicare and social security as do the straight parents of gay people!

A second set of questions for us to consider is the tension between funding social services and funding political organizing. For years, gay and lesbian philanthropy mirrored mainstream philanthropy in funding gay oriented social services far more than we funded policy work and political organizing. This is understandable given the need in our communities’ and the emotional pull such service organizations have on our hearts. As a result, we have a movement today in which the service groups such as local AIDS organizations, community health centers and projects which try to address a range of gay and lesbian crises, are far better funded than the political organizations which lobby and fight city hall to secure such funding. It seems to me this imbalance ought to be looked at by funders. The funding of public policy analysis can help us articulate our communities needs and to set our political agenda. The funding of advocacy, lobbying and organizing can help push this public policy agenda as effectively as the Right has pushed the agendas generated by its think tanks. And the funding of political education, skills building and training in the gay and lesbian community can help us to implement this agenda, thereby bringing closer the day when the problems we face are lessened. If we increase our funding for policy work and organizing, if we increase gay voter awareness of whom they should lobby and for what, then I would submit we will increase the social service funds we currently receive from governmental bodies –be they local, state or national.

Finally, I think the shift in power from the federal to the state level that Republicans and Democrats are talking about — or devolution — requires a concurrent shift in the focus of our political movement from national legislation to local and state legislative bodies. The major battleground for gay and lesbian rights today and into the future is at home where we all live, not solely in Congress or the White House. Right now state wide gay and lesbian networks exist in nearly every state, but do not involve well-funded, professionally staffed groups in any but a handful of state capitols. Meanwhile as you all know, 34 state legislatures have dealt with anti-gay marriage bills in the past year; and scores of anti-AIDS bills are debated each year. Every one of the issues on the gay and lesbian civil rights agenda will be decided at the state level: only 9 states have passed gay rights laws, only a dozen states have passed laws dealing with hate crimes against gay people, two states have anti-gay family laws, and so far 17 states have anti-marriage laws, 23 states still have sodomy laws. In addition to these overtly gay specific laws, state and local policy on education (affecting curriculum, sex education and hiring practices); state policy on health care and insurance; state laws on welfare, medicaid regulations, housing funds, and every other aspect of state funding is going to be decided in the state legislatures, the governor’s offices and city councils.

We must strengthen the capacity of state-wide gay and lesbian organizations to defend and expand GLBT civil rights. State groups need help building their infrastructure so it reaches into every county and precinct; to register voters, educate them as to the state legislative agenda and make it easy for individual GLBT people to weigh in and to win. Let me give you some examples of effective statewide organizing: they come from Kentucky, Maine, and the state of Washington. In Kentucky, the Fairness Campaign has defeated 13 anti-gay bills in this year’s legislative session, including an anti-gay marriage bill. They did so with one paid lobbyist, a statewide Board, a county-by-county grassroots structure of phone trees, and a mailing list of nine thousand names. To generate letters on the marriage bill, they took fax machines to bars! In Maine, with excellent help from HRC and NGLTF, that state’s activists beat an anti-gay referendum last November. To do so, they built a state organizations structured county-by-county and they involved the help of straight allies through careful coalition building.  It worked, and the victory in that state has emboldened the Governor to speak out against the Right’s agenda in that state. In the state of Washington, last month, the venerable Privacy Fund — a legislative-oriented PAC which was struggling to stay in existence, just merged with the grassroots lobby, Hands Off Washington, which had been formed to fight the right in the State and which had generated energy and funds from gay and straight people all over the state. The newly combined group plans to lobby, organize and educate the community through its 501 (c)(3) and 505(c)(4), and plans to maintain a state PAC for traditional political activity.

These three examples are just a hint of the creativity, resourcefulness and potential of statewide gay and lesbian organizations. I believe we should do our utmost to focus national attention to each state’s group, and I have an idea which I want to raise with you, and which I have already proposed to NGLTF — the national group whose mission it is to support and help build state and local organizations. I submit that our next nation-wide action ought not be a March on Washington, but a simultaneous March on 50 State Capitols on a day when as many state legislatures as possible are in session. Imagine, the excitement we could generate as marchers in Alabama knew that they were marching with folks from Alaska for a common gay civil rights agenda! Imagine the media coverage! Imagine the wonderful lobby days we could have!

And then imagine the logistical quagmire of moving this idea forward.  Imagine the turf issues and the egos that will have to be overcome. Imagine the territoriality of getting our movement to cooperate. And you come to the second major set of issues I want to discuss with you — what I call the thermodynamics of gay and lesbian movement work.


As veterans, of whatever duration in our movement, we have each experienced the friction to which I allude. Unlike the corporate world, whose organizational charts and professionalism we can only admire, the gay and lesbian nonprofit world’s organizational chart looks like the Milky Way Galaxy. We are everywhere and we have organized around everything. This incredible multiplicity of organizations, issues and styles of leadership is a great source of strength and contributes the great visibility we currently enjoy. But it is also maddening. Donors most often seize on the multiplicity of organizations by arguing that everyone should merge. While some consolidation should take place, I want to suggest to you that the push for merger ought to be replaced with a push for strategic planning. To push for consolidation and merger leads us into pointless arguments between those who believe we are so diverse that no one organization or individual or set of agendas will represent us all, and between those who believe that we should just shut up and follow somebody (most often themselves).  Merger mania is also suspect in the gay community because as in the corporate world, mergers benefit those who control the merged companies the most. Rather than pushing for merger and consolidation, we should push for the institutionalization of planning, strategic thinking and cooperative projects between existing organizations.

If we had a process by which national leaders discussed long term policies and attempted to come to consensus, we might better anticipate the actions of our enemies, we would certainly deploy our resources more intentionally and thoughtfully than we are currently doing. Example of military and now marriage. Why have we not better coordinated our response? Because our institutional leaders are overwhelmed by the day-to-day grind of fundraising, management, and reacting to attacks against our rights. They are rarely able to think long-term. They easily lose the forest for the trees. They perform heroic service — with too few resources; they are adept at waging media and lobbying fights. Right now, gay groups compete for your funds and for your affections, they compete for media attention, they compete to justify their relevance, they compete for credit over who did what and who really is effective and who is not. What gets lost in this clamor of self-preservation is long-range thinking, creative deployment of our collective resources, the whole process by which sensible political strategy can be set, what rarely gets asked is what is best for the movement – not what is best for the organization.

What I am saying is that our institutional leaders find themselves trapped inside organizational thinking. Having been an organizational leader, and having been removed from such thinking for over three years, I emphatically believe that such territorial thinking remains one of the biggest obstacles to gay and lesbian power. Organizational thinking needs to be replaced with movement thinking and strategy. Organizational thinking is where survival and advancement of the organization is put first, rather than the strategic question of what is best for the movement as a whole or how we could best win on a particular issue. Movement thinking means that we start with an open ended question of how best to tackle the problem we face — we involve lots of organizational leaders in the discussion of this question, develop ideas about solutions and then determine who is best positioned to do the work, and how we all can support that group in doing its work. We need to deploy all of our assets in thoughtful manner, we need vehicles for discussion of movement priorities, ways to respond quickly in a crisis, ways to involve lots of people in the process of discussion (via email or phone conference or physical meeting).

A second dimension of the internal heat (and internal combustion) so often experienced in our movement comes from the differences among us according to race, gender, political orientation and economic class. Because of this diversity, we will not agree on all things that our movement does. But I believe that our movement has a responsibility to see itself as a coalition: we are a coalition of many kinds of gay and lesbian and queer people. As such, we cannot pretend that racism or sexism are someone else’s issue –to do so denies the impact of race and gender on the lives of all GLBT people — white or of color, male, female or transgendered.

What does this mean practically? First, we ought to be a movement for human rights, not just a movement for gay rights — the name HRC must be more than a closet in which we feel comfortable.

Second, we have to admit that sexism and racism affect different people in our GLBT communities’, in our GLBT coalition, differently — there is such a thing as bias and prejudice and the only question we must answer is whether we will ignore it or address it. This is a choice –funders certainly have the freedom to target whatever population they wish — be it South Asian lesbians or white gay men! But I do think programs and organizations which strive to represent the entire GLBT community have an obligation to know the issues which affect different sub-populations in our communities, and to craft policy and give voice to those concerns.

Finally, on our diversity, we must give ourselves a break and acknowledge that in so many ways, gay and lesbian people are so far ahead of the mainstream world in our acknowledgement of cultural differences. Because of our marginalization, we are personally conscious of issues of inclusion and exclusion, because of our self-consciousness about sex, we are aware of power and its interplay with gender, class, and roles — I believe white gay men can be as self-conscious and sensitive to these dynamics as lesbians and gay men of color. Why don’t we simply admit that many of us do start the conversation in a different place than traditional conservatives or traditional racists?

Having admitted that, the next step in our work towards being a truly multi-racial movement is to move away from thinking that diversity means having one of each, rather it means representing each in one — or taking the responsibility to act on your knowledge and sensitivity to being an outsider on behalf of other excluded groups. Don’t get me wrong — representation is very important, our boards, your donor groups, staffs will be changed by the presence of strong women or strong people of color. But trying to get one of each kind of diversity should be a first step to the larger challenge of taking responsibility to speak up against racism, sexism, homophobia or other prejudice.

Culture Power vs. Political Power

The final set of issues I want to raise involve what holds us back from building a politically powerful movement today. I think three things hold us back: self-esteem issues and our new-ness as a political movement; our over-reliance on money and underdevelopment of traditional votes; and a false political complacency which has accompanied enormous cultural visibility.

The first set of reasons — the struggle to build self-esteem and the youthfulness of our institutions — are both by-products of queer history. One consequence of long-term stigmatization and anti-gay/lesbian prejudice has been damage to the psyches and emotional well-being of gay and lesbian people. Despite all the progress we have made, we come to the acceptance of our selves as whole, healthy, normal natural human beings slowly and with far too much pain. Each gay individual still has to find, invent and nurture himself or herself individually, most often in the context of a hostile family of origin,  a religious background which
condemns homosexuality and a social context in which the vast majority of gay people still remain in the closet. Concurrently, our families of origin — parents, siblings, grandparents, cousins — have few opportunities to find the support they need to help them come out. Such individual self-awareness and acceptance, and the shame that so many of us still carry, limits our movement in many ways.

Most obviously, the individualized nature of coming out and the internalized stigma we all carry hurts us in being counted: only a fraction of us are out in the public sphere. For example, the 3% of gay voters who self identified as queer in 1992 exit polls is clearly no indicator of the size of the gay vote — we all know people who would not identify if they were asked even by their best friend, much less a stranger at a poll. Polls have estimated the numbers of those who identify as gay/lesbian or bi variously from 1% to 5%, and yet, polls of sexual behavior suggest that as many as 1/3 of gay men and up to 19% of women have had one or more same-sex experiences which they do not necessarily classify as making them queer. How can we build political power out of a constituency that chooses to remain invisible? With enormous difficulty.

Another obstacle to gay and lesbian political power comes from the new-ness of our institutions. Our oldest national legal and political organizations are under 23 years old; HRC is 16 years old; and most community centers, clinics, state and local groups date less than ten years in age. This newness means that our own community often does not know what these movement organizations do, does not understand their history and does not even regard them as strong, stable and long-term institutions. Further, our political youth leads us to have few traditions of giving; few tried and true strategies for success; and few ways of passing down what we have learned from generation to generation. To build power, we have to aggressively promote gay and lesbian institutions, to strengthen their capacity for long-term survival, and to educate our own people about the importance of sustaining them.

At a national retreat I attended two years ago, Barney Frank made two observations that I think we must grapple with if we are to answer the question about political power. First he observed that we have placed an over-reliance on political money as the pathway to political power; and second he observed that we have created a community more interested in celebrating its identity than in organizing for its power. I think Barney is right on both counts.

There are two forms of political currency which build power in American politics — one is indeed money, and the other is votes. Barney argued that we need to prioritize the more painstaking process of building a political constituency — a voting bloc around our issues — and not just concentrate on PAC work.  Focusing on the construction of a gay-rights voting bloc requires us to consider tactics we have only just begun to use –voter identification and mobilization, registration drives, get out the vote programs. It requires us to be able to reach and to deploy supporters of gay rights at the local level — in every state. It requires us to do political education, to motivate ordinary gay people to get involved in the political process. And that process of motivation, channeling and organizing is a local one. When I say that I want you to understand that we can have national models that get adopted in each state, but the task of getting to voters and getting them to vote is one which no national organization can do — but state and local organizations can indeed do this.

A final problem with political power we encounter as we organize in our gay communities is the tension of trying to move a subculture into politics. This is an ironic tension — as our movement succeeds, we create a subculture. I think we all love our subcultures — of bars, restaurants, social groups, lifestyle magazines, gay friendly spaces, books, films, art, music and so much more — these things help us enjoy and take pride in who we are, and they allow us to find community with each other. But the existence of the subculture undermines our arguments to our own people that gayness is a status that is under siege and that we still have a lot of political work to do! Today, cultural visibility deludes people into believing that political power has been won, and hides the prejudice and discrimination we still face. This is a huge source of the political apathy we confront. How do we overcome this? By education and inreach inside our own communities. In the past year, I have spoken before literally thousands of gay and lesbian people — students, community groups, gay people of every type and background. What I find is a hunger for history and factual information; an exciting engagement with political analysis; and a desire for concrete direction on how they each can contribute. What I also find is that too few of my colleagues are doing this kind of missionary work! Education and inreach to create a common well of knowledge among new generations of newly out people; production of our own educational videos and materials to teach our people the history, facts and analysis they will not find in mainstream educational institutions or workplaces; support for media, conferences and gatherings which bring people together to learn and share — these are some of the strategies for combatting apathy.


In this short overview of the state of the gay and lesbian union, I have argued six things:
(1) that we need to develop our public policy agenda with respect to social services and the role of government and the private sector in the provision of those services;
(2) that we need to shift a lot more resources to state organizations and see them as the principal weapons in the next state of our movement’s fight for justice;
(3) that we need to encourage concrete ways for strategic thinking and long term planning to happen in the gay and lesbian movement;
(4) that race, gender, class and other difference among us is no excuse to create an exclusive politics;
(5) that we need to spend lots of energy to actually organize a gay-supportive vote –by reaching gay people, and our allies in systematic ways through local and state organizations; and
(6) that we need to remember that education and inreach of our own people are as important as education and outreach to the heterosexual mainstream.

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