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EDITORIAL: 3 tasks for the year ahead: No free rides for Democrats, no more waiting for rights advances and no more excuses in HIV fight


Washington Blade - June 12, 2009

RIDE REPRESENTS AS good a time as any to pause and evaluate the state of the LGBT movement and although it�s been a momentous year (Obama�s election, marriage rights in six states) it appears that the year ahead will be a tough one.

Last year, many LGBT activists, donors and voters were focused on electing Barack Obama president and expanding Democratic majorities in Congress, while also fighting off anti-gay ballot initiatives in three states, including California. The outcome, of course, was bittersweet as many of us celebrated Obama�s victory while mourning the passage of Proposition 8.

The year ahead holds more complicated trials for a movement that is maturing and changing. As our national LGBT rights groups like Human Rights Campaign urge patience and promise that the White House has �a plan� for advancing gay rights initiatives, grassroots organizers aren�t so sure. There is an overwhelming sense that the Democratic Party is very close to exhausting the collective patience of LGBT Americans who have supported it with money and votes and, so far anyway, received very little in return.

Sure, we get annual Pride proclamations in June. But where are the legislative victories and public support of our congressional allies at this critical time? Since taking control of Congress in 2006, the Democrats have still not managed to pass a single piece of gay rights legislation through both houses.

Last June, candidate Obama issued an open letter to gay voters, pledging his full support for a federal hate crimes law and a trans-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act. He also reiterated his support for a repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and �Don�t Ask, Don�t Tell.� �As your president I will use the bully pulpit to urge states to treat same-sex couples with full equality in their family and adoption laws,� Obama said in the letter.

MUCH HAS CHANGED in recent months for the better, even if it�s not all attributable to the White House. Same-sex couples are now marrying in six states; the official White House web site includes a list of pro-gay commitments; Obama has named gays and lesbians to several high-level posts, including John Berry at OPM and Kevin Jennings at Education. And recent poll numbers on same-sex marriage rights are cause for celebration. While only 40 percent support full marriage rights, that number jumps to 49 percent among those who know an openly gay person, affirming the importance of coming out. What else could explain the parade of prominent Republicans � Dick Cheney, Steve Schmidt, Meghan McCain, Ted Olson � who now support same-sex marriage? Five months into his administration, Obama�s White House has publicly endorsed the hate crimes bill, which passed the House but remains MIA in the Senate. ENDA has not yet been introduced. DOMA remains federal law, even though same-sex couples are now legally married from California to Iowa to Massachusetts. And the military�s gay ban remains in effect, with little hope of repeal this year.

HRC�s legislative approach � endorsed by congressional allies � is to move on hate crimes and ENDA in 2009 with a �Don�t Ask, Don�t Tell� repeal in 2010.

If Congress wakes up and finally passes some of these long-suffering bills, then HRC will claim victory. If, however, our so-called Democratic �allies� can�t pass ENDA and hate crimes and a �Don�t Ask, Don�t Tell� repeal is off the table come December 2009, then the entire movement is a bust and everyone working in it should resign and make way for more effective leadership. There will never be a better time to advance these measures. The Democrats have made lots of promises to LGBT voters and, more importantly to them, to gay donors. We�ve waited patiently for those politicians to deliver. Come December, my patience runs out. The clock is ticking.

THE UNCERTAIN YEAR ahead illustrates the pitfalls of a maturing movement. Power within that movement is shifting from a centralized few groups that know best to a decentralized mass of grassroots organizers, bloggers and others fed up with the slow pace of change. Rather than fighting religious right zealots, gay rights advocates are debating each other about the best way forward. In addition to resolving internal conflicts over strategy, those same advocates who�ve been so beholden to Democrats will finally be forced to stand up to the party this year. Will HRC, the Task Force and others aggressively hold Democrats accountable for their myriad promises? I�m hopeful they will, but history suggests otherwise.

And our challenges aren�t limited to Congress. Last week, the Blade hosted its first panel discussion featuring LGBT youth and elders and the results were moving, tearful and sometimes startling. The idea was to bring together a handful of youth and elders to talk about coming out, Pride, the state of the movement and more in a casual setting. Karen Taylor, director of advocacy and training for SAGE, acted as facilitator and Andrew Barnett, executive director of SMYAL, participated and recruited youth volunteers. Special thanks to them and to Cathy Renna for her help in coordinating it and to all of our volunteers who are profiled in this issue. Be sure to visit our web site,, to watch video of the conversation.

Although there were some common experiences among the panelists, such as coping with disapproving parents, other topics revealed the generational divide, most notably on HIV/AIDS.

Several of the young participants spoke of HIV as �not their problem.� HIV is widely viewed among many younger gays as a manageable illness, rather than the death sentence that my generation grew up fearing. Some assumed that HIV will be cured soon and that if you contract the disease, you simply �take a pill.� Of course, our elders jumped at the chance to remind them of the realities and history of HIV. In Washington, 3 percent are officially infected, but health officials have said the true number is probably closer to 5 percent. These numbers � and the attitudes of our young panelists � say a lot more about those of us who survived the �80s than those who weren�t alive then. We�ve failed to teach the painful history of AIDS and imbued young gay people with a false sense of security.

So as we prepare to celebrate another year of Pride, let�s commit to a few basic tasks in the year ahead. First, no more free rides for Democrats who take our support and then run and hide when we need them most. Second, no more waiting. If legislative advances fail to materialize in 2009, then we need to clean house and staff the professional LGBT rights movement with fresh leadership. And third, we must all do a better job of fighting HIV. It�s not the government�s job � or any AIDS service provider�s job � to make sure you use a condom.

Here�s to Pride 2010, when I hope we�re celebrating a year of long-overdue victories.


Copyright © 2009 -The Washington Blade, Publisher. All rights reserved to Washington Blade. Reproduction of this article (other than one copy for personal reference) must be cleared through the Washington Blade.

Information in this article was accurate in June 12, 2009. The state of the art may have changed since the publication date. This material is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between you and your doctor. Always discuss treatment options with a doctor who specializes in treating HIV.