Gays vs. Democratic Party
They’re fond of your checkbooks — and deaf to your demands for equal rights. What will it take for the Democratic Party to step up?
By James Kirchick
In 2004, Andy Szekeres, then a 21-year-old budding Democratic strategist with several political campaigns already under his belt, was working as the Wisconsin LGBT field coordinator for John Kerry’s presidential campaign. Szekeres estimates that he and his team registered 26,000 new gay voters across the crucial swing state that year, and on Election Night, Kerry won the state by about 11,000 votes—less than 0.5% of the overall vote. Though the win can be attributed to the support of various constituencies, there’s no question that Wisconsin would have wound up red—not blue—if it hadn’t been for gay voters’ strong backing of the Democratic ticket.
Fast-forward five years to Maine, where social conservatives proposed and funded Question 1, a November ballot initiative that, like Proposition 8 in California, successfully repealed marriage equality in the state. Szekeres worked as finance director for No on 1/Protect Maine Equality, which opposed the initiative. But he says his experience with the Democratic Party was significantly different this time. While the national party had been more than happy to enlist the support of gay donors and campaign workers in its effort to get Kerry elected in 2004, it couldn’t be bothered to involve itself in the fight to maintain those voters’ and workers’ right to marry.
In a November e-mail to Politico’s Ben Smith, a Democratic National Committee official seemed to indicate that the party’s inaction on Question 1 stemmed from its desire not to be seen as prioritizing one cause over another. “In Maine there were over a half dozen ballot initiatives and referendums, and local municipal elections at stake, and OFA [Organizing for America, the Obama presidential campaign operation’s successor, which works within the DNC] sent an e-mail to thousands of activists encouraging them to vote in support of progressive causes and candidates,” the official wrote. In fact, it was only after prompted by The Advocate’s Washington correspondent, Kerry Eleveld, that the White House issued an oblique statement about Question 1—a reiteration of the president’s general opposition to measures aimed at rescinding marriage rights. Maine wasn’t explicitly addressed.
“I don’t think Maine was a sexy enough state for [the DNC] to invest in,” Szekeres says today, suggesting that had the battle taken place in a bigger state, the party might have taken a more active role. In 2008 the DNC wrote a $25,000 check to fight Prop. 8 (a pittance in an $83 million campaign). That involvement left many to wonder why the party didn’t do the same in Maine, where $25,000 could have paid for two days of TV ads or two weeks’ pay for 10 field organizers. The DNC did send an e-mail blast to its members in Maine reminding them to vote, but there was no mention of Question 1. That oversight was compounded when John Aravosis of AmericaBlog revealed that the party sent out a second e-mail, asking its members in Maine to make phone calls in support of the embattled Democratic governor—in New Jersey.
Szekeres’s experience is illustrative of the problem that many gay people, one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies alongside African-Americans and Jews, have vis-à-vis their relationship with the Democratic Party. “We give money to get something,” he says. “We don’t give money to get warm fuzzies. If I wanted that, I’d give money to the cat shelter.”
In the wake of the Maine defeat, a coterie of liberal bloggers and activists called for a temporary moratorium on DNC donations. The fledgling movement, which has adopted the motto “Don’t Ask, Don’t Give” and has attracted the likes of legendary gay rights activist David Mixner, hopes to discourage donations to the party until the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the repeal of both “don’t ask, don’t tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act. In so doing, these activists are hoping to reshape—if not completely upset—the relationship between gays and the Democratic Party.
The gay rights movement hasn’t always had a vested interest in mainstream political organizing. Most of the influential figures in early gay liberation were radicals who wanted to upend the American political and social system, not join it. The sentiment was reciprocated, as hardly anyone in the Republican or Democratic party wanted anything to do with homosexuals. Most gay activists had little choice but to spend nearly all of the 1970s as political outsiders.
But with the rise of the new right and Moral Majority in the latter part of that decade, homosexuality itself became a political issue and gay people themselves targets. If activists had earlier been content theorizing and exhorting on the political margins, they now had to plead their case to the general public. In 1978 gays in California and around the country rallied to help defeat the Briggs Initiative, which would have barred gay people from teaching in the public schools. Today, supporters of the DNC boycott point to President Carter’s cursory but effective opposition to the Briggs Initiative and say that, at the very least, is what President Obama and the Democratic Party could and should be doing in support of gay rights.
Several years later, AIDS pushed homosexuality to the forefront of the American consciousness and revitalized gay activism as a life-or-death proposition. In 1992, Bill Clinton was the first major-party presidential nominee to openly court gays as a political constituency, raising millions of dollars from them in the process. While his administration saw remarkable progress in terms of gay political visibility, it also led to a series of disastrous setbacks, from the enactment of DADT to the passage of DOMA.
According to Aravosis, a Democratic political consultant who helped initiate the DNC boycott on his blog, the current political atmosphere is beginning to “feel like 1993, but not in a good way.” Then, as now, gays were thrilled at the prospect of a fresh-faced young president who spoke about their issues in a humane and understanding fashion. Like Clinton, Obama seems to get gay concerns, and he’s personally comfortable around gay people. Although they offered pleasant speeches and frequent photo opportunities, both the Clinton and early Obama administrations provided little in terms of tangible legislative progress. And as the party apparatus tends to fall in line when its man is in the White House, the DNC has assumed the role of blocking back for the president’s inaction.
With the 2010 midterm congressional election looking increasingly perilous for progressives, thus making the imperative to pass pro-gay legislation before then all the more urgent, a picture is beginning to emerge of a Democratic president and political party that are, as Szekeres describes them, happy to take money and votes from gay people but less inclined to spend political capital on their behalf. So far, the only piece of significant gay rights legislation to pass Congress and receive the president’s signature is the expansion of the hate-crimes act, which was ultimately appended to a defense spending bill. Hearings on ENDA and the repeal of DADT have been delayed, and the prospects for getting DOMA off the books are dimming. Perhaps candidate Obama made too many promises; even some of his strongest supporters acknowledge that his early guarantees for change may be coming back to haunt him. “I wish he had said he was a ‘firm and steady ally’ rather than a ‘fierce advocate,’” says one prominent gay Democrat.
Losses on the state level have only darkened impressions of the DNC in the eyes of some gay activists. In addition to the revocation of equal marriage rights in Maine, the New York state senate rejected a marriage equality bill in December, with eight Democrats joining all of the chamber’s Republicans. At press time it appears marriage in New Jersey, which once looked like a surefire bet, may not make it through the legislature. “Many of us in the progressive movement just want to throw up,” Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality told Newark’s Star-Ledger. “Democrats put out one hand to ask for money, and with the other they stab you in the back.”
Sensing the rumblings of discontent among a loyal constituency, the party has not been silent. Partly in response to the brewing anger, gay DNC treasurer Andrew Tobias recently sent out an e-mail containing what he termed a “nicely growing list” of pro-gay initiatives sponsored by the Obama administration. The message was long, but nearly all of the measures—the decision to sign on to a United Nations declaration condemning the criminalization of homosexuality, a presidential proclamation celebrating Gay Pride Month, the appointment of an openly gay ambassador to New Zealand—were largely symbolic.
It’s unclear what effect a gay-led boycott of the DNC will have. Paul Yandura, a Democratic activist, prefers the term “strategic reward” to describe the effort, arguing that gays should make donations conditional on the passage of legislation. (Yandura’s partner, Donald Hitchcock, was fired from his position as the DNC’s gay outreach adviser in 2006 after Yandura released a memo criticizing then-DNC chairman Howard Dean’s lack of effort on promoting gay rights causes. The party settled a lawsuit brought by Hitchcock last year.) Withheld donations from the gay community wouldn’t be token resistance, Yandura claims. “Big picture, we raise millions for Democrats and DNC specifically. At one point I had documents that showed we were one fifth of money that comes from constituencies.”
Gay voters’ frustration with the Democratic Party in general, and Obama in particular, is one piece of a larger narrative of progressive disenchantment with the first year of the new administration. Members of the president’s liberal base have experienced a rude awakening: They are not as powerful as they thought they were. Despite all their efforts, Congress failed to pass a health care package with a public option, and the president has chosen to escalate the war in Afghanistan with a surge of 30,000 additional troops, two stances sharply at odds with the views of his base. Seen in this context, the Democratic Party’s lackadaisical approach to gay rights isn’t that remarkable.
But this view holds only if one considers gay rights to be a “liberal” issue. And that is where the gay rights movement may be making a major strategic mistake. It’s widely acknowledged that two of the most successful lobbies in Washington are the National Rifle Association, which advocates for the loosening of gun laws, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which encourages a strong relationship between the United States and Israel. These organizations have members across the country and are feared and respected on Capitol Hill for the sway they have over Congress.
The most salient feature of both the NRA and AIPAC is that they are bipartisan lobbies (while the NRA is commonly associated with the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally, many of its rank-and-file members and supporters in Congress are Democrats, including some of the red-state congressmen elected in the Democratic wave of 2006). Advocates of gun rights and Israel have been successful in persuading appreciable numbers of Democrats and Republicans that their causes are in the national interest and that by supporting them, politicians will help ensure, not jeopardize, their electoral success. After many years of relentless campaigning, the NRA has, for the most part, been successful in keeping Congress from legislating on guns. And AIPAC can rely on the signatures of most congressmen whenever a resolution is introduced that expresses support for Israel.
It will be far more difficult for gays to achieve the same sort of bipartisan consensus. The issue of guns is largely a geographical one that cuts across party lines: Rural voters, whether in liberal Minnesota or conservative Mississippi, are likely to have similar views about the right to bear arms, even if they disagree about prayer in schools or tax cuts. In pursuing voters in red districts, the national Democratic Party has wisely stayed quiet on the issue, allowing candidates in conservative areas to express their gun rights sympathies.
Similarly, most Americans instinctively consider themselves to be “pro-Israel,” if for very different reasons. Seventy-eight percent of American Jews, for instance, voted for Obama, yet they share little in common with the evangelical Christians who are just as passionate about the security of the Jewish state. Ultimately, gun rights and Israel hold special places in the American imagination, having to do with basic notions of individual liberty, the Judeo-Christian origins of the United States, and support for democracy abroad.
Where guns and Israel may be popular among a broad swath of the American electorate, however, gay causes haven’t been. It’s only recently—in the last 15 years or so—that gay people haven’t been seen politically as “diseased pariahs,” Aravosis says. It took decades of tireless activism, education, and personal interaction for politicians to even want to be seen in public with gay activists, let alone vote in favor of pro-gay legislation. Remember that in 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole publicly returned a check from the Log Cabin Republicans. In 2008, John McCain warmly accepted the gay group’s endorsement.
Yet McCain won his party’s nomination due to vote splitting by a glut of conservative primary opponents; his brand of moderate Republicanism may have died with his general election defeat. As it relentlessly and often mindlessly attacks nearly every aspect of Obama’s agenda, the GOP is hardly in a place to advocate for issues like the repeal of DADT or DOMA (though, to be fair, shrill opposition to gay rights does not seem to be an animating cause of the antitax “tea party” movement that has rapidly gained influence within GOP ranks). In November the Log Cabin Republicans publicly protested a “litmus test” proposed by Republican National Committee members, a stipulation of which would require 2010 congressional candidates to oppose gay marriage. “The RNC should be looking for ways to spread our inclusive message, rather than turning its back on committed, conservative, qualified candidates,” Log Cabin chairman Terry Hamilton says. So the question for gay rights advocates hoping to work within the two-party system is not whether they can mainstream their agenda to the point where it becomes a nonpartisan affair à la gun rights or Israel, but whether either party can be trusted as a vehicle of gay progress.
That conundrum leaves gay activists in a bind. Many, like those who showed up at the White House ceremony last summer marking the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, see the DNC as an effective tool that, while hardly perfect, is better than nothing. “The administration is going to continue to make steady progress on our issues whether we help strengthen its hand or not,” says the DNC’s Tobias. “But the stronger it is, the faster that progress will come.” These Democratic partisans acknowledge that the work required of any civil rights struggle is going to be slow and difficult. But rather than attack the party, they say it’s better to support the team that is at least rhetorically supportive.
The other side, which seems to be gaining influence, doesn’t want to play the old-fashioned political game of quid pro quo, which, it argues, is offering little if any value in return for gay people’s historically generous support. “I’m not beating you as hard as the other person” is how Mixner describes this rationale. Party critics often are met with the response that the DNC and the president are focused on more pressing issues like health-care reform and the economy. But a full year into the Obama presidency, and with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Aravosis calls this explanation “a recipe for never.”
But while able and willing to recite a litany of arguments against the party and why gays should withhold their support, DNC critics are less clear about tangible goals. “Goals? Good question,” Aravosis replies when asked what he hopes to achieve with the boycott. He gestures toward an answer when he says gay activists should adopt the same attitude regarding Democrats as they have with Republicans—and stop being so deferential out of some presumed understanding that one party is better than the other on gay issues. “The damage to the party brand has been significant” over the past year, he says, and the Democrats’ reputation as the benevolent crusader for gay rights no longer holds sway in the minds of as many gays as it once did. But when I offer the explanation that the gay campaign against the DNC may have the effect of a “death by a thousand cuts,” irreparably damaging the decades-long ties between the Democratic Party and the gay rights movement, Aravosis delights at the analogy. “We’re just saying we’re going to take you down with us,” he says. “We’re going to blow this up and it’s going to hurt you too.”
Where will all this public frustration lead? Are gay people simply too small of a minority—maybe just 5% of the population—to have a major effect on American politics? “As a practical matter, nobody in the White House is thinking, Oh, my God, the gay money is going to be shut off, even if it were 100% effective,” says one prominent LGBT supporter of the Obama administration.
Mixner and company remain defiant—whatever the consequences. “The goal is freedom,” he says, “And we have to go get it. They’re not going to give it to us. Instead of pumping money into the Democratic Party right now, we should be pumping money into our struggle for civil rights. Lobbying Washington. Challenging state ballot initiatives. Engaging in civil disobedience…. There’s no one right way.”