"Liberty for All" Conference Spotlights Political Transformation Under Way in Gay Movement
Wide Range of Gay Leaders Find Common Ground Despite Differences; Extremists from Left and Right Fail to Derail Successful Gathering; McCain Wins Log Cabin "Straw Poll"
(NEW YORK) Nearly 300 local, state and national leaders in the Log Cabin movement joined prominent gay and lesbian leaders from across the political spectrum for "Liberty for All – The 1999 Log Cabin National Leadership Conference" in New York this weekend, despite attempts from extremists on both the left and right to disrupt the proceedings.
"The conference was the most important we've ever held, and its success solidified a clear shift that is taking place in the gay movement," said Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans. "There is a transformation going on across the country. For a generation, one political party has taken us for granted while the other has written us off. Now, we are emerging as a dynamic, bipartisan voting bloc that both parties must deal with seriously. As this is happening, the movement's leaders are growing closer together, finding greater common ground across a wide ideological diversity, and holding public dialogue on a scale not seen before. And with any such transformation, those who had the most invested in the polarized status quo, notably extremists on the far left and the far right, are beginning to resort to increasingly desperate tactics to stop it."
A Powerful Challenge to Military Policy Opens Conference
The conference opened as State Rep. Steve May (R-AZ) was featured on the front page of the New York Times on Thursday, August 26. May, an openly gay national board member of Log Cabin Republicans who was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 1998, had been ordered into active duty by the U.S. Army Reserves in April despite being a well-known openly gay elected official. Now, after being called up by the Pentagon and following those orders, he is facing discharge under the Clinton administration's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, setting up a new line of public attack against the 6-year old policy. At a press conference held at the opening of the Liberty for All conference on August 27, May said his case "is a clear example of how absurd and ridiculous this policy has become" and that his case is one of upholding the moral values of the military code.
"After being out of the military for 3 1/2 years, subsequently being open and honest about my sexual orientation as a person seeking public office, the Army called me back," May said. "There was an international crisis, and a shortage of officers. I followed orders and I am serving honorably. Now I am facing discharge."
"Honesty and integrity are the kind of values I learned early on in life, as an Eagle Scout and as a conservative Republican," May said. "They are the core principles of my faith, my Party, of the oath of office that I proudly uphold as a legislator, and the oath to which I am sworn as a commissioned officer. They are among the core principles that we members of the Armed Forces take pride in defending – duty, honor and country. I don't believe that honesty and integrity are part time values – they are something I was taught to apply to everything in life."
May continues to serve in the U.S. Army Reserves, while the official military "investigation" into his sexual orientation continues. He is being assisted by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (www.sldn.org), which joined Log Cabin Republicans and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund in a joint news release on May's case on August 26. [Note: May will discuss his case on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Monday, August 30.]
Common Ground and Unity Despite Differences
On Saturday, August 28, the conference plenary featured a wide array of gay political and intellectual leaders who spoke of unity and common ground despite diverging ideological and strategic positions. Winnie Stachelberg of the Human Rights Campaign (www.hrc.org) praised the work of Log Cabin activists within the GOP, and urged them to hold Republican leaders accountable for their positions on legislation. Brian Bond, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund (www.victoryfund.org), spoke of the vital importance of expanding the field of openly gay elected officials in both parties, while exploring ways that various gay groups can take different sides in election campaigns involving gay candidates without fraying movement unity. Jonathan Rauch, national correspondent for National Journal, spoke of a libertarian radical independent center towards which he argued the gay movemement was headed. He spoke of the cutting edge writing of an online writers' group called the Independent Gay Forum [www.indegayforum.org]
"I predict that within this next decade Jonathan's views as articulated here today will be the guiding principles of the gay movement," Tafel said.
In the most provocative plenary address, Urvashi Vaid, director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute (www.ngltf.org) spoke passionately about a progressive GLBT agenda, and how gay conservatives and gay progressives could continue to advance staunchly ideological positions against a backdrop of community unity. Vaid didn't shy away from criticizing Log Cabin on a range of topics, while arguing that real dialogue, mutual respect and even affinity between gay groups and gay leaders at serious political odds would set a remarkable example for society at large.
"The plenary discussion was the public debut of a substantive dialogue that has been going on privately among a very diverse group of national gay leaders for some time," Tafel said. "After a generation of infamous and sometimes theatrical divisions in the movement, there is no mistaking that the leadership and large parts of the grass roots are starting to build stronger ties to one another, even as ideological diversity is on the rise." [NOTE: The plenary discussion was taped by C-SPAN for broadcast. Visit www.c-span.org for air dates.]
Gay Republicans Celebrate Upswing in Political Influence
With a rapidly growing number of openly gay Republicans running for office and increasing their clout as GOP activists, the conference focused heavily on their progress, and ways in which more gay Republicans can enter the field and multiply their numbers. Training seminars were held on grass-roots fundraising and organizing strategies by Chuck Muth of the Republican Liberty Caucus. Tony Esoldo of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation held a training session on running for political office, and Russell Roybal of the Gill Foundation held a seminar on the basics of one-on-one fundraising.
In the spotlight were a number of openly gay Republican elected officials and the growing array of local, state and national Republican leaders embracing the Log Cabin movement. A panel discussion among five openly gay GOP elected officials focused on the value of serving in office, and the challenges for future candidates. Those who spoke were State Rep Steve May (R-AZ), Mayor Neil Giuliano (R-Tempe, AZ), Councilmember David Catania (R-Washington, D.C.), Councilman Dan Stewart (R-Plattsburgh, NY), and Councilman William Schmidt (R-Peekskill, NY). [NOTE: This panel was taped by C-SPAN for broadcast. Visit www.c-span.org for air dates.]
The keynote address of the conference was given by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) of New York City. In his speech before the national banquet, Giuliani spoke of the important work of Log Cabin within the Republican Party, and called on the national GOP to continue to move toward greater inclusion of gays. Giuliani also spoke of his pro-gay record as Mayor, including his sweeping domestic partnership proposal which became law in 1997 and his lobbying efforts on hate crimes and anti-discrimination bills at the state and national level.
"Mayor Giuliani represents the Republican Party of the future," Tafel said. "He leads a city in which both political parties aggressively compete for gay votes, and his success in winning every single gay neighborhood in New York City by wide margins in his 1997 re-election illustrates the enormous potential for an inclusive and positive Republican message."
McCain Wins First-Ever Log Cabin "Straw Poll"
In a non-binding straw poll at the end of the conference, participants heard from personal friends and supporters of two front-runners for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination who spoke in favor of Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ). The Dole campaign had been invited to send a representative to speak but did not respond.
McCain won 58% of the votes, while Bush placed second with 37%. Dole was a distant third with 5% of the vote.
"While a Log Cabin endorsement is as much as a year away, this exercise showed that Log Cabin members are enthusiastic about the 2000 election cycle, and they believe there are choices for them among the top candidates," Tafel said. "We are entering the phase of the campaign where meeting and talking with the candidates and discussing a range of topics on the record is necessary to have a better perspective on the top three Republican candidates."
Extremists from Left and Right Botch Attempts at Disrupting Conference
The conference was a success despite attempts by activists from the far left and the far right to disrupt it. It began when anti-gay activist Peter LaBarbera, who writes the newsletter "Culture Facts" for the Family Research Council, irregularly publishes a newsletter called "Lambda Report" and heads a group called Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, issued a press release attacking Log Cabin Republicans as "homosexual activists first, Republicans second," and warned that the party's continued moves toward inclusion of gays would drive people like him from the GOP. LaBarbera also attacked Governor Christie Whitman (R-NJ) for her ties to Log Cabin, and added that "leftist lesbian Urvashi Vaid is among those addressing the group."
LaBarbera also attempted to hold a press conference at the Roosevelt Hotel, where the Liberty for All conference was being held, but failed to gain access.
For several months before the conference, a group called Fed Up Queers tried unsuccessfully to register its members for the conference under a false name "Gays for Social Change" in order to gain access to the events and disrupt them. On Saturday, August 28, during Mayor Giuliani's keynote address, the group of 10 to 15 activists, some of whom wore chains, entered the hotel through the back door of an adjacent restaurant, went to the mezzanine level of the hotel and attempted to break down the locked doors of the ballroom foyer. The pounding was clearly heard on video footage of the Mayor's speech broadcast on WABC-TV and NY-1 News in New York, and the Mayor paused and mused, "they're here..."
The activists physically confronted two banquet attendees that were in the hallway outside the foyer, and ran down into the lobby once hotel security arrived at the doors. While a wedding reception of nearly 200 people was in progress in an open lobby reception area less than 30 feet away, the activists began screaming epithets and chanting, throwing pagers, spitting in people's faces and knocking down hotel employees on the marble floor. They attempted to chain themselves to furniture and railings as hotel security tried to remove them. News crews covering the conference arrived in the lobby as the melee was escalating, and captured on video near the hotel exit one activist kicking a hotel security guard in the crotch. The guard responded by hitting the activist in the face, at which point a police officer told the security guard to "back off." The activist was treated for minor cuts and released, according to the New York Post.
Several of the activists involved in the attack on the conference were arrested and charged with criminal trespass. The NYPD said publicly that if the activist wanted to press charges against the security guard who hit her, they would follow through as well.
"The attacks from both extremes is not surprising at a time when things are changing for the better," Tafel said. "They have so much invested in conflict and dischord that all the positive changes going on in the political sphere threaten their outdated world view. Both groups are clearly also working out deeply ingrained personal problems through their political actions, rather than contributing anything worthwhile to either the Republican Party in LaBarbera's case or the gay movement in the case of the Fed Up Queers. Violence in all its forms is wrong, and inciting intolerance and violence, from the left or the right, is complicit. What both of these extremes engage in is unfortunate, but it must not disrupt the progress under way."
"Even as we open larger dialogues, both with the Republican Party and among gay leaders, most people want to talk but some people will always just want to scream," Tafel concluded. "We can lead by moral example, refuse to give extremists any ground, and pull together as a community as we move into a new period of serious political power in this country."
The Liberty for All conference was sponsored by the Liberty Education Fund, an educational organization affiliated with Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest gay Republican organization with state and local chapters nationwide, a full-time Washington office and a federal political action committee.