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The New Gay Struggle

12 minute read
Richard Lacayo

What people mean when they say Matthew Shepard’s murder was a lynching is that he was killed to make a point. When he was 21 years old, the world’s arguments reached him with deadly force and printed their worst conclusions across him. So he was stretched along a Wyoming fence not just as a dying young man but as a signpost. “When push comes to shove,” it says, “this is what we have in mind for gays.”

Three days after Shepard died, a crowd of around 5,000 gathered in the night on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, in a candlelight vigil that struggled to make another argument and extract another message from his death. Ellen DeGeneres, Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank, the openly gay Massachusetts Congressman–all the expected speakers took the microphone. What was less expected was the sheer turnout of lawmakers at a moment when Congress was embroiled in the crazy closing hours of the budget deal. So many members showed up to voice their grief and anger that House minority leader Dick Gephardt had time only to read their names. “It speaks volumes about how much progress we’ve made,” says Winnie Stachelberg, lobbyist for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s biggest gay-rights group. “Yet Matthew’s death shows how much farther we have to go.”

A lot farther, and through swamps. However much it revolted people all around the country, don’t count on Shepard’s murder to revolutionize the intractable politics of gay rights in Washington or elsewhere. In the aftermath of the killing, President Clinton urged Congress to pass the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, a bill long bottled up by conservatives and other groups in Congress because it would broaden the definition of hate crimes to include assaults on gays as well as women and the disabled. But with Congress adjourned until after Election Day, the momentum to pass the bill is no sure thing.

And while Shepard’s death has forced even the most belligerently anti-gay conservatives to situate themselves carefully–condemning the murder while insisting they contributed nothing to the atmosphere that might legitimize it–the Republican Party, beholden to its Christian-activist base, doesn’t dare compromise much on gay rights. One speaker at the vigil was Wyoming’s former Senator Alan Simpson, a Republican. But Wyoming’s current G.O.P. Senators, Michael Enzi and Craig Thomas, didn’t show.

Gay politics is more complicated than ever right now because what seems like an irresistible force of cultural change is meeting an immovable object of political resistance. For a long time, lesbians and gays have been defining themselves into the ordinary fabric of life. All the while, conservatives have been field-testing homosexuality as a defining issue for the Republican Party, especially for the next presidential election. This is all happening while Americans generally are drifting toward a bumpy accommodation, making judgments that are intricate, ad hoc and unpredictable. In a new TIME/CNN poll, 64% of those questioned thought homosexual relations are acceptable, but 48% thought they are morally wrong.

There may well be more openly gay men and women in America now than in any other country at any other time in history. The long-ago sexual revolution, gay visibility in the media, the reckonings forced by AIDS–there are any number of reasons for this emergence. It has changed straight America, of course. Just go rent My Best Friend’s Wedding, or watch Will & Grace on NBC. What’s less noticed is that it has also changed gay America, which is a very different place now than when Shepard was born, or even when he was a teenager. By a complex but not very surprising reciprocal relationship, the simple fact that there are a greater number of visible and comfortable gays has created more of the same, more visible and comfortable gays. “I think we’ve done a great deal of persuading people that we are not a countercultural force,” says Andrew Sullivan, author (Love Undetectable) and former New Republic editor, who epitomizes the argument that homosexuals should embrace the existing institutions of heterosexual society. “We are a mainstream force.” Sullivan likes to point out that the richest gay group in the nation isn’t a political group but a religious denomination, the Metropolitan Community Church, whose offerings totaled $17 million last year and whose membership across the nation has grown to 40,000. And the mainstreaming of gays isn’t confined to New York City and Los Angeles: 21-year-olds are coming out everywhere, so that, for instance, a gay freshman landing this fall at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo or at the University of Idaho in Moscow could find a group to join. In little Agency, Mo. (pop. 300), a woman named Liz Jalbert is president of Midland Empire Task Force, a gay group that has doubled in size, to nearly 100 paid members, in the past two years. Two Saturdays ago, more than 100 showed up at her house for the group’s annual bonfire.

As a consequence, even the anti-gay right has had to shift the tone of its message as more straight Americans become acquainted with their own gay friends and family. Anita Bryant, the singer turned anti-gay campaigner of the 1970s, said that what homosexuals really want is “the right to propose to our children.” It says something about the difficulties of demonizing homosexuals these days when Senate majority leader Trent Lott merely compares them to kleptomaniacs, as he did this summer, or when Christian groups run ad campaigns insisting gays can be cured. While that language may try to throw the debate back more than 20 years, before psychologists concluded that homosexuality is not a mental illness, it represents a recognition that pure contempt is tricky when you are talking about people’s children or friends.

At the same time, lesbian and gay organizations have gone from being outcasts of the left to being an expected presence in politics, or at least in Democratic coalitions, and a presence knocking at the door of the Republican Party. “The whole public attitude on gay issues has become much more mainstream,” notes Al From, who runs the Democratic Leadership Council, which breeds centrist New Democrats like Clinton. “A lot of gay businessmen are New Democrats. A lot more people are dealing with gays in their families.”

It has been a long road from there to here. Largely because of opposition from unions, blacks and church groups, it was not until 1983 that a gay organization, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, was admitted to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, one of Washington’s most liberal legislative coalitions. It was 11 years more before the group took a consensus position on anything involving gay rights. In 1994 it backed a modest change in the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA, that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation while permitting an exemption for churches. Two years later that amendment was defeated in the Senate by just a single vote.

For a long time, the most prominent nationwide gay-rights organization was the 35,000-member National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which grew out of the scruffy radicalism of the old gay-liberation movement. But after 25 years, it still has virtually no lobbying presence on Capitol Hill. In the later 1980s the AIDS epidemic brought forth the street-theater militancy of ACT UP and in 1990 the in-your-face tribalism of Queer Nation. “We here, we’re queer, get used to it” was an interesting statement of the facts. But the cutting edge of gay politics threatened to cut gays off altogether from the give and take of lawmaking.

The election of Bill Clinton was a psychological turning point, even though his support on gay-rights issues has been unsteady. His “Don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise on gays in the military satisfied no one. He signed the “Defense of Marriage” Act, which denies federal recognition to same-sex unions, then advertised the fact in ’96 campaign spots on Christian radio stations. But he was canny about the symbolic gestures. He ended the federal policy of treating gays as security risks and invited gay activists to the White House for the first time. The message he sent was that gays were part of the American family and also part of the political game.

“The Clinton election took the wind out of the sails of street activists,” says John Gallagher, national correspondent of the Advocate, the gay news monthly. “They used to be outside shouting. Now people have to be inside talking, which is a new experience.” And during those years, a new kind of gay lobbying group has emerged. The Human Rights Campaign, founded in 1980, is the group that corresponds to mainstreaming impulses within the gay community. It’s also the largest–membership 250,000, up from 85,000 just five years ago. Sedate and pragmatic, with a name so innocuous it could be transferred intact to a group devoted to fair labor practices, H.R.C. was established to speak to the middle class in middle-class terms. Its annual black-tie fund-raising dinner is the peak event of the gay political season. The guest speaker last year was Clinton; this year’s was Al Gore. Executive director Elizabeth Birch is a corporate lawyer from Silicon Valley, former head of international litigation at Apple Computer; she has run H.R.C. like a software start-up–new image, new logo, fast growth. After she came to H.R.C. in 1995, she quickly changed its symbol to a yellow equal sign on a blue background. Cool as a computer-keyboard button, it has no visible connection to the pink triangle or rainbow flag, two more freighted symbols of the ragged glories of gay history.

“We’re by far the largest gay organization,” says Birch, “so something is working.” Though the group channels most of its campaign gifts to Democrats, H.R.C. is determined to prove it is not an auxiliary of the Democratic Party. Its board includes former G.O.P. Congressman Steve Gunderson. Of the 200 candidates the group endorsed this year, 14 were Republicans, including Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, a chief sponsor of the hate-crimes bill. Now the group is locked in an internal struggle over whether to endorse New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato over his Democratic rival, Representative Charles Schumer. Though conservative on abortion rights and other liberal litmus tests, D’Amato has in recent years come around on most gay issues.

The White House has pressured some in H.R.C. to resist backing D’Amato. One way out is to endorse both candidates. But the logic of endorsing D’Amato runs this way: If a gay organization doesn’t encourage Republicans who stick their neck out, why should they bother? And if H.R.C. backs a supportive Republican, wouldn’t that foster a new generation of G.O.P. leaders who would respond to the more moderate politics of the G.O.P.’s growing younger and suburban base? “That party is at war with itself, and its best decision makers are not at the top,” says Birch. “Trent Lott is making horrible mistakes.”

In line with that thinking, there is small, careful movement within the G.O.P. To coincide with the August national convention of the Log Cabin Republicans, the 10,000-member gay G.O.P. group, Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, made a point of welcoming gays into the party. “That’s new,” says Log Cabin executive director Rich Tafel. In the House this year, 30 Republicans joined Democrats to defeat a move to ban adoption by gays in the District of Columbia. Earlier, when Republican Joel Hefley of Colorado tried to revoke a Clinton Executive Order banning discrimination against gay federal employees, his measure was defeated, with the astonishing help of 63 Republican votes.

In the Senate, a handful of G.O.P. conservatives, including Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Arizona’s John McCain, have moved quietly, very quietly, in step with gay groups on issues like hate crimes, though not on more difficult ones like gay marriage. Eight years ago, Hatch was pivotal in helping overcome the resistance of Jesse Helms to win passage of the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which requires the Federal Government to keep data on bias crimes, including crimes against homosexuals. But he has not backed this year’s hate-crimes bill publicly yet, lest he alienate conservative colleagues whose votes he will need for passage. Indeed, so sensitive is the matter that neither Hatch nor H.R.C. would discuss the bill’s exact status last week.

But at the same time that gay activists have become more sophisticated and accommodating, their opponents on the Christian right have become more militant and more powerful within the Republican Party. Gary Bauer, head of the Family Research Council, and his mentor James Dobson, the Christian broadcaster who heads Focus on the Family, with its 2.3 million-name mailing list, have made opposition to gay rights a defining issue. Republicans trying to bridge the gap complain that while the rhetoric of the Christian right makes compromise difficult, so does some of the language of gay activism. “They got to get off the stuff about Christians having this conspiracy to incite hate crimes,” insists a Republican lawmaker. “When you have people so far apart, it makes it more difficult.”

In the end and in the beginning, the struggle over gay rights is only partly political in the legislative sense. Much of the real action is in everyday life–from household arrangements to mass media to the simple yet crucial changes wrought by acquaintance and friendship. This debate has been carried on in the culture at large for years, around the ears of gays who, because they lived within it, came out and came out earlier, in a process that may not have been easy but that eventually seemed to them right and essential. If Washington reacts slowly and crudely, turning family dramas and internal dialogues into attack ads and legislative-floor fights, it only proves what conservatism has always argued–that government, even representative government, is a crude representative of ordinary lives. While the world tries to make sense out of Matthew Shepard’s death, maybe his most important political act was his life. He was gay, and for a while he lived that way.

–Reported by Harriet Barovick and John Cloud/New York and Michael Duffy/Washington

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