Taking over the hot seat

Exclusive interview: On Monday, January 5, Cheryl Jacques took over as executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay-rights group in the country. In an election year in which GLBT issues are likely to be a big part of the debate, the former Massachusetts lawmaker and out lesbian is prepared for a wild ride.

BY Chris Bull

January 07 2004 1:00 AM ET

Almost immediately after the Human Rights Campaign announced that Cheryl Jacques would be its next executive director come January 5, the carping began. Some argued that Jacques, a Democratic member of the Massachusetts state senate, was too liberal for Republican-dominated national politics. Others said her background as a tough-on-crime prosecutor made her too conservative. Still others complained that Jacques, who came out of the closet in 2000, lacked gay-rights experience.“State politics has prepared me for everything,” Jacques says, laughing. “You learn to have a tough skin, and do the right thing no matter what the detractors say. I felt that I helped improve the quality of life in my district, and being reelected many times has rewarded me. I’m not going to allow critics to distract me.”Like her predecessor Elizabeth Birch, Jacques comes to HRC as something of Washington, D.C., outsider. Also like Birch, Jacques and her partner, Jennifer Chrisler, are raising twins, Timmy and Tommy.Nobody is more familiar with the politics of the Massachusetts legislature than you are. How do you think it will grapple with the marriage decision?It breaks down into three camps. There are those like me who want to use the 180-day window period that the court allowed to start preparing for granting marriage licenses. Let’s get the department of health to start preparing the right paperwork. Let’s start educating city and town clerks, who issue marriage licenses, on how to handle same-sex marriages. The second camp wants to do nothing. They think that the court made its ruling, and it should simply take effect in 180 days. The third group will do anything it can to thwart the ruling. They know the only thing they can do is pass an amendment to the state constitution, a three-year process. I do not believe that in the end they will have the support to prevail. It was only a year ago that a similar measure was overwhelmingly defeated.In your new position, what will you do to make sure it happens that way?Our job is education. After same-sex marriage is legalized, the vast majority of people will realize that nothing bad happened, that the sky did not fall. For a small minority, it will be one of the most wonderful days in our lives because we are now equal. We have to move that message forward to the rest of the country.But Massachusetts voters are so much more tolerant than much of the rest of the nation.The fundamentals are the same. The reason my state’s voters support marriage rights is because we’ve done a good job educating them that this is a civil institution, not a religious one, and that gay people are part of the our community. We have to keep educating about the bread-and-butter issues of hospital visitation, financial protection, raising children. There are definitely parts of the country that are harder nuts to crack. But we don’t need to win over everyone.How will your leadership style differ from that of Elizabeth Birch?I have to step on the shoulders of a giant and help HRC soar to new heights. I’m so fortunate to have come along in this job at a time when the organization has never been stronger. I will be at the center of a storm in the next chapter of gay rights, and I have to find ways to inform Americans that equal rights are good not just for gay people but for everyone. For instance, I think that in tough economic times, when we are at war, we can really make the case that we need everyone’s contribution to help us pull through. We can’t afford to have some people held back by discrimination in building our tax base and contributing to our economy.That sounds good, but how do you translate that into legislative victories in Congress? Birch is the first to acknowledge they have been hard to find in national politics.We have to redefine victory. Legislative accomplishments are important, but they are not the only thing that matters. We have to contribute to victories at the local level too. As I told the HRC staff, we don’t even know how many lives we have impacted. If it hadn’t been for the Millennium March in 2000, I might not have written an op-ed in which I came out. About a year ago I sat next to [Massachusetts] supreme judicial court [chief] justice Maggie Marshall at a women’s bar [association] event. I showed her photos of our kids and she heard our story. Maybe that made a difference in her opinion.But at some point you are going to have to win over more members of the Republican Party.There are the [U.S. Representatives] Gordon Smiths and the Chris Shays who are very good on our issues. It’s important to remember that not all Republicans are opposed to gay rights and that not all Democrats are on our side. We are going to work very hard to win support from anyone who will listen.On a personal level, what did the court decision mean to you?I stood at [the Omni] Parker House [hotel] and watched [attorney] Mary Bonauto with the seven couples behind her in a horseshoe arch, and there was not a dry eye in room. That certainly included me. I was thinking that some day my children will be studying this historic event in school. We were making history.

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