Growing the grass roots

Coming back from a slump in the 1990s, the 32-year-old National Gay and Lesbian Task Force aims to take the lead in aiding local organizing. In a time of “terrible trouble,” NGLTF is in it for the long haul

BY Greg Hernandez

July 05 2005 12:00 AM ET

In early June, a
few days after the California state assembly came up
four votes shy of passing a bill to make the state’s
marriage laws gender-neutral, National Gay and Lesbian
Task Force executive director Matt Foreman is
typically blunt.

“We
haven’t made it anywhere,” he says.
“There is work to be done everywhere. I think
it’s the Task Force’s role of the movement to
push the envelope and to not be afraid to speak the
truth even when it’s unpleasant.”

Even to
themselves. The gay civil rights and advocacy organization
had to watch with frustration and dismay as 11 states
passed amendments banning recognition of same-sex
marriage in November 2004.

More than a dozen
additional states are expected to consider similar
amendments in 2006.

“We are in
terrible trouble for 2006. November 7, 2006, is going to be
a crummy day,” predicts Dave Fleischer, NGLTF
director of organizing and training. “The
question is, How crummy? Worst day? Or in some places will
we be starting to turn this issue around? It’s an
unprecedented problem to solve.”

But NGLTF has
learned some vital lessons moving forward—taking a
play from the conservative Republican Party machine.

It is working to
build on some of the individual state infrastructures
that were developed on the grassroots level during the
losing campaigns, many of which barely had the time to
organize and were woefully overmatched in their
fights.

“You can
look at Ohio. As a result of the election in 2004, activists
across the state have come together and are putting together
a new statewide organization in a well-thought and
energetic way,” Foreman says. “Activists
in Michigan are having meetings across the state to come
up with a statewide plan for building their movement. In
Oregon you see renewed, positive energy.”

Roey Thorpe,
executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, is among those
who are finding that in addition to building an
infrastructure, activists are able to pinpoint
gay-friendly politicians and potential donors.

NGLTF has
“given all this new energy to supporting state work
at exactly a time when it is most needed,”
Thorpe says. “Most of us recognize the best
we’ll do on the federal level for the next few years
is to fight bad legislation and hopefully defeat bad
legislation and that the positive gains are going to
be made at the state level.”

But not everyone
is a fan of the group’s work. Veteran Democratic
political consultant Ian James says NGLTF was ineffective in
trying to help Ohio gays fight that state’s
antimarriage measure, which qualified for the ballot
less than 60 days before the election. He feels that
activists needed to argue that the wording of the amendment
would threaten the rights of unmarried straight
couples who live together as well as the rights of
gays and lesbians.

“This was
the perfect place to, frankly, pour it on,” says
James, who was the political director of Ohioans
Protecting the Constitution. “The religious
right spread out their forces and had an easy message to
sell: The gay community is trying to redefine
marriage. We wanted to connect with people. When your
time frame is so short and you’ve got 72% of
voters saying we don’t support same-gender marriage,
they come in and say, ‘Even if we lose, we are
advancing the message.’ Bullshit.”

Ronald Hunt, the
openly gay chair of the political science department at
Ohio University in Athens, watched the Ohio election closely
and came away feeling that NGLTF and other major gay
rights groups not only have to find a way to stop the
state amendments from passing but in doing so must
focus “on changing people’s impression on gays
and lesbians.”

“This is a
real foundational issue where we are on the
defensive,” Hunt says. “The issue is,
How can you construct a political program where we can
regain the offensive? I think a lot of grassroots activity
has to take place before you are going to see any kind
of progress on the issue.”

While Foreman
vows that NGLTF will “be more visceral in
approach” when it comes to its message, he
believes the message must remain firmly about gays and
lesbians. “We’re not going to make any
movement in this fight until we make it a truly moral
issue,” he says. “Basic fairness and moral
values require that straight people start taking a stand for
us with the same force and energy as they would if it
was another minority under attack.”

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