Queering the

Queering the

In August
conservative lawmakers in Utah were aghast when Rocky
Anderson, Salt Lake City’s Democratic mayor,
vowed to grant health benefits to unmarried partners
of gay city employees—even if the city council voted
down the resolution. Mike Picardi, chairman of the Utah
Stonewall Democrats, explained what the courageous
move meant to gay and lesbian families.
“It’s about time that we have this,” he
said at the time. “It gives recognition to a
group of people in existence.”

In November,
Texas voters will decide if the state should pass an
amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples. To block
the measure the Texas Stonewall Democratic Caucus has
formed powerful alliances with other groups and
lawmakers. “In our community we’re engaging
with our families and our houses of faith,”
Shannon Bailey, president of the caucus, told
reporters. “We’re engaging on the marriage
issue and talking about equality.”

Such examples are
proof of the growing local influence of the National
Stonewall Democrats, which represents the LGBT members of
the party. The Washington, D.C.–based
organization has only four staff members at its
national office but counts more than 90 chapters across the

Those chapters
will be at the forefront of major grassroots battles this
fall. There are two antigay ballot initiatives, in Texas and
Maine, and the 2006 election looms in the distance.
Stonewall is furiously training local networks of
volunteers to support gay-friendly candidates. These
activists are canvassing neighborhoods to make sure that
voters understand the nuances of proposed antigay

I’m walking down the street in Columbus, Ohio,
talking about a particular candidate or
issue—and if I don’t know what the other big
[local] issues are—as an undecided voter you are less
likely to support my candidate,” says Eric
Stern, executive director of National Stonewall
Democrats. “The Republican National Committee did
this really well last year, identifying local people
in local communities to canvass in their own

The 30-year-old
Stern was hired in March to steer Stonewall through these
politically tense times. He was raised in a working-class
Ohio town “in a political household that
emphasized community service.” He earned a law
degree from Northeastern University in Boston. From 2003
until March he served as director of LGBT outreach for
the Democratic National Committee.

Traveling around
the country, especially during pride season in 2004, he
says, “I could feel the energy of what felt like
social change.” Yet he was frustrated by the
Democratic Party’s timid position on marriage
equality—especially during the presidential campaign
as John Kerry refused to support same-sex marriage

It created a
dilemma the group’s members had previously struggled
with: how to be gay activists and stay loyal to the

occasion, in the past, Stonewall has been too timid in
dealing with other Democrats on our issues,”
says Chuck Colbert, a journalist who lives in
Cambridge, Mass., and was treasurer of the state’s
Stonewall chapter in the 1990s. “But they must
ask their own leaders the tough questions and take a
no-holds-barred approach on issues like marriage
equality and the military ban.”

Larry Sabato,
director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics,
says the balance is tricky. “No interest group in
American politics ever made progress by suffering in
silence. Politicians, even sympathetic ones, usually
do only what they absolutely have to do. So some pressure
on political allies is warranted,” he says.
“Yet it’s always a search for the golden
mean. When do allies become alienated? Is there a real and
present danger that allies will be defeated by much less
friendly politicians because you made them take
unpopular positions? Every state, district, and
officeholder is different, so flexibility is the key to

In May, after
Kerry made it clear he opposed the Massachusetts Democratic
Party’s plan to add marriage equality to its
platform, the National Stonewall Democrats denounced
his move. “We caught a lot of heat for it from
all corners of the Democratic Party,” Stern says.
“We know Kerry is not there yet on this issue.
I’ve talked to him about this. He says that the
state party’s position is not consistent with
Democrats in the state of Massachusetts. But we know
that’s not true, according to the polls. So we
felt it was important to be the first organization to
respond—and we did.”

Stern, however,
says marriage equality is not an exclusive part of
Stonewall’s mission. “Our role as Democrats is
to educate our party and fellow Democrats,” he
says. In his view, that means making inroads in as
many states as possible—no matter how
“red.” Surprisingly, most of the
group’s growth has been in such states as Arkansas.
“We are trying to work in coalition with state
and local partners,” says Stern. “We
don’t want to come down into Alabama and tell a
group like Equality Alabama to move over because we
know how to do this.”

Stonewall’s grassroots training sessions course
teaches volunteers how to help influence campaigns and
convince candidates to issue LGBT-friendly statements
and attend pride events. Ground zero for this work is
Pennsylvania, where “we have a strong existing
infrastructure, and the 2006 elections [are] a great
opportunity to build on our successes of 2004,”
says Stern. Stonewall is campaigning hard to oust Rick
Santorum, the very antigay Republican U.S. senator who
once compared gay sex to man-on-dog action.

The umbrella
organization for Stonewall chapters in Philadelphia,
Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg—named Liberty
PA—launched last year. In a short time it has
built a network of 80,000 gay and gay-friendly voters,
sent direct mail to 43,000 gay-identified households, and
helped Ann Butchart, an out candidate, to win the
party primary for Philadelphia’s Court of
Common Pleas. If Butchart wins in the general election in
November, she will be the first openly gay person ever
elected to office in Philadelphia.

“This was
all done with the intention of keeping this effort growing
after the 2006 elections,” says Pennsylvania native
Renee Gilinger, state director of Liberty PA and
cochair of the Liberty City Democratic Club,
Stonewall’s Philadelphia chapter. “We keep our
own lists, our own database, and we will be able to
talk with people between campaigns.”

Liberty PA has
also taken advantage of Stonewall’s Precinct Adoption
program, which thoroughly canvasses heavily gay or
gay-friendly voting precincts. Liberty PA’s
goal is to have 450,000 gay and gay-supportive
voters—as well as voters in adopted
precincts—show up at the polls in November

“If we are
going to have an impact in the Santorum race, all the groups
must be on the same page,” says Scott Safier, acting
cochair of Steel City Stonewall Democrats in
Pittsburgh. “In the past Pittsburgh did its own
thing, and Philadelphia did its own thing. Now we are paying
attention to all corners of the state.”

That need for
flexibility and localized strategies in different states
and cities is what Stonewall recognizes, Stern says.
“We provide a unique voice in the party and in
the community, particularly with respect to issues
like marriage equality,” he says. “Yes, we are
committed to furthering all core Democratic Party
principles, and we feel that our struggle fits into
those principles.”

In September the
group experienced another one of the fruits of its
struggles when lawmakers in Massachusetts defeated a
proposed amendment to the state’s constitution
that would have stripped marriage equality from
hundreds of same-sex couples. A constitutional convention,
which is a joint session of the state house and
senate, overwhelmingly rejected the proposed amendment
in a 157–39 vote. The amendment had passed in 2004
in its first of two required votes.

The Bay State
Stonewall Democrats had lobbied Massachusetts lawmakers to
oppose the amendment. Earlier, Bay State and National
Stonewall Democrats worked with local Democratic
officials and legislators to help ensure the approval
of the marriage equality plank in the Massachusetts
Democratic Party platform.

realize that antifamily activists consider this to be only
one battle in a much longer war,” says Stephen
Driscoll, the national group’s board cochair as
well as cochair of Bay State Stonewall Democrats.
“However, I’m heartened by the vote, as
it has given our families the encouragement and
enthusiasm they need to secure long-term equality.”