Queering the democrats

The Stonewall Democrats group is repositioning itself in red states. Can it rally straight party loyalists to the side of equality?

BY Fred Kuhr

October 10 2005 12:00 AM ET

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
country.

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
laws.

“If
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
neighborhoods.”

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
rights.

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

“On
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.”

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