The Rise of GetEqual

How the activist group GetEqual came to be.

BY Kerry Eleveld and Andrew Harmon

June 01 2010 1:50 AM ET

GET EQUAL MAIN GRAPHIC X390 (COURTESY) | ADVOCATE.COMThe D.C. home where GetEqual often plans its direct actions — and where members routinely crash on bunk beds and mattresses — belongs to Paul Yandura, known by many in Washington as the man who fervently supported his partner, Donald Hitchcock, as he sued the Democratic National Committee after being fired from the organization in 2006. Yandura claimed Hitchcock had been wrongfully terminated for an e-mail Yandura sent to major LGBT donors criticizing the DNC; after months of he-said, he-said articles, depositions, and lawyers’ statements, the DNC settled the workplace discrimination and defamation lawsuit for an undisclosed amount. But the scuffle put Beltway insiders on notice that Yandura wasn’t afraid of the political establishment in a town that feeds on group-think and rewards those who worship at its altar.

Last summer, Yandura began requesting a meeting with senior White House officials such as chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and political director Patrick Gaspard. In spring 2009 he’d been told by the administration’s de facto LGBT liaison, Brian Bond, that repeal of DADT was slated for 2010 — a revelation that came right around the same time Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese was asserting in the media that the administration had “a vision” and “a plan” for LGBT legislation.

“I said to Brian, ‘We’ll help with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’—we know it’s going to be a heavy lift,’” Yandura says. “We will fund polling, data collection, lobbying, but we have to know there’s a plan and that there will be benchmarks.”

By “we,” Yandura was referring to himself and Jonathan Lewis, an heir to the billion-dollar Progressive Insurance fortune. Yandura has served as Lewis’s political adviser since 2003, when Lewis started taking an active interest in getting young people more involved in politics. “They’re the only class of people that continuously inspires me and gives me hope that there’s going to be change,” Lewis says of youths.

Between 2004 and 2008, Lewis poured nearly $14 million into efforts encouraging youth participation in the political process. Although tracking isn’t an exact science — some polls count youths as those aged 18-29 and others use 18-35 — Lewis and Yandura say they’ve seen tangible results. In 2000 the youth vote accounted for about 36% of the electorate, Yandura asserts. Four years later they were up to 47%, and by 2008 represented 53%.

“It’s uncomfortable to take credit for any of that — it could just as easily be coincidental,” Lewis says of the uptick. “But at the same time, that’s what’s happened.”

Though Lewis is gay, he says he never felt uniquely drawn to investing in LGBT issues. Sure, he’d made sizable donations to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund and the Human Rights Campaign, including $1 million to fund the building for HRC’s current Washington headquarters. But he had never experienced his sexuality as a major hurdle to his goals.

“I wasn’t persecuted, I wasn’t bullied,” he says, reflecting on his adolescence. “My weight — being chubby — was worse than being gay.”

But the more he worked with Yandura — who began his career in Washington working in President Bill Clinton’s groundbreaking gay and lesbian liaison office — the more Lewis paid attention to the gay movement, or what he says he soon determined to be a lack thereof.

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