Michaela Jae Rodriguez
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The Exit
Interview

The Exit
            Interview

Our interview
complete, Matt Foreman sits back and says with a hint of
relief, “That is the last media interview I ever have
to do.” Some people relish being in the
spotlight and playing the PR game; others do it
because they must in order to advance their cause. Foreman,
one of the most genial people in the movement, has
always struck me as the latter, a dedicated soldier
who simply did what he had to do.

Whether or not
one agrees with his stances and strategies, no rational
observer could dispute that Foreman’s lifework has
been improving the lives of LGBT people—having
served as executive director of the New York City Gay
and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, Empire State Pride
Agenda, and then the National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force. His accomplishments over the last five years at
the Task Force reflect the culmination of his
commitment: increasing the annual budget from $4.7 million
to $8.5 million, more than doubling the staff to 54,
and maybe most important, embodying a steadfast
progressive voice. Foreman will now go the route that
LGBT leaders such as Urvashi Vaid and Patrick Guerriero have
gone, from being the face of the movement to assuming
a behind-the-scenes role funding its work.

 

Where do you see the movement now, and where is it headed?In almost every respect, the movement is stronger now
than it’s ever been. A lot of that has to do
with more resources, particularly focused on the state
and local level. That’s really a new phenomenon over
the last five years—that both large individual
funders and foundation funders have pooled their money
to try to have a more focused impact. You can look at
what happened during the last legislative session, it was
the best legislative session in the history of the
movement. There were more relationship recognition and
civil rights issues passed than ever before. Now 52%
of the population lives in a jurisdiction that protects gay
people from discrimination. One in five people live in a
jurisdiction that offers same-sex couples very broad
rights and responsibilities. We are definitely on an
upward trajectory. But we still have so much work to
do.

So what’s next?What we’re going to see is continued, steady
progress at the state level. The big question mark is
what’s going to happen at the federal level.
What we know without a doubt is that if there will be a
Democratic administration and a more Democratic
Congress, there will be literally dozens of
communities and interest areas that have been in the
proverbial desert with us for many years [labor,
environment, choice, education], and they’re
all going to be clamoring for attention. I think the
challenge will be, Are we going to be able to break through
that clamor?

So why leave the Task Force now for the Haas Jr. Fund?This is the only job I would have left the Task Force
for. I honestly think it’s the best job in the
movement because my only focus is programming and
trying to leverage dollars. I don’t have to worry
about administering staff. My colleagues have to worry
about their institution, their staff, their IT issues,
their audit—all of this stuff that comes with
an organization. This is an opportunity that came along, and
you just don’t know when it’s going to
come along again. I’ve been an executive
director for 18 years, so I’m looking forward to new
challenges. Since I’ve been head of the Task Force,
it’s moved to a new level in size and budget
and we’ve really established our voice in
Washington, D.C. I think change is good. It’s time
for someone to take it to a whole new level.

I know you’ve nearly tripled the budget and
doubled the staff, but how do you define success?
Money is not the measure at all. The Task Force’s
challenge over the last 30 years has been the tension
between focusing on building the grassroots and trying
to get credit for what you do. Those two things
don’t really go hand in hand very well. What I would
count as progress here at the Task Force includes
playing an essential role in preserving marriage
equality in Massachusetts, defeating right-wing attempts to
overturn civil rights laws or ballot initiatives in Topeka,
Cincinnati, Tacoma, the state of Maine. We’ve
given away, since I’ve been here, nearly $5
million in cash to state and local organizations to help
build their capacity. We have another million set to
go out in next year’s budget. Our policy
institute has done groundbreaking research on same-sex
African-American and Latino couples and the largest national
surveys of LGBT Asian/Pacific Islanders and homeless
young people.

You often talk about broadening the movement. Do we risk
becoming too diffused to be effectual by doing that?
We are simply too small a community to win anything by
ourselves. The only way we are going to advance equal
rights under the law is with allies. You don’t
get allies by just running to them whenever you need
their help. You need to be there for them when they need
your help. Let me give you an example. We worked
against an antichoice initiative in California in
2006, and we provided staff to help coordinate the field
effort in L.A. Without even having to ask them, Planned
Parenthood—when we wanted to figure out where
we stood with California voters on marriage
equality—gave us a list of nearly a million people to
call in California because we helped them. We could
never have that access to that resource to help figure
out our campaign strategy to win marriage equality in
California. The payoffs versus the investment are simply
extraordinary.

What are you most proud of at the Task Force?There are so many high points here—going to towns
and cities and being with people on election night,
win or lose, in Topeka or Bangor or Portland, and
being with these people who have given up their lives to
win or defend their rights. I think the high
point—what I’ll always
remember—is speaking at the Lincoln Memorial for the
40th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr.
“I Have a Dream” speech.

Do you have any regrets?The thing that hit me the hardest and will take our
community years to overcome is the passage of the
state anti-marriage constitutional amendments. Living
through that with our state partners who were just
working on a shoestring—to witness that occurring and
there being no moral outrage among the people of
goodwill in this country or the media or the political
class, that the rights of a very small minority were
being put up for a popular vote—will stick with me
forever.

What do you think the community should expect from the
next administration?
If it’s John McCain, not much. If it’s a
Democratic administration, and there are Democratic
majorities in both houses of Congress, we can expect a
lot. There are dozens and dozens of steps that the new
administration can take unilaterally to improve the lives of
LGBT people. Let me just say that in [the Department
of Health and Human Services], the program that
supports runaway and homeless youth has three right-wing
political appointees that have systematically excised
funding for LGBT homeless youth programs.

What about ENDA?ENDA needs to pass. We need to move on to relationship
recognition and the repeal of “don’t
ask, don’t tell.” None of these things are
heavy lifts. We’re not talking about marriage
equality.

Is New York’s Sexual Orientation
Non-Discrimination Act that passed without trans
inclusion while you were at the Empire State Pride
Agenda a sore spot for you?
It’s not a sore spot for me to go back over it
again -- it’s a sore spot to compare ENDA to
SONDA. That’s the problem. I’ve said it
repeatedly, and I’ll say it again: I made a lot of
mistakes in the years leading up to when SONDA was
going to pass, but the situations are not comparable.
Let’s not make the mistakes that we made in New York
so that when we’re ready to pass ENDA into law,
it will be the bill that we want. If we’d made
SONDA trans-inclusive in the early ’90s, by the time
we did enough political work and deal-making with the
Republicans to get it through the senate and the
[then] Republican governor, the bill would have
[passed]. If you make bills inclusive from the start, you
get an inclusive bill at the end. If you have
exclusive bills at the start, it takes forever to come
back and make the law inclusive.

What about the idea that once lawmakers go back to their
districts and realize they didn’t pay a
price during the election for their pro-ENDA vote,
it will be easier to convince them to add transgender protections?
It’s based on a myth that elected officials who
take a stand for LGBT rights face consequences at the
polls. That’s a myth at the state, local, and
federal level. You can’t find one single elected
federal official who’s ever paid a price. You
can’t find a single state elected official
who’s ever paid a price -- meaning they lost their
bid for reelection -- because they took a stand for
LGBT rights. Not one. It’s buying into the
myth.

Does the community have a blind spot right now?HIV and AIDS. For a while, the AIDS establishment was
big and thriving. But in the last 15 years, the power
of the LGBT movement has increased and the political
clout of the AIDS community has decreased. The other
factor is that a lot of LGBT people have just thrown their
hands up and said, “What can we do about this?
We’ve done everything we can.” But the
rates of HIV infections and deaths of African-American gay
and bi men are appalling. The shrug of the shoulders that
these statistics get has to change.

And what has the government done?Nothing.

We think the
government has done all this work, and they haven’t
done shit, frankly. Basic science hasn’t been
done. No one can say with any degree of scientific
certainty why the rates of HIV among African-American
gay and bi men are so high. We don’t know if
it’s behavior, genetic susceptibility to HIV,
general lack of access to health care, or general
stressors in the world that affect African-Americans. So
many people in the white LGBT community have a racist
response to these numbers and act as if we know what
started this. We don’t have a clue. And until
we organize as a community and really put pressure to get
the government to respond and figure this out, then it
is indeed hopeless. That’s a huge blind spot.

Tags: World, World

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