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Growing the grass

Growing the grass


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

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."

Foreman, who has headed the group since April 2003, has been known to be outspoken and sometimes brash during a 25-year career that had previously been spent mostly in high-profile posts in New York City, where he lives with his partner of 14 years, Francisco De Leon.

For five years he was executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda in New York, the largest statewide lesbian and gay political advocacy and civil rights organization in the country, the driving force behind a 2003 statewide law banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Foreman also served as executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project from the early to mid 1990s. Last year he resigned from the New York City Commission on Human Rights to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to go to court to prevent the city's Equal Benefits Law from going into effect.

Foreman also minced no words in May when he called on embattled Spokane, Wash., mayor Jim West, a closeted gay man, to resign his office. West, who had built his career on conservative stands, including vocal support for antigay laws, is accused of offering City Hall jobs to young men he met online. West, who has admitted to secret sexual liaisons with other men, also faces accusations that he molested two young boys in the 1970s.

Foreman, calling West's alleged behavior "predatory and appalling," said in a press release, "This man, whether he's straight, bisexual, or gay, deserves nothing but scorn. He needs to resign immediately."

Born in Idaho, Foreman is the son of a miner and grew up in various states across the country, including Montana, Wyoming, and West Virginia. "I came out in West Virginia in the 1970s. I'm always aware of how difficult it still is for some people across this country," he says. "I really try never to allow the experience and privilege of living in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I always try to tell people who live in cities not to forget where they came from and the gay people who are still there."

He adds, "We really try and embrace the entire community, not just the people who live in homes with white picket fences or who aspire to that. Drag queens, leather people, motorcycle dykes. They are embraced. We embrace them all."

Founded 32 years ago to eliminate prejudice, violence, and injustice against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, NGLTF works to build grassroots political power by training state and local activists and leaders and strengthening the infrastructure of state and local groups. It also battles discrimination, harassment, and sodomy laws and fights for AIDS funding. During Foreman's tenure, the once-struggling organization has stabilized. The size of the board of directors has more than doubled, the staff has grown by one third, and a new department has been added to focus on federal affairs. NGLTF currently claims about 20,000 members. Its 50 full-time employees work out of four locations: the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C., and offices in New York City, Los Angeles, and Cambridge, Mass.

NGLTF has been involved in its share of victories on the local level, including a recent success in Topeka, Kan., where voters narrowly defeated an antigay ordinance. But the group acknowledges the uphill state-by-state battle still to come. "We have to do better in terms of the scale of the assistance that we are able to offer to other states," Foreman says. "The challenge now, the largest challenge, is how to do the organizing that's needed on the scale that's required to win a statewide contest."

To that end, the group will focus on strengthening GLBT political organizing in five states over several years, beginning with Maryland and Kentucky, giving organizations in each state renewable grants of about $100,000 over two years as well as technical assistance and staff. Foreman says NGLTF will work intensively with state organizations to help accelerate their growth. The other three states for this program have yet to be selected.

"What we're hoping to do is focus real resources on one place this fall where this is on the ballot and test various messages and strategies," says Foreman. "Then we'll see which combination of messages and field work and telephone contacts and direct mail works the best so we actually have empirical data to share with donors. A lot of people say we can't win, so why bother? This will show them.

"The reality is, our state organizations still need much more money and community support across the board," he continues. "Everywhere our organizations are really outgunned. The fact that they have done as well as they have given the resources they have is nothing less than miraculous."

Adds Fleischer: "We will look for the first opportunity where a state is threatened and willing to prepare far enough in advance. Every campaign we are engaged in, we are going into it with a self-critical eye as to what will allow us to be more useful to the community with each coming election."

Former NGLTF executive director Virginia Apuzzo says some perspective is needed when facing today's daunting political challenges. She was one of the early members of the organization when it was launched in New York City and remembers when activists were focused on having homosexuality declassified as a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

"We were just trying to survive," she says. "The young people don't realize that while you're living your life, you're making history. Many of us, we didn't see home run, we saw trying to get on base."

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