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Queering the

Queering the


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

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."

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 success."

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 2006.

"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.

"We 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."

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