The 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.
Shortly after Obama took office, Lewis joined a group of about 50-75 of the most progressive donors in the country — all of whom had contributed heavily to the Obama campaign — at a Democracy Alliance conference in Miami to hear about the administration’s agenda. Lewis expected to hear about issues like health care and financial reform, but LGBT concerns were also on his mind. The White House sent deputy chief of staff Jim Messina to address the group and, although Lewis said he was surprised the president himself didn’t show up, the administration made a big fuss over sending such a high-level official.
Lewis and his contemporaries were well aware that the administration had a lot on its plate, but Messina’s message caught him off guard. “There was something about that moment when Messina came instead of the president to talk to that group of people, and his theme was ‘Give us time,’ and ‘Have patience,’ and ‘We can’t get to everything,’” Lewis says. “Something at that moment told me, you know what, this doesn’t feel right.”
Yandura calls that “the lightbulb moment” when he and Lewis realized they couldn’t sit around and wait for the administration to deliver on LGBT issues. “The final break for me is when I heard them using the same excuses that myself and Brian Bond and Andy Tobias made during the Clinton administration,” Yandura says, citing the DNC colleagues he worked with during Clinton’s 1996 campaign. “I mean, when do [LGBT people] stop taking all the hits for the team and get to play?”
Yandura ended up making two entreaties in 2009 to meet with high-level White House officials and to strategize about “don’t ask, don’t tell” — both of which went nowhere.
At the same time, he started reviewing other movements — labor, women, civil rights — and that’s when he began fixating on a concept central to each cause. “You have to create a crisis,” he says. “Every social movement I ever read about, you have to start causing that crisis. And it’s not about getting arrested, or even civil disobedience. It’s that you’re creating a pathway for people to do the right thing, that you give them no choice but to do the right thing.”
McGehee’s work seemed like a synergistic fit. She and Kip Williams codirected the National Equality March in October at the urging of Harvey Milk-era legend Cleve Jones and gay rights pioneer David Mixner. McGehee and Williams defied criticism that the Washington, D.C., event would be too costly and complex to pull together in a matter of months. The rally drew an estimated 200,000 people, attracted speakers ranging from Urvashi Vaid to Lady Gaga, and may have been the impetus behind the keynote address Obama gave at the HRC national dinner on the eve of the march, as McGehee asserts it was.
“The White House was asking HRC how to recognize the march,” she says. “But I think they learned that HRC specifically is not the leader of all of us. ... The White House, legislators, and the national organizations are realizing how much anger and agitation is out there from the community. They’ve underestimated it.”
McGehee began her activist career speaking out against Proposition 8, both before the 2008 anti-marriage equality ballot measure was passed and after the state supreme court upheld it last year. L.A. Weekly called McGehee “a plain-talking, hard-charging lesbian” who embodied the new grassroots movement. She has a preternatural ability to articulate her outrage — against both the forces trying to railroad gay rights and the gay leaders whom she deems to be out of touch. “I’d bring No on 8 signs to Fresno and people would fight over them like rice rations,” she says. “There’s something wrong here when the people most disenfranchised by conservative politics are not protected by their own.”
And perhaps inevitably, McGehee has apparently stepped on toes in the process. “I think she’s heartfelt about what she does in the movement, but a lot of it is centered on her own ego,” says one activist who worked with McGehee last year and no longer speaks with her. “She’s good at putting shit together, but too often she’s manipulating the media to come to her, and she is definitely not the one who deserves the attention.”