TV & Radio
More Gays Advocating Legislating
The electoral push is less about an agenda than about putting faces at the table, activists say.
By Stephanie Simon, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 7, 2006
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Early in her campaign for a state Senate seat, attorney Jolie Justus came across an anonymous flier bashing her as a "wild Lesbian from the inner-city." She dismissed it with a laugh.
As Tuesday's Democratic primary approaches, her sexual orientation has turned out to be not so much a liability as an asset. Strangers who could not place her district on a map — but who know she's bidding to become the first openly gay state senator in Missouri — have donated almost $20,000, fully 20% of her campaign budget. Political consultants from thousands of miles away have advised her on strategy and linked her up with a national network of gay rights supporters.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Justus said.
That's what gay rights activists are hoping as they mobilize to promote openly gay and lesbian candidates for political office at every level. When a city council debates domestic partnerships or a state legislature weighs a hate crimes law, activists want gays and lesbians to be right there on the floor, personalizing the issue by sharing their stories — and, by their very presence, making it uncomfortable for their colleagues to vote "no."
"We have to play political hardball," said Marty Rouse, national field director for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay advocacy group.
Though their movement has made significant gains in recent years, many gays and lesbians still look at the legal landscape with despair. In 34 states, it's legal to fire an employee because of his or her sexual orientation. Four states bar same-sex couples from adopting children. In Missouri, officials just last month stopped classifying gays and lesbians as unfit to be foster parents — and even then, the Department of Social Services said it would be wary of licensing same-sex couples.
The goal of legally sanctioned gay marriage, meanwhile, seems farther off than ever. In the last two years, voters in 16 states overwhelmingly passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage. The courts have largely upheld such laws, with landmark rulings recently in New York, Nebraska and Washington. Just four states, California among them, and the District of Columbia offer formal recognition to same-sex couples.
"We realize we're losing these battles," Rouse said. "So we're creating an activist army to get involved like never before."
The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and its associated Leadership Institute will spend more than $4 million this year to boost gay and lesbian political candidates. Along with making direct donations, its officers advise on strategy, draft political brochures, even train candidates in public speaking. The Human Rights Campaign has budgeted $3 million for similar efforts, though it also helps straight candidates who support gay rights.
The money and tactical help flow to gay and lesbian candidates seeking any elected office: city commissioner in Delaware, county clerk in Texas, school board member in Indiana. The most intense focus, however, is on races for state legislatures — and there, activists trumpet several wins in recent months.
Voters in the conservative states of Alabama, Arkansas and Oklahoma elected their first openly gay lawmakers this summer. Justus, 35, could make history in Missouri as well. (The district is heavily Democratic, so the winner of Tuesday's four-way primary will probably take the seat against token Republican opposition in November.)
Opponents of gay marriage say it would be a mistake to read too much into the recent elections. None of the winning candidates ran on gay rights platforms. Their districts were liberal. And their wins didn't translate into broader pro-gay sentiment: Even as AIDS activist Patricia Todd narrowly won a state House seat in Birmingham, 81% of Alabama's voters approved a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
"Americans have shown overwhelming support for man-woman marriage … and I don't see that changing or diminishing over the coming years, or even the coming decades," said Monte N. Stewart, president of the Marriage Law Foundation, a nonprofit legal firm that argues for traditional marriage.
Gay rights advocates respond that they have to start somewhere.
Sending even one lesbian to a legislature, they say, can force lawmakers to look at some questions differently. A rally on TV makes gay adoption rights a political issue, but a lesbian in the next seat makes it personal.
As Justus put it: "It's a heck of a lot harder to disenfranchise someone when you know them."
Her stump speech barely mentions gay rights. A longtime community volunteer, she focuses on expanding health insurance for the poor and bringing stem-cell research to Kansas City. But she also hopes to support the gay and lesbian community by barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and securing the right of same-sex couples to jointly adopt.
At a fundraiser the other night, over wine and cookies, host Peter Keeble asked Justus how she planned to legalize same-sex marriage if elected. Two years ago, a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions passed with 71% approval. "It's going to take a long time," Justus answered.
Standing next to her partner of two years, Lana Knedlik, Justus looked out at the room of about 30 supporters, including many same-sex couples. "I truly believe it will happen in our lifetime," Justus said. "But we have to continue to come out and tell our stories. We have to elect more openly gay people."
When the Victory Fund was founded 15 years ago, it identified 49 openly gay or lesbian politicians in the nation. Today, there are more than 325, according to Robin Brand, senior vice president of the political action committee. Many are left-leaning Democrats, but the fund also works with the Log Cabin Republicans, a group that promotes gay civil rights and conservative politicians.
Though gay politicians are still relatively few, Brand credits them with influencing policy. They've secured domestic partner benefits in several cities and counties. In state legislatures, they've been largely on the defensive, blocking a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage in Maryland, a bill outlawing domestic partner benefits in Utah, and a proposal to require parental permission for students seeking to join gay-straight alliances in Idaho.
Such accomplishments don't matter as much to some Victory Fund supporters as the fact that gays and lesbians now have a voice and a vote in even the most conservative legislatures.
Martin Culbreth, for instance, didn't bother to check out Justus' platform before donating $650 to her campaign through the Victory Fund. It was enough for him to know that she was a lesbian running in what he terms "a good old red state."
A Navy veteran from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Culbreth, 72, said he wasn't counting on Justus to push a gay rights agenda; indeed, he'd rather she didn't, lest she be characterized as a single-issue politician or a wild-eyed leftist. All he hopes from her, he said, is that "she'll walk into that chamber and prove that she can handle the job as good or better than anyone else."
That's the same strategy that African Americans, women and other marginalized groups have pursued over the decades, said John D'Emilio, a professor of gender studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
"Historically," he said, "election to public office has symbolized full acceptance and inclusion: 'We belong. We're part of the system.' "