After gay marriage, a transformative coalition splinters into just another interest group
As spring turned into summer last year, a battle over gay rights was brewing in New York City.
This was not the years-long struggle to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, a clash being waged at the highest levels of government, with millions of dollars helping frame the issue as a civil rights battle that became a generational test of progressive values.
Instead, it was a battle about whether “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” should be allowed to meet at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village.
“Make no mistake, everyone is welcome at the center; but these particular organizing activities need to take place elsewhere,” center director Glenda Testone said in June, three weeks before same-sex marriage was legalized.
To the unapologetically radical activists behind the group, this flew in the face of the idea that gay politics should fundamentally challenge the status quo.
“If radical people can’t meet there, then it just becomes another occupied space for wealthy bigots,” group organizer Sherry Wolf told The Village Voice.
To them, the fight over who can meet at the center symbolized new fissures at the heart of the gay rights movement in New York.
On one side are moneyed mainstream gays and their straight allies who turned a once-inconceivable idea into a same-sex marriage law. On the other are activists ready to keep protesting for transgender rights, expanded social services and other items on their agendas. Other groups fall into the middle but are unwilling to compromise on strategy again.
But the cracks seem less surprising than that these disparate groups were able to unite behind one cause in the first place. Gov. Andrew Cuomo pressured organizations famous for their rivalries and squabbling to march in lockstep, forsaking individual credit for the sake of the larger goal.
It worked. And as soon as they won, the unraveling began. A year after the governor first pulled those groups into a room in the Capitol and gave them an impetus, gay rights are once again just another New York special interest.
Bringing same-sex marriage to New York took more than 29 Democrats and 4 Republicans to voting “yes” in the State Senate.
It also took a $1.8 million political campaign put together by Secretary to the Governor Steve Cohen, SKDKnickerbocker media strategist and political consultant Jennifer Cunningham and a coalition of powerful gay rights groups and legislators.
“That was a big change from the last time we tried to pass the gay-marriage bill, when everyone was at loggerheads and the groups were competing a lot,” said Ethan Geto, a gay rights activist and former Empire State Pride Agenda lobbyist.
The United for Marriage coalition included all the issue’s heavy hitters, such as the Empire State Pride Agenda, Equality Matters, Freedom to Marry New York, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Sen. Tom Duane, Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell and the Human Rights Campaign—which spent an extra $770,000 on its own.
Yet, this key liberal priority was largely bankrolled and advanced by conservative Republican donors, who helped push the idea in the Republican-led Senate.
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, conservative donor Paul Singer and financiers Steven Cohen, Clifford Asness and Daniel Loeb all poured money into the marriage campaign, and the four Republican “yes” votes are relying on them for contributions to hold onto their seats against nasty primary fights this year.
This top-heavy strategy was pioneered in the mid-2000s by a group of wealthy donors known as “the Cabinet,” who targeted antigay politicians nationwide and pledged to support candidates who supported their positions on gay rights.
The group’s financiers, who included Colorado Internet entrepreneur Tim Gill, Stryker Corporation heir Jon Stryker and Henry van Ameringen, the International Flavors and Fragrances heir, also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican senators after the marriage bill passed in New York.
Liberal activists say tapping into moneyed right-leaning support for marriage equality has a price.
“I hate to say it,” said longtime gay activist Andy Humm, “but Ronald Reagan, who I despised, had a sign on his desk that read, ‘There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.’ ”
The strategy seems to be working nationwide, as the Human Rights Campaign pushes for the passage of same-sex marriage bills in New Jersey and Maryland following a successful vote in Washington State.
Richard Socarides, former President Bill Clinton’s LGBT liaison, presided over his boss’ signing of the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition of same-sex marriages. He says recent victories are validation of the new strategy of mixing outside activism and inside politics. CORRECTION: Socarides was not present when Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, and said he privately objected to it.
“There is always a healthy debate about how mainstream the movement should be and how much change we should be pushing for,” Socarides said.
“It’s always a good thing to have that, to have people who are more moderate and then people who are more aggressively pushing for full equality right away,” he said. “That tension is not only helpful within the movement, it can often be helpful in terms of getting the government to move, because I think it often takes a good cop/bad cop approach.”
“Richard Socarides is a quisling, and I’ve said it to his face,” said Humm. “He’s part of that money crowd that thinks they control everything, and they treat activists like they’re dirt under their fingernails.”
The principled debate over untraditional alliances came to a head this fall as the Occupy Wall Street movement raged downtown. The Human Rights Campaign, which had long published a “corporate equality index,” rating companies for their respective stances on LGBT-friendly policies, gave its Corporate Equality Award to Goldman Sachs.
“Progressive gays would like to see nothing more than HRC go out of business,” said veteran Democratic gay activist Allen Roskoff. “They’re not part of the progressive coalition out of which the gay rights movement was formed. In the year of Occupy, they have the nerve and the gall to honor the president of Goldman Sachs?”
In fact, the coalition that came together to pass same-sex marriage already disagrees on the next set of priorities.
The Human Rights Campaign has already abandoned New York. Its lead lobbyist in Albany, Brian Ellner, left almost immediately after the vote for Maryland, where he is working to pass a same-sex marriage bill. CORRECTION: Ellner has not left New York, and HRC says it will advocate for other New York gay rights issues as they arise in the Legislature.
Other donors and fund raisers have turned their attention—and their money—to national causes like repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, changing adoption laws to help gay parents and revamping tax policies for same-sex families.
But Empire State Pride Agenda Executive Director Ross Levi said the group’s work on marriage in New York is not done.
“We can’t just pop the champagne on marriage and go home,” Levi said.
“The entire state Legislature, obviously, is up for election in 2012, and so it will be important that our community flexes our political muscle by standing by those who stood by us,” he said. “This is important not only in a principled way, it’s also important in terms of us continuing our political strength.”
In New York, that means pledging funds, fealty and phone banks to support Republican senators who voted for marriage but may balk at other gay priorities, such as AIDS housing, transgender rights and keeping President Barack Obama in office.
Some left-leaning Democratic activists think supporting those Republicans is a myopic strategy that will backfire on other gay priorities.
“We can’t be single-issue,” said Roskoff, who noted that the last Senate Democrats to support the bill, Joseph Addabbo and Shirley Huntley, did not get the same influx of donations in thanks for doing so.
By contrast, the financial spigots opened for the four Republican senators who passed same-sex marriage. Roy McDonald and Steve Saland each received close to half a million dollars, and Jim Alesi and Mark Grisanti reported raising between $325,000 and $400,000.
“Giving $300,000 to promote state Republicans because the party delivers four votes means we’ll have more difficulty getting any other gay rights legislation through,” Roskoff said. “The Republican party votes against us.”
Empire State Pride Agenda is now trying to pass a nondiscrimination bill called GENDA that includes transgender protections and increased funding for gay and lesbian counseling and health care. Levi said the group will endorse lawmakers not just on same-sex marriage but on a range of issues and their support for bills like GENDA.
“We certainly don’t stop the inquiry at whether they were supportive of marriage,” Levi said. “One can take traditionally conservative positions on some things and still believe that it’s not okay to have LGBT homeless youth.”
A larger question is whether gay rights groups’ alliances with moneyed corporate interests indirectly hurt gay rights on the national level, where Republican leaders campaign against same-sex marriage.
Goldman Sachs employees have been some of the largest donors to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, giving him more than half a million dollars. Singer gave $1 million to Restore Our Future, the Super PAC that supports Romney’s campaign. And Romney supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
“It’s hard to understand,” Socarides said with a nervous laugh. “Paul Singer and others have been…very supportive of our marriage effort here in New York, so we appreciate that, but it’s hard to understand how they can reconcile that with their support for Mr. Romney. I wouldn’t try to explain it for them.” CORRECTION: Socarides’ laugh should not have been characterized as “nervous.”
Log Cabin Republicans this ain’t. Former ESPA lobbyist Ethan Geto calls it “real-world politics.”
“If you observe there’s been an increased effort to reach out, you’re absolutely right,” Geto said.
“That’s a smart evolution of this movement, that we should not reflexively reject help and support from Republicans or people who otherwise would be considered as conservative, except they’re not conservative on this issue,” he said. “That’s the way we’re going to make progress.”
In the 1990s, he recalled, liberal activists were appalled that then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican who made his name being as tough on welfare as he was on crime, decided he wanted to march in the gay pride parade.
“To have this guy march [in] the gay rights parade and identify with our community and our agenda—that’s worth a billion dollars to us!” Geto said.
“You might not like a lot of other things Paul Singer does, but if he’s going to put significant resources in the fight to win gay marriage rights in New York, are you going to say to him, ‘Oh, screw you, we don’t want your money’?” he said. “That would be a very stupid litmus test in real-world politics.”
That’s one perspective. Others believe that with same-sex marriage now mainstream, gay politics needs new litmus tests to figure out which politicians are committed to gay rights.
At the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village, members of the center identify themselves with at least 10 sexual orientations—few of which are protected from discrimination under state law.
The New York City Police Department has been accused of discriminating against transgender people in a string of recent arrests. It is being sued for allegedly framing dozens of innocent gay men in prostitution stings aimed at shutting down sex shops in the West Village.
Gay activists want to hold politicians’ feet to the fire over those issues, but those causes hardly have the same broad-based appeal as letting stable gay couples marry—and they are being ignored by the financially powerful but culturally conservative organizations that made same-sex marriage possible.
And outside one corner of Greenwich Village, no one seems to care about Queers Against Israeli Apartheid.
“It’s comparable to the trajectory of many other movements that have gone through institutional phases and then become less vital,” Humm said. “I wouldn’t know what the hell to tell an activist to do these days.”
Read more of our coverage about the battle to bring same-sex marriage to New York:
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