Bill Smith is the Deputy Executive Director of Gill Action Fund. In the Advocate, he offered a thoughtful analysis of the LGBT landscape in the post-election environment.
However, I do have a few questions.
Bill: Although it’s been said before, it bears repeating — we must get out of the partisan ghetto and insist that LGBT rights are human rights, not partisan positions. When we allow ourselves to be seen simply as agents of the Democratic Party, we’re building barriers that impede progress with thoughtful Republicans, who we will almost always need to win. We also need thoughtful LGBT Republicans, who do the hard work of having difficult conversations with other Republicans without being apologists for antigay voices. Our freedom to marry, to serve our country, and to work to support our families transcends politics, and we must confidently and positively make our case with equal vigor to Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike.
Wayne: Are we really in the partisan ghetto by choice? I genuinely can’t think of one instance where an LGBT organization had the vote of a member of the GOP and said, “Let’s reject this vote because we don’t like the “R” in front of his or her name.” I’d challenge anyone to find one instance where this has occurred.
Having worked at the Human Rights Campaign from 1998-2003, I can tell you that we went out of our way to engage in bipartisanship, even when it pissed off the LGBT community. I was there when HRC endorsed New York Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato. I can’t describe the terror of having hundreds of apoplectic New Yorkers screaming on the phone because they hated the endorsement. I’m still having flashbacks and nightmares!
My point is, the bipartisan thing has been tried in earnest at the federal level for quite some time. It has not worked. During this period, the GOP has moved further to the margins. The number of thoughtful Republicans has diminished and are close to becoming an endangered species. Should we keep trying? Of course, because we can use the support, and having conservatives on-board, such as Ted Olson, has helped our cause.
But as long as the Republican Party has to answer to the Family Research Council or Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) our ability to rise above the partisan ghetto will remain rather limited.
Furthermore, the battle for LGBT equality may be snagged on the Republican obsession with undermining the Obama administration (They won’t even meet with him) and making him a one-term president. The GOP leadership might conclude that if LGBT people fail to gain equality under Obama, they will be upset and more likely to stay home or vote Republican in 2012. If the Republicans can oppose Obama on a huge issue dealing with national security, like an arms control treaty with Russia, they can stomp on ENDA without blinking.
So, my question is, what will be tried to woo Republicans that has not been tried before?
Bill: It’s past time to rethink our federal presence in Washington. It’s broken and it has to be fixed before another two years go by.
Wayne: Wow, this is actually newsworthy. The powerful Gill Foundation is sending a direct message to The Human Rights Campaign that they are not happy with the results in Washington. Does this signal a strategic shift where Gill will get more involved at the national level or fund a proxy? It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
In terms of DC, it seems to me that LGBT leaders have been able to get into the door and sit in the corridors of power. The problem is, we have often walked out of the room empty handed or with a bare minimum. What the Gill Foundation should do is hire the nation’s top negotiators to train LGBT Executive Directors on how to bargain effectively. There should be mock White House and congressional meetings where these experts show us how to maximize negotiations and leverage our power. Negotiating is an extremely difficult art, but these are skills that can be learned and nurtured.
Bill: It’s time to model our federal campaigns after successful organizations like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the National Rifle Association that understand building and using political capital while insisting on results. There is no legitimate reason we shouldn’t have the ability to be successful on multiple issues simultaneously while not allowing ourselves to be pushed off the agenda by fickle or shell-shocked allies.
Wayne: This is a good idea and one previously stated by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). It is a productive exercise to study other lobbies and learn from their success — and failures. There are certainly ways we can improve and grow as a movement and AIPAC and the NRA are good models to observe and dissect. However, there are obvious limits that will keep us from ever having the clout of these groups.
For example, there are as many as 80 million gun owners in America. There are not 80 million LGBT people in America, and if there were, we would be as powerful as the NRA and would have achieved equal rights at least a decade ago.
Comparisons to AIPAC also have limits. Democrats support this lobby because most Jewish Americans are liberal and reliable party voters. Republicans support Israel for two reasons. The first is because the Religious Right wants Israel in the hands of the Jews, to fulfill prophesy of Jesus returning. The second is because the business wing of the GOP can reward defense contractors by building weapons systems for Israel.
While the LGBT movement can influence Democrats, it does not have the crossover appeal, such as AIPAC, in the Republican Party. As I explained earlier, any true embrace of the LGBT movement creates a messy showdown for the GOP with the Religious Right.
Finally, AIPAC and the NRA have relatively homogeneous constituencies that are more easily organized than the unruly and diverse coalition that makes up the LGBT movement. Would these groups maintain such enviable unity if they were juggling transgender concerns, GOProud types, Dykes on Bikes and the black tie dinner crowd? Make no mistake, our LGBT leaders have extremely difficult jobs.
Bill: We must be serious about holding elected officials’ feet to the fire and avoid wallowing in victimhood when they don’t deliver. We must communicate clearly with our friends about what we expect, push them harder than we’re comfortable with until they deliver results, and thank them appropriately when we win. And when they betray our trust or vote against us, fight like hell to beat them. LGBT New Yorkers didn’t accept the results of last December’s awful vote against marriage equality, they got organized. Through Fight Back New York and other organizations, they defeated three antimarriage senators (of both parties) and replaced them with three strong allies. Steadily using this formula will build both respect and a healthy dose of fear for the perils of crossing LGBT voters.
Wayne: These are all good points and the Gill Foundation has done a terrific job in targeted races. The larger questions are — Can these efforts in New York be duplicated in Michigan or Mississippi? What leverage do we have in such places? Can we deliver enough money or votes to make a difference?
Bill: Yes, there were significant losses, and unfortunately another truth about the LGBT community is that we sometimes wallow in our defeats. We have the opportunity now to use the wins of Election Day to triumph over the adversity of the losses. To do that we must make the all too familiar choice: Get busy winning or spend time wallowing. I for one am ready to get busy winning.
Wayne: But crying in my beer is so much fun!
Seriously, political circumstances change, but we must keep working and fighting so the march of progress moves forward.