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Parallel curves

Path of the rainbow, part two


Part two of a two-part series.

It's the flip side of pop singer George Michael's arrest for "lewd conduct." And it has odd analogies with bathroom humor. But the following news item means serious political business.

In mid-January, while many New Yorkers were celebrating the enactment of the state's Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, the American Civil Liberties Union trumpeted an "important victory" for transgendered people. (SONDA was no victory for the transgendered, who weren't covered by SONDA's civil rights guarantees.).

The victory came in a New York City courtroom. It seems that in 2001, a landlord had thrown the Hispanic AIDS Forum out of its offices because some transgendered clients were "using the wrong bathroom." The AIDS Forum sued the landlord, who then asked the court to force the group "to disclose the anatomical sex at birth of its clients." The judge said no, ruling, in the ACLU's words, "that the physical anatomy of transgendered people is not relevant to gender identity." That is, those who identify as women may use the women's restroom, regardless of genitalia.

A small victory, perhaps. But as the Empire State Pride Agenda says, pending legislation may stop such arbitrary actions against the transgendered and other groups.

In mid-April, for example, State Senator Thomas Duane and Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, both Manhattan Democrats, introduced the Gender Non-Discrimination Act, a bill that would bring transgendered persons under SONDA's civil rights umbrella. "GENDA" would protect against discrimination in housing, lending, public accommodations, and so forth. The bill covers everyone whose "behavior or expression is different from that traditionally associated with the sex assigned to that person at birth." The Senate version, S.4457, has been referred to committee, according to the legislature website.

The Pride Agenda is pushing other measures, too. There's the Dignity For All Students Act (S.1925, A.1118), which "would create safe, harassment-free school environments for all students," regardless of "gender identity" and sexual orientation, as well as race, religion, and so forth. The act would lead schools to establish policies against harassment of gay students and create training programs to "raise staff sensitivity." More than 100 groups have joined a statewide Dignity for All Students Coalition to back it. The coalition members include some from Rochester: the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley; Dignity-Integrity; the Fairport Educators Association (New York State United Teachers); the First Unitarian Church's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns Task Force; Interfaith Advocates; and local chapters of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

This initiative fits with the stronger emphasis the local Gay Alliance promises to put on gay students' issues, including support for the "gay-straight alliances" springing up in many high schools.

So a lot's happening in Albany and communities like ours. But how's the gay movement doing on a grander scale?

Joe Tarver, the Pride Agenda's communications director, sounds confident when speaking of a march toward "full equality." But there are wrinkles. "New York State has always been a laggard" on gay and lesbian issues, he says. (New York City is the obvious exception.). We're no rival to Vermont or Massachusetts, he says.

Indeed, Vermont's "civil unions," which provide many benefits of marriage, have set a standard. But civil unions aren't the endpoint. The Pride Agenda "is on record as supporting gay marriage," says Tarver. This isn't just rhetorical; it's also tactical, he says. "When you go for something less than marriage," he says, "you get something [even] less" than civil unions.

One way or another, the Pride Agenda is committed to winning "the 800 rights and responsibilities granted by the states when two people marry," Tarver says.

A worthy goal. But are the gay movement's many parts working smoothly together toward it? Yes and no.

One dynamic that has characterized the movement from the beginning is an ancient one: male and female. And in the beginning, gay groups tended to be single-sex. Take the (male) Mattachine Society and the (female) Daughters of Bilitis of a half-century ago. Likewise, the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley descended from the Gay Brotherhood and the Lesbian Resource Center. Some groups remain unisex, of course --- like the Rochester Rams, a men's motorcycle club that also runs an annual "Toys for Tots" campaign.

The Pride Agenda's Tarver sees no gender problem today. "From our experience, it's not a significant issue," he says. "There are nuances: Lesbian couples are sometimes more interested in adoption," for example. And there are some tensions, he says, between or within groups that work on gay men's or lesbians' distinctive health needs.

One local activist detects other things. "When I go to Pride Agenda or Gay Alliance events, there are few lesbians there," says Barbara Moore, with the Lesbian Rights Task Force of Rochester's National Organization for Women chapter. "I've always wondered why lesbians aren't more active" with established groups, she says. There's "speculation," she says, about economic factors: "Many of the men that are active have the money that allows them to be active," unlike lesbians who earn less than men and must exhaust their time and energy making ends meet. And fewer outlets for women's activism exist today, she says. One example: a local Lesbian Avengers group that dissolved years ago.

But gender issues, and class issues too, sometimes dissolve when groups focus on bread-and-butter things like workplace and housing discrimination, parenting and adoption. Historic demographic changes have their effect, too. For example, Tarver says one-third of his group's board members have children, and many of these board members are gay men with partners.

The post-post-Stonewall era has seen the rise of large gay-and-lesbian organizations with seats in the halls of power, corporate as well as governmental. On the national level, groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the Human Rights Campaign, and the Log Cabin Republicans have real clout.

They've got the resources to be players in controversies like one now before the US Supreme Court: the Lawrence v. Texas case, in which two gay men prosecuted and sentenced for having sex with each other have challenged the constitutionality of that state's sodomy law. The Human Rights Campaign, the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, and other groups have signed onto an amicus brief in this case.

"Homosexual sodomy laws, not gay people, are the real social and legal deviants," says the brief. It also cites gay heroes like Father Mychal Judge, a New York Fire Department chaplain killed on 9/11 at the World Trade Center; and Mark Bingham, a gay man who died fighting the 9/11 attackers aboard doomed Flight 93.

But these stories --- which tell how "we're all getting along" even during a politically difficult time --- are matched by tales of internal strife.

Not so long after Judge and Bingham met their heroic deaths, gay organizations began taking sides regarding the "war on terror."

Recently, and quite visibly, the Washington-based National Gay and Lesbian Task Force became an organizational member of the Win Without War Coalition, an effort that includes groups like Greenpeace, the NAACP, the Tikkun Community, the United Church of Christ, and many others. Many smaller gay organizations have joined the anti-war movement, too.

In any case, the Win Without War Coalition isn't exactly rabble-rousing. Its mission statement says "patriotic Americans" should support UN weapons inspections and "legal diplomatic means." The "preemptive military invasion of Iraq is harming American national interests," it says.

That sort of thing was too much for conservative gay writer-editor Andrew Sullivan, however. In The Advocate this February, he lashed out at the Task Force and its allies. "War isn't a gay issue," read the headline. "What should a gay organization not do?" he asked. It should not, he maintained, take up "a non-gay topic, alienate large numbers of people... divide the gay population unnecessarily, and devote energy and resources to a subject far, far away from the issue of gay equality."

Task Force head Lorri Jean responded in an Advocate piece of her own. Many groups, she said, "contribute to the national debate on issues that are not exclusively related to their own constituencies," for example, groups like the Sierra Club. She said the Task Force was "not devoting resources to antiwar activities" but taking "a rhetorical position" that would ultimately benefit the cause of gay equality. Jean mentioned, too, that the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay caucus within the national party, had supported the Iraq war without raising Sullivan's ire.

Is there a middle ground, or should there be? "No one organization represents a collective viewpoint of the [gay and lesbian] movement," Human Rights Campaign spokesperson David Smith tells us. HRC, he says, will emphasize not war abroad but "equality in the United States."

There's more agreement, perhaps, on past wars. Take a recent gay and human-rights movement accomplishment: an exhibition at the US Holocaust Museum called "Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals," now bound for showings across the country. (See it online at; click on "online exhibitions.")

In Rochester, current fights have to do more with organizational control than national and world politics (see Path of the Rainbow, City Newspaper, April 16-22). This is partly because gay organizations whose primary work is political --- like the Pride Agenda, which once had an office at Village Gate --- no longer have offices here.

But there's big stuff below the surface. Like the big one that won't go away: liberationist versus accommodationist.

That is: Should gay people fight for the full range of ideals and a separate "culture"? Or should they seek only to establish credentials as good citizens, neighbors, and in a sense "ordinary folks."

The two tendencies don't inevitably cancel each other out. But they do battle, especially in big cities, where you'll find groups like the Lavender Greens (Green Party of the US), ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a direct-action group that once had a chapter in Rochester), and even one called "Gay Shame," which tweaks the "Pride" movement and seeks "a new queer activism that addresses issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality, to counter the 'values' of the gay mainstream."

In this connection, some may be tempted to think gay people are in essence better or less violent than others. But veteran gay activist David McReynolds, who's spent four decades with the War Resisters League, dismisses this. "Considering that Hitler's early supporters were gay, violent, and then murdered on Hitler's orders... and that Sparta was a gay society, I'm not at all sure that gay men are more peaceful," McReynolds says by e-mail.

But McReynolds adds a mini-timeline that tells how much has been won, despite all the squabbles and divergences. He recalls living "through the 'glory days' of the gay underground, when no one in the straight world knew about us, and we were both repressed and excited by our strange sub-society, and the 'liberation' period just before AIDS, then the post-AIDS sobering-up period, and now today when 'queer studies' is taught in the academy."

The grand old man acknowledges a "huge generational gap." But you can feel the pride, too.

Alliance on the move

In the week since we covered dissension in the ranks at the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, things have moved forward. (See "Path of the rainbow," City Newspaper, April 16-22, which profiles the Alliance's new executive director and investigates certain charges made public after he fired the organization's longtime program director.)

            First, according to Naples-based member Susan Braman, a group of dissidents asked for the Alliance mailing list to circulate their grievances. They suggested the Alliance could handle the actual mailing to safeguard confidentiality --- always a top concern for such an organization. At presstime, the matter was still up in the air.

            Second, the Alliance has made a significant scheduling change. The organization's annual meeting, originally scheduled for April 27, has been moved to June 8, says board vice president Tom Carlock. The reason? Carlock says the auditors have not yet completed the annual report.

            The original time slot won't be wasted, Carlock says: The Alliance will hold a members-only "town meeting" (place TBA) Sunday, April 27, from 6 to 9 p.m. where all points of view can be aired.