National Commentary

Anything But Straight: Time For a Smart Gay Agenda

It is time the gay movement took the religious right’s advice and created a gay agenda. The new Democratic Congress is about to triumphantly take the reins, offering a unique opportunity to pass legislation, but we must tread carefully to avoid repeating past mistakes.

In 1993, President Bill Clinton waltzed into Washington and advocated allowing openly gay patriots to serve in the military. While this was commendable, he moved too fast, too soon and the resulting brouhaha damaged his presidency and saddled the gay community with today’s Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell fiasco.

One lesson from the past is that if gay issues are haphazardly introduced they can be radioactive and sidetrack the Democratic Party’s broader agenda. If the Democrats are seen as kowtowing to a controversial special interest group the moment they are in the majority it may jeopardize their ability to reach mainstream Americans.

On the other side of the coin, the gay community has been a loyal constituency group and our basic rights should be protected as a matter of morality. The way to reconcile this ostensible conflict is for major gay political organizations to have an early strategic powwow with incoming House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The gay leaders should offer to step back and make no demands for six months to let the Democrats establish a tangible record on bread and butter economic issues. The party must establish itself as one that represents all people and cares most about the concerns of average families.

Once party leaders have built a reserve of political capital and are able to boast of bipartisan accomplishments they will have earned credentials with suburban families and can address gay rights without looking like they are pandering.

Democratic leaders should agree that for the GLBT community’s six months of silence a major piece of legislation would be introduced in June. The most logical legislation would be the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation.

However, I think we should scrap ENDA in its current antiquated form and return to a broader bill that also bans discrimination in housing, credit and accommodations. ENDA made more sense when there were several influential members of Congress who were opposed to employment discrimination, but balked at losing the ability to discriminate in housing.

But the world has evolved and I suspect there are few members of Congress who now advocate situational discrimination. So, why not go for a more robust bill if there are enough votes to win?

It is crucial that GLBT leaders get a commitment from Pelosi and Reid to energetically push a gay rights bill or ENDA in its current incarnation. Polls show that most Americans are overwhelmingly against discrimination, so it is a winning issue as long as the Democrats hold firm. If they appear weak and embarrassed to support equality it will be a disaster. The GLBT community will feel betrayed and lose faith in the Party, while the Democrats will play to stereotypes that they have no core beliefs or principles.

Once a non-discrimination bill is passed there is a good chance that President George W. Bush will veto it. There is not much we can do about this, except use it as a political rallying cry to get more Democrats elected to office. The Republicans may try to use this bill as a political weapon, but I think it will backfire.

In a recent column I predicted that the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling mandating civil unions would have little affect on the Midterm elections. I correctly reasoned that the discussion on marriage had moved the bar to where civil unions are now boring and no longer political poison. The same argument can be made for an ENDA-type bill, with marriage rendering it quaint and uncontroversial.

After this bill is passed, we should take our lobbyists off of Capital Hill for another six months and do nothing else until 2008. In this presidential election year, we should introduce hate crimes legislation, which has the least potential to create a backlash, since even our opponents profess that gay bashing is wrong.

Unfortunately, I left off my short list overturning the ban on gays in the military. I think we should steer clear of this issue until after the presidential elections. This topic is too prone to demagoguery with conservatives, once again, descending into submarine barracks. If a Democrat wins the presidency and the party holds both branches of Congress, this would be a good issue for 2009.

Conservatives are right – we need a gay agenda. If our groups strategically and systematically work with Pelosi and Reid we can eat our victory cake and they can still win reelection in a cakewalk.