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Gay groups award style over substance?

Public officials who take ‘brave not perfect’ stands deserve nods, groups say

By Ryan Lee

Friday, July 15, 2005

Janet Jackson. Howard Dean. Paris Hilton. Tom Daschle.

The four disparate personalities share one common trait: They all were recently recognized in high-profile ways by gay organizations.

For the gay groups that lauded them, including two national advocacy groups, it’s a matter of honoring “brave though not perfect” political leaders.

For critics, it’s an effort to “curry press and favor” without any civil rights victories to show for it.

“How desperate can we get?” said Robin Tyler, a longtime gay rights activist. “We’ve mistaken cultural visibility for civil rights.”

Tyler was specifically referencing the selection of ubiquitous pop culture figure Paris Hilton and her mother, Kathy, as grand marshals for the Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade on June 11.

But Pride organizers defended the choice.

Despite their previous lack of public advocacy for gay rights, the Hiltons had “a genuine desire” to make a contribution to the gay civil rights movement, which they did by simply leading the Pride parade through West Hollywood, said Rodney Scott, president of Christopher Street West, the organizers of Pride in Los Angeles.

“They felt they bring certain press and visibility, and they wanted to lend their voices to our issues,” Scott said. “We are all looking for the same thing, and that is to bring a greater awareness to our issues. We just have different tactics for how to accomplish that.”

‘Keep the doors open’

On June 18, the Human Rights Campaign dinner in Los Angeles honored singer Janet Jackson with its Humanitarian Award, citing her financial contributions to AIDS organizations.

While Jackson’s efforts are praiseworthy, calling her humanitarian of the year is a stretch that could affect the value of future awards presented by HRC, said Jim Key, chief public affairs officer for the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center.

“I think it’s appropriate to honor celebrities who are active and involved in supporting our community, but I think it’s important what you name that honor so that you don’t diminish that honor for future recipients,” Key said.

He added that gay groups in Los Angeles are likely inspired by the city’s star culture to court big-name celebrities for their functions. Big names draw attendance as well, fulfilling the event’s goal of raising money for the host group.

Gay rights organizations across the country are eager to attract well known figures to big events, even if that sometimes means honoring someone who isn’t fully supportive of gay civil rights, said Cheryl Jacques, a former president of HRC.

“The reality is the fund-raising pressure for all of these organizations to keep the doors open, the staff paid, the computers running, the e-mails going out to keep our community informed is an extreme financial burden,” Jacques said.

“From witnessing what some organizations do, if it’s a choice between a big-name celebrity who probably will fill the seats, but who may not be supportive of all our issues, they’ll beat out an unknown, hard-working activist who won’t draw a crowd.”

But honoring celebrities and high-profile politicians simply to “curry press and favor” has brought no rewards or civil rights victories to gay organizations, said Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network.

“I think it sends the message that our community is about fluff and glitter, and not about civil rights, because if you flatter our egos by associating with us, then that is good enough,” Thayer said. “It says something about the lack of self esteem that our community has that we’re willing to glom onto anyone with a big name who is willing to give us the time of day.”

Thayer was also critical of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force for awarding Daschle, the former Senate minority leader, a Leadership Award in New York City on June 13. The task force credits Daschle for risking his own re-election to kill the Federal Marriage Amendment in 2004.

But throughout his unsuccessful re-election bid in 2004, Daschle qualified his opposition to a federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriage by emphasizing his support of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and his belief that individual states should be allowed to decide whether to recognize gay unions, Thayer said.

“He was running away from our community and the last thing he wanted to be labeled was pro-gay,” Thayer said.

But Daschle’s career-long commitment to progressive causes beyond gay rights issues warranted the recognition, Matt Foreman, executive director of the Task Force, said in a written response to questions from this newspaper.

“While marriage equality is a critical issue, it is not the only issue important to our community,” Foreman said. “For many, basic non-discrimination protections and access to health care are preeminent.

“While we would not honor any elected official who supports the overturn of Roe vs. Wade or the Federal Marriage Amendment, we do believe in recognizing public officials who move on our issues and those who take brave — though not perfect — stands for our rights,” Foreman said.

Inside the Beltway

In addition to honoring Daschle, the Task Force gave former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is now chair of the Democratic National Committee, a Lifetime Achievement Award during an event in Washington, D.C. on April 7.

Dean energized many gays with his presidential run last year, given his decision to sign into law historic civil union legislation as governor of Vermont. But despite uniform agreement among gay rights groups that civil unions remain discriminatory and are “separate and unequal,” Dean has remained steadfastly opposed to civil marriage for same-sex couples.

Soon after being selected to chair the Democratic Party earlier this year, he rallied with gay activists and later the same day told a different group that the party should be careful not to be identified with hot-button social issues like gay marriage.

“I think it’s dangerous to accept crumbs off the table, and I think it’s dangerous for us to say that if you give us half a loaf, we’ll worship you,” Tyler said. “When you give an award to someone [like Daschle] who believes in the Defense of Marriage Act, you give an award to someone who believes in second-class status for our community.

“The fact that [conservative Republicans] used us to topple [Daschle] doesn’t make him a great ally,” Tyler added.

But both Foreman and Jacques, who was leading HRC during the congressional fight over the Federal Marriage Amendment last year, said a gay marriage ban might be heading for ratification to the U.S. Constitution had it not been for Daschle’s leadership.

“Tom Daschle was amazing; he was absolutely amazing,” Jacques said. “While he might not have an unblemished record on our issues, he almost single-handedly held the Democratic caucus together when they were under intense pressure from the Christian right.”

In July 2004, the FMA died in the U.S. Senate when it fell 12 votes shy of the 60 votes needed to bring the proposal to an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

Tyler remains unimpressed.

“Does it take courage to fight the FMA? No,” she said.

In addition to ignoring grassroots activists or politicians who take a very public stand on same-sex marriage — like San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsome, who defied California law in 2004 by issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples — gay organizations sell the entire gay movement short, Thayer said.

“What other civil rights movement would give awards to folks who don’t treat that community as full human beings?” Thayer said. “Martin Luther King certainly had a host of celebrities around him, but he wasn’t just going to collect people because they had a big name.”

Local influence

The Task Force and HRC leave the selection process for award recipients to committees based in the cities where award ceremonies are taking place, officials with both groups said. But the groups strive to balance the awards between high-profile celebrities and politicians, and grassroots activists.

Both groups honored mayors who were key figures when same-sex marriage exploded onto the public stage last year. The Task Force is scheduled to recognize New Paltz, N.Y., Mayor Jason West with a leadership award next month. Newsome received an Equality Award at the HRC dinner in San Francisco in 2004.

The Task Force holds annual awards ceremonies in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Provincetown, R.I. The organization gave out 34 awards in the last three years, Foreman said.

Some 14 of those awards were presented to gay, lesbian or transgender activists, seven to entertainment figures, two to gay organizations, and nine to public officials, including five to gay and lesbian officeholders, Foreman said.

Local organizers of the 25 annual HRC dinners across the country also determine award recipients and keynote speakers, said Steven Fisher, the organization’s vice president for communications.

“Every local steering committee each has their own way of producing their dinners because they know their community best,” Fisher said. “They know what energizes and engages their community best.”

Fisher deferred comments about awards at recent dinners to local organizers. Officials with HRC’s steering committee in Los Angeles did not respond to an emailed interview request.

‘Home run two-fer’

All gay organizations are steadily searching for “a home run two-fer”: someone who supports gay equality and can draw a big crowd, Jacques said.

But those recipients are particularly difficult to locate in a conservative political arena, Tyler said.

“If they were really giving awards to people who believe in total civil rights for us, there would not be a lot of big names up there,” Tyler said.

While politicians may be given a pass on certain issues by gay rights groups presenting them with awards, celebrities don’t necessarily need a background in gay civil rights to be an instant force worthy of recognition by gay organizations, Jacques said.

“If a high-profile celebrity with no record on gay rights is willing to take their name and status and make a very public statement in support of gay rights, we should never pass that up,” Jacques said.

But Key, from the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, said selecting Paris Hilton as a parade grand marshal was patronizing.

“If you try to retroactively make a celebrity to be more supportive than they are, that’s a problem,” Key said.

Hilton’s appearance as grand marshal brought more attention to that position, and the overall Pride festival in Los Angeles, than ever before, said Scott, from Christopher Street West, the parade’s organizer.

“I think what we have is an opportunity to recognize how do we include people in our community, and who do we allow to be part of our dialogue,” Scott said.

But with gays facing unprecedented attacks on the state and federal level, now is not the time to shower praise on untested celebrities, said Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network.

“It’s disturbing our community doesn’t take itself more seriously in terms of choosing icons,” Thayer said. “When we’re in a situation where a constitutional amendment is looming in California, to treat the Pride celebration as a puff piece on our calendar, I think that’s a sign of us not waking up and smelling the coffee.

“We do ourselves no favors in rewarding politicians and pop figures who do nothing to advance our cause,” Thayer said.


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