Published on Monday, December 13, 2004 by the Boston Globe
Gay Rights Activists Split Over Taking Softer Course
by Yvonne Abraham
Supporters of Cheryl Jacques say she was forced out as head of the Human Rights Campaign because she wanted to push for full marriage rights for gays and lesbians after the Nov. 2 election and ran into opposition from activists who wanted to pursue a more moderate course.
The abrupt resignation of Jacques, head of the nation's largest gay and lesbian advocacy group for just 11 months, unfolded a heated debate in the broader gay rights movement, which has seen its dramatic victory of legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts in May fuel a backlash that led 11 states to ban gay marriage in November.
When Jacques resigned Nov. 30, she and the HRC board released a joint statement citing ''a difference in management philosophy."
But friends of Jacques, a former Massachusetts senator, have said the difference was more substantive. Jacques was a casualty of the debate over whether the gay community should lower its sights, said her friend and former colleague Scott Harshbarger, who has spoken with Jacques since her departure.
''She made the decision that the most important issue for HRC was marriage," said Harshbarger, former Massachusetts attorney general. ''It is what HRC is all about. She had every right to think that would be accepted by the board. Then they take action to eliminate [her] tenure. . . .I'm afraid all the wrong lessons got learned by HRC. To walk away because you interpret the results of an election to mean [marriage] is not a winner for the community you represent is very sad and misguided, and Cheryl was a victim of that internal power play."
Replacing Jacques temporarily are Michael Berman, a longtime supporter of gay causes who is straight, and Hilary Rosen, an HRC veteran and former recording industry lobbyist who wrote an essay in The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian magazine, this month. She argued that in a conservative era, gays should push for civil unions, Social Security, pension, and tax benefits. ''Paving a middle road for people to walk down is not caving in, it is building a future," she wrote.
The debate over the future of the gay rights movement has pitted HRC against other national gay and lesbian groups and activists concerned that the 600,000-member HRC appears to be downscaling its ambitions. A group of more than 60 advocates and organizations signed a letter sent to every member of Congress late last week, saying they were determined not to back down on the marriage issue or to bargain for the rights of gays and lesbians. HRC declined to sign the letter.
Neither Jacques nor HRC board members will discuss the circumstances of her departure, but HRC officials have hotly denied they are pulling back from marriage as a primary goal. Activists have cited many possible reasons for Jacques's departure apart from the marriage issue -- a dearth of allies within the organization, a jarring management style, a lack of contacts in Washington.
In interviews, gay rights activists familiar with Jacques's tenure said, for example, the HRC's campaign slogan ''George Bush, You're Fired!" was too partisan for an organization that will have to work in a Republican-dominated Washington. Other observers said she never had a chance to build strong alliances either inside the organization or on Capitol Hill, in contrast to her popular predecessor, Elizabeth Birch.
But the controversy over Jacques's exit, which prompted enormous discussion among activists in the gay press and Internet blogs, underscored the intensity of the wider debate over marriage in the gay community. Stung by the electoral defeats and faced with four more years with a presidential administration they campaigned to eject, activists are deciding where they should go from here.
''We're not retreating one inch on marriage," Berman said. ''It is the ultimate civil right. But you have to do other things at the same time."
Some gay activists favor scaling back their ambitions to push for civil unions, which confer some of the benefits and protections of marriage on gay couples. Others argue that civil unions are inadequate, that they do not guarantee hundreds of the rights marriage could, and that they set gays and lesbians apart from society in a ''separate and unequal" institution.
''I don't think the American public is ready to embrace marriage," said Abner Mason, executive director of AIDS Responsibility and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. ''There was a certain euphoria built around marriage [in Massachusetts] and for some people there is a reluctance to accept that, from a political perspective there's a lot of work to do."
That marriage is too ambitious a goal has ''always been a point raised, and by people who are with us, as well as by people who oppose us," said Sue Hyde, New England field director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. ''I think the election results have kind of reinvigorated people to say it again."
HRC officials began outlining a more pragmatic strategy for the group at a meeting last weekend in Las Vegas. They decided to inject themselves into debates over Social Security, pension, and tax policy to try to win incremental rights in addition to sweeping ones. They floated the possibility of supporting the Bush administration plan to privatize Social Security, for example, in the hopes of winning survivor benefits from more open-minded private companies that might administer the funds.
More broadly, HRC strategists are hoping to reintroduce gays and lesbians to the American people, an attempt to replace what a spokesman called sensational television images of gay and lesbian couples -- footage of them kissing after they were married in San Francisco earlier this year, for example -- with fuller stories. The group will focus on approaching people personally, through churches and local communities, and appealing to voters' sense of fairness by focusing on the rights denied to gays and lesbians, he said.
''The Fox News footage is sometimes the only information people get," said HRC spokesman Steven Fisher. ''We're still in an education process on the issue of marriage, and in the last election people were given the final exam on the first day of class. When they see the stories, of hospital visitation and other rights denied, the stereotypes and sensationalism will disappear."
In the Advocate essay, Rosen compared gay marriage to ''a noisy red Ferrari speeding down quiet Main Street. . . there is no question that this issue played some role in the overall mood of the country, and it is just not possible to deny so many their instincts."
''The strategy has to change," she wrote. ''Let's stop looking a gift horse in the mouth. If there are ways to get gay and lesbian couples some access to benefits now, we ought to be more aggressive in pursuing them."
Her statements have worried other longtime activists, however.
''Everybody else has a Ferrari," said Fred Kuhr, editor of In Newsweekly, New England's largest gay newspaper. ''I have money for a red Ferrari, but the dealer doesn't want to sell it to me. Why? Because I'm gay. I don't think it makes much sense for the activist voices to be saying, 'OK, Bush won, and we have this feeling that the anti-gay right is in control, so we'll scale back our goals.' "
Vin McCarthy, who founded HRC in New England, said he was worried HRC, which lobbies on Capitol Hill, chose political pragmatism over ideals in ousting Jacques.
''If we lose, let us lose the whole war," he said. ''If Hilary tries to pull the movement back to civil unions, there will be a revolution."
Late last week, Rosen clarified her previous statements, telling an Advocate.com interviewer she ''wasn't creating a policy for HRC or dictating a path."
''I just think that we need to be comfortable on multiple tracks," she said. Rosen declined to be interviewed by the Globe.
When the HRC's plans to reformulate its approach appeared in The New York Times last week, other gay rights activists grew alarmed, particularly over the group's apparent openness to privatizing Social Security.
The Times story ''indicated there was about to be an abrupt shift in the longstanding unified voice of our community," said Matt Foreman, head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which prepared the letter sent to the legislators.
''We will not sacrifice our rights -- or the rights of others like senior citizens -- on the altar of political expediency," the letter read. ''Nothing short of full equality and protection granted to all other American citizens is acceptable."
One of the signatories said HRC was invited to sign onto the letter, but declined.
In an interview on Friday, Berman batted away talk of support for Social Security privatization.
''Number one, HRC is not going anywhere on Social Security," he said. ''There's no way we're going to end up supporting privatization."
In some ways, Foreman said, the debate over whether to pursue marriage is moot. Marriage is being put on the public agenda in the courts, he said, and activists in Washington and elsewhere can do little about it. ''The reality is that the marriage movement is being driven by individual couples going to court and seeking their rights," he said. ''And there is no great, grand, gay cabal that can tell couples, 'Don't seek your rights, and just wait a while till the public is ready for it.' "
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