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Out of the Margins and into the Mainstream–Almost

By Virginia M. Apuzzo

The year was 1976. Americans were marking the Bicentennial. Ships from around the world poured into the New York Harbor to celebrate the world’s oldest democracy. Despite the fireworks and fanfare, however, it was in many ways, a bleak time. The country was struggling to pull itself out of a recession. A southern governor by the name of James Earl Carter was taking political center stage, chal-lenging us with the phrase, "Why not the Best?"

That season of celebration, the Democratic Party Platform Committee was travel-ling around the country, taking live testimony as it decided what the party would stand for heading into the November elections.

I was a volunteer for the then-named National Gay Task Force. My job was to travel around the country, dogging members of the Platform Committee, and help-ing local groups organize and lobby for gay, lesbian and bisexual equality. Our goal: a plank in the platform calling for nondiscrimination against gays and lesbians in such areas as housing, public accommodations and employment.

As the Platform Committee wound down its public hearings and the Drafting Committee began its important work, I found myself closed out of a public meeting by two high-level Carter aides. I was called an "embarrassment" to candidate Car-ter. In that Bicentennial year, the plank was not included in the final platform and our hope of inclusion remained unfulfilled.

Four years later, I found myself pursued by the White House, being asked to join the Carter campaign and help organize the gay and lesbian vote in such key electoral states as California, Florida, New York and Texas. We had just come out of a contentious Democratic National Convention. Many gay and lesbian activists, frustrated by President Carter’s inaction on issues important to our community, had bolted to support the insurgent candidacy of Senator Ted Kennedy, who mounted a vigorous primary challenge to Carter. Although the 1980 election was dominated by the Iranian hostage crisis and the theme of "economic malaise," the frustration demonstrated by many of these activists, and the subsequent decision by many in the progressive community to sit out the election undoubtedly contributed to Carter’s defeat.

Through the 1980s, the Democratic Party made progress on our issues, at least theoretically. But passing a platform with strong, inclusive language–as the party did in 1980 and 1984—is an exercise in futility when you can’t win elections. And President Reagan wasted valuable years before he could even bring himself to say "AIDS" in public, much less offer up a plan for addressing the most serious public health care crisis of our time.

Today, as I watch candidates Bill Bradley and Al Gore go head to head for the votes of gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans, I reflect on the distance we have covered. We have progressed from an issue on the margins to a constituency knocking on the doors of "mainstream" USA -and we are a constituency whose votes are aggressively pursued, at least by some candidates.

Among the Democrats, the candidates? recent expressions of support for domes-tic partner benefits and nondiscrimination laws and opposition to the "Don?t ask, don?t tell" military policy demonstrates vividly the importance of the GLB com-munity in the nominating process.

Among the Republicans, the two leading candidates for president have resorted to the classic bob and weave when expressing their views on GLBT issues. Yes, Texas Gov. George W. Bush opposes the rights of gays and lesbians to parent and opposes a hate crimes law inclusive of sexual orientation, and his views on a wide array of issues important GLBT community reflect a lack of knowledge and awareness. But some would argue that Bush also has gone to some lengths to tone down the divisive rhetoric of yesteryear, when gay and lesbian Americans were seen as a threat to children and to families.

While Sen. John McCain supports the anti-gay "Don?t ask, don?t tell" policy, he also thinks that a gay or lesbian person could serve as president. And he has taken $40,000 in contributions from gay Republicans- a far cry from 1996, when candi-date Robert Dole waffled when handed a check for $1,000 from Log Cabin Repub-licans, a gay and lesbian group that is lobbying on the local level to help revise the GOP?s history of anti-GLBT extremism.

What happened between 1976 and the year 2000? Two important developments. First, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered voters organized and reached out to locally elected officials who were climbing their way up the political ladder. Second, politicians learned how to count. By 1996, according to exit polls, voters who self-identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual comprised 5 person of the electorate–larger than the Latino vote (4.5 percent) or the Jewish vote (3.4 percent).

And these are not automatic votes for the Democratic nominee, either; in the 1998 mid-term elections, fully one third of gay, lesbian and bisexual voters supported Republicans.

Today there remains a disconnect between the American electorate and the views of a majority of presidential candidates, which is why we remain unable to say we have entered the political mainstream. Yet it is undeniable that we have made sub-stantial progress. While such names as Gary Bauer, Alan Keyes, Robert Smith, Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan fall into oblivion or irrelevancy, it is clear from the way our support is being sought after that we in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community have become an permanent part of the political landscape.

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Apuzzo served as the Assistant to the President for Administation and Manage-ment from 1997 to 1999. She was the highest-ranking gay or lesbian official in the White House. Today, Apuzzo fills the Virginia Apuzzo Chair for Leadership in Public Policy at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.


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