Leaders of 31 national, policy-oriented, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) organizations and associations held an historic meeting of the National Policy Roundtable on September 17-18, 1998 in Washington DC. The Executive Directors discussed strategies to meet the challenges presented by an increasingly shrill and hostile right.
This was the third meeting of the National Policy Roundtable, which is a semi-annual meeting of executive directors and leaders of national GLBT groups sponsored by the Policy Institute, a think tank inside NGLTF dedicated to research, policy analysis and strategy development. "The meeting presents executive directors with a forum for the creative and strategic thinking which is the basis of united action. It is a meeting designed to stimulate discussion of new ideas, and is not a decision-making body. The discussions begun at this meeting were exciting and will inform legislative and legal strategies for years to come," said Urvashi Vaid, Director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
The directors heard presentations and held discussions on four topics: (1) the 1998 elections; (2) the origins of sexual orientation and the impact of that debate on public policy; (3) the right wing's ideology and strategy; and (4) race and the leadership of the national movement organizations.
Noting his surprise at the high level of agreement at the meeting, Rich Tafel, Executive Director of National Log Cabin Republican Clubs commented, "The meeting's unity of purpose was striking. Groups from ACT UP to transgender organizations to legal groups to Log Cabin Republicans found common ground on a variety of hot topics. When there was disagreement there remained mutual respect and a realization that our opponents are the religious right, not each other."
A thoughtful and disturbing presentation was made by GLBT political organizations including NGLTF, the Human Rights Campaign, Stonewall Democrats, the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, and Log Cabin on the November elections. Summarizing the mixed potential of this fall's elections, Victory Fund Executive Director Brian Bond noted that this could be an historic year as three openly lesbian candidates could win seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, but that the Clinton controversy could bring in a tidal wave of new Republicans, some GLBT supportive, others not.
Chip Berlet and Surina Khan, of Political Research Associates, a think tank which monitors movements of the right, challenged the directors to better understand the ideology of the American right wing. After a vigorous set of conversations, Joan Garry, Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation observed, "We agreed that this summer's attacks put our communities very much on the defensive and our discussions led us to practical next steps. We resolved to focus on media training and the development of clear, proactive messages and talking points at our next roundtable."
Another presentation grappled with the policy impact of the debate on the origins of homosexuality. America's leading legal expert on GLBT legislative strategy, Georgetown University Law professor Chai Feldblum was joined by the nation's leading historian of the GLBT movement, Dr. John D'Emilio. Participants discussed the importance of not basing pro-GLBT policy advocacy on the answers science may or may not provide to questions about the origins of sexual orientation. Feldblum argued that we needed to focus our thinking away from arguments based on biology or choice and toward arguments that articulate and define the moral good represented in GLBT experience and lives.
In addition, Roundtable participants committed a full day at the next meeting to examining specific strategies through which the leadership of the national GLBT movement could be racially diversified. "We agreed that racism is not merely personal, it is structural," said Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). "People of color leadership thrives in the HIV/AIDS movement and at the grassroots level inside GLBT organizations which work on racial justice, yet it is missing at the Executive level in the national GLBT movement. We committed to seriously addressing the barriers to national leadership faced by people of color."
Other clear consensus about future strategy also emerged. Participants noted that the GLBT movement is both thriving and being threatened at the grass roots level. Efforts such as the Equality Begins at Home actions during March 21-27, 1999 (which will mark a national campaign to motivate GLBT people and supporters in every state around state legislative and community needs) were affirmed and fully supported by the national groups present. The Equality Begins At Home campaign is being organized by NGLTF and the Federation of LGBT Statewide Political Organizations.
Additional comments from participants at the Roundtable can be found on the NGLTF web site, www.ngltf.org.