Amidst several weeks of controversy in the LGBT press about a reorganization of the Democratic National Committee that eliminated the “gay desk” or liaison position there, Dr. Howard Dean, the party chairman and former Vermont governor and presidential candidate, was in New York Monday to meet with community leaders.
Roughly 25 New Yorkers, from LGBT Democratic clubs to service organizations such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis, attended the meeting, which was pulled together at Dean’s request primarily by Ethan Geto, the longtime gay activist who runs a public relations and lobbying firm and was the chairman of the Vermont Democrat’s 2004 presidential effort in this state.
The half-dozen of those in attendance who spoke to Gay City News, including Geto, said that Dean addressed questions about the reorganization—which took place last year and also included the elimination of other constituency “desks” in favor of a new, integrated effort, termed the American Majority Partnership, aimed at key Democratic voting blocs. But these participants also agreed that the bulk of the conversation focused more broadly on pushing the party to stake out a bolder, less defensive stance on its progressive agenda, including support for LGBT equality.
A DNC spokesman, Damien LaVera, specifically challenged the assumption that Dean initiated the meeting in New York in response to the reorganization flap, emphasizing that the chairman meets on a continuing basis with a wide variety of Democratic constituencies. The Friday before the New York meeting, Dean was in Boston visiting the Fenway Community Health Project, which has been providing gay men’s health services since the 1970s, well before the emergence of the AIDS crisis.
Still, according to Geto, he first received a request to organize the meeting last Wednesday, just five days after the Washington Blade first reported that the DNC had eliminated the post of director of lesbian and gay outreach. That story also included harsh criticism about the reorganization from New Yorker Jeff Soref, who once chaired the DNC’s Gay and Lesbian Americans Caucus and has also served in prominent board roles with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the Empire State Pride Agenda, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Subsequent to Gay City News going to press, the DNC told the newspaper that, as part of Dean's regular outreach to the LGBT community, in late January, well in advance of the published report referenced above, it had organized a community outreach event focusing on LGBT health issues during the governor's February 13 trip to New York City., The health event was postponed because it conflicted with a statewide health conference. Upon learning of that opening in Dean's schedule, the DNC asked Geto to organize the meeting with New York LGBT community leaders that was held.]
Matt Foreman, who is the executive director of the Task Force, but explained that he attended the Monday meeting in his role as a member of the New York City Human Rights Commission, said that Dean faced some tough questioning.
“A number of people were very direct with Chairman Dean about their concerns about the party speaking forcefully on behalf of LGBT issues, really standing up for us,” he said. “The gay desk issue was raised by four people as I recall.”
Foreman argued that eliminating a specific liaison to the community makes it harder for people outside of gay leadership circles to gain access to key decision makers at the DNC.
“When gay liaisons were eliminated in the city government here in New York, it was a great disservice to the community,” he said. “People not in know have no place to go.”
At the same time, Foreman said he was willing to accept Dean’s explanation that the aim was to integrate a sensitivity to all key Democratic constituency groups, including the LGBT community, across the entire DNC.
Foreman said that he was interested in discussing bigger picture issues with Dean as well.
“I expressed concerns about marriage equality, that the Democrats’ message on this remains largely incomprehensible,” he said. “Our opponents have a very clear, visceral message, while the Democrats’ response is sanitized and intellectualized and therefore incomprehensible.”
Foreman noted that Dean had convened a meeting last Spring at which he agreed that the party needed to sharpen its message on this issue. For Foreman, progress has been too slow.
Geto explained that the Gill Foundation has been involved in research on “messaging” on the marriage issue and that Democrats might benefit from useful recommendations once that work is finalized and disseminated. At the same time, Geto said, Dean has settled on a specific way of addressing the issue when speaking for himself. He summarized Dean’s posture as favoring the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act and words to the effect of “‘We need to achieve full equality under the law for all American citizens including rights and benefits in’—he doesn’t use the word marriage,” Geto said, “but ‘in relationships.’”
Significantly, he added, Dean’s support for the repeal of DOMA is predicated on his view that any gay marriage legally entered into—whether in Canada or in Massachusetts—deserves full federal recognition.
That perspective encouraged Allen Roskoff, a longtime gay activist and president of the Jim Owles Reform Democratic Club, who said, “I am not easily impressed when people come to meet with us because I think we have it coming. But I was very impressed with Howard Dean because of his candor.”
Roskoff said he was also impressed with Dean’s statement that anyone unhappy with the gay rights posture of Democratic candidates—the refusal by New York Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chuck Schumer to endorse gay marriage came up in the discussion—should simply not support them, and find other Democrats to focus their efforts on. Doug Robinson, one of the founders of the Out People of Color Political Action Committee, said he found that answer a vindication of his club’s nonpartisan status, unmoored to the Democratic Party.
One participant unhappy with the meeting was Keith Boykin, who chairs the National Black Justice Coalition and said on his Web site that the elimination of the gay outreach position was just the latest development proving that the Democrats are led by “a bunch of spineless cowards who are too afraid to do the right thing.” But Robinson, who is also African American, was unfazed by the elimination of both the gay desk and the black desk at the DNC.
“I subscribe to the idea that if there are people in all the ranks of the DNC, particularly in the decision-making ranks, then that’s a good thing,” he said. “I believe pigeon-holing is not good.”
That point is one made fervently by Geto. He noted that any requests for access to the DNC coming from the Northeast would be routed first to Art DeCoursey, a gay man in Boston. That is emblematic of what Geto said is true throughout the organization nationwide, starting at the top, with longtime DNC Treasurer Andrew Tobias.
“The DNC is filled with gay people and pervasively throughout the country,” Geto said. “Dean’s campaign for president and for DNC chair could never have gotten off the ground without a base and much of that base was in the gay community. The DNC is disproportionately staffed with gays. A good third of the state liaisons are gay.”
Beyond Boykin, however, at least one other New York gay leader was unhappy with Monday’s meeting. Alan Fleishman, a gay Democratic district leader from Park Slope, noted that given the small number of elected gay officials in New York, it was odd to him that neither he nor Brad Hoylman, a Lower Manhattan district leader, was invited. Geto explained that the leaders of their respective clubs, the Lambda Independent Democrats and the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats, were invited to name representatives, but sent others.