Gay clout: The buck stops here
Our votes — and dollars — have given us clout in the city & state’s political ring
By James Withers
New York Blade News
June 24, 2005
For many of us, just picking up the newspaper can be a depressing experience today.
Voters in state after state are busy striking down same-sex marriage and even civil unions. State representatives speaking calmly into the camera as they explain why they are sponsoring bills where gays and lesbians will not be allowed to adopt children or why books written by James Baldwin and Truman Capote need to be removed from public school libraries.
Many see elected officials as playing the gay card to grab headlines — and votes. This could just be smart maneuvering. Consider the Pew Research Center, which has found that about half of the American public “expresses an unfavorable opinion” of gays and lesbians.
New York, however, remains one of the bluest states and the city one of the bluest on the political map. If what plays on Broadway often bombs in Peoria, the opposite equally rings true.
Here, it’s hard to find a political candidate not courting the gay vote. While they may disagree on tactics, all of the Democratic candidates for mayor, as well as Republican incumbent Michael Bloomberg, have expressed enthusiastic support for gay marriage.
This could just be good poll watching: The recent Quinnipiac University poll showed 51 percent of city voters support gay marriage. Or maybe the local gay vote is something politicians need to take into account just as they do with other constituencies.
“In the last few years, since the mid-1990s in New York City politics, it has become apparent to political candidates that the gay and lesbian community has emerged as a significant voting bloc,” said veteran Democratic Party political consultant Ethan Geto. (Geto is himself an out-gay man.)
Numbers provided by Joe Tarver, spokesperson for the Empire State Pride Agenda, backs up Geto’s assertion. “LGBT New Yorkers have been a critical voting bloc for many years now,” said Tarver. “The exit polling in the recent mayoral races have shown the gay vote to be anywhere from 5 percent to 8.6 percent in total. The LGBT vote is significant and is a bloc of voters a candidate running for office cannot ignore.”
Money the milk of politics
One reason the gay vote is courted is cold cash, or at least the perception of it. Geto says that in John Kerry’s unsuccessful bid for president, gay dollars became a significant factor in his fund-raising efforts.
A fund-raiser at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel last fall for John Kerry’s gay donors was organized by Jeff Soref, a well-known local activist and the chair of the Democratic National Committee’s LGBT Caucus. The total amount raised there topped $1.8 million, Geto said. “This was all local gay money and was, again, the largest single amount ever raised at an LGBT event for a presidential candidate in history,” Geto noted.
While the perception of pink dollars may entice politicians, Amber Hollibaugh, senior strategist for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, suggested that it is perfectly sane in a heavily Democratic city for elected officials to pay attention to gay concerns. “In a Democratic city, even the Republicans who get elected as mayor have to be liberal on a range of issues,” Hollibaugh told the Blade.
The gay vote citywide in the 2001 Democratic primary was as high as 14 percent, Geto said. “The gay vote is extremely important in a Democratic primary because the larger portion of the community are enrolled as Democrats,” he added.
As befits such a blue state, even leaders in the local GOP keep their brand of red not so bright. When State Senator Serphin Maltese recently tried to block Log Cabin Republicans from being pat of the state’s executive committee, the rest of the higher-ups in his party soundly rebuffed him.
So is everything is just peachy in the Big Apple when it comes to gay influence? It has become a truism that gay Americans have more expendable income than much of the rest of the population.
But, Joseph N. DeFilippis, coordinator for Queers for Economic Justice, questions whether gay New Yorkers really “have more clout than big business.” DeFilippis’ group is opposed to assimilationist policies on the part of mainstream gay organizations and emphasizes coordinating with other groups to fight for a revision of economic policy in this country. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Gays and lesbians are up there because there is a “Will and Grace” myth that there is all this affluence. And politicians listen to money.”
“Myth” of gay money advantage
If the myth of gay money needs to be questioned, then maybe the whole phrase “gay political power” also needs to be fine-tuned. “How you define the gay and lesbian community is relevant to how you answer the question of whether not the community has clout,” said DeFilippis.
Pauline Park, co-founder the New York Association for Gender Rights Advocacy, believes that many gay and transgendered New Yorkers face at least as many challenges, economically and otherwise, as anyone else.
“In terms of general social acceptance, we have made great strides,” Park said. “For the average middle-class lesbian or gay white man, life is not too difficult, especially in Manhattan. However, the picture is very different for LGBT people of color, for transgendered people, recent immigrants, especially the undocumented.
“The LGBT community in many ways reflects society as a whole,” Park added. “There are some individuals who are very empowered and politically connected, but there are some parts of the community that are in desperate straits.”
Gael Guevara, a spokesperson for TransJustice, an arm of the Audre Lorde Project, agrees. Guevara said that measuring gay political clout should start with those who sit outside the proverbial smoke-filled room — whether due to race, class or gender identity.
“The focus of the gay rights movement is more than gay marriage,” Guervara said. “In order for all of us to access rights and live our lives, we need to start form the bottom up with the people in our community who are most vulnerable.”
DeFilippis does not think it takes much political courage for a politician in New York to come out for gay marriage. Supporting a safety net for poor people, however, is a whole different matter. “We as an organization do not think gay marriage should be a central part of our agenda. For us it is not one of our issues,” DeFilippis said. “I’m much more concerned what they are going to do with welfare reform. I am much more
concerned with having a mayor who is supportive of poor people, and supports a social safety net.”
The diversity of the gay and lesbian community needs to be taken into account in any conversation about political muscle, no different from other special-interest groups that have searched for political recognition. “Sometimes it takes a while for the advances of certain components or segments of the community to reflect themselves in the lives of other members of the community,” said Park. “I think this is true of most communities.”
If what happened at Stonewall has become a barometer of gay activism, there has been a sea change since the ’60s. But the journey is far from over. “From the day I started in gay politics in 1971 to 2005, the progress has been extraordinary,” Geto said.
This article originally appeared in the 24 June 2005 issue of the New York Blade News, which is now defunct.