Radical Gay Movement

Pride Weekend in Washington always has the feeling of a small-town parade. It's not so much bare breasts as it is dogs and bicycles. “Radical” isn't a word that usually comes to mind. In fact, the most risqué people there -- and they're hardly that -- are usually the hard-bodied men painted with glitter, wearing tiny shorts and dancing on a float hawking “Results: the Gym,” or the occasional queen with exquisitely sculpted breasts clad only in twirling pasties. This year was no different: The largest presence was that of local politicians handing out Mardi Gras beads to the cheering crowd. You didn't even have to do anything to get a strand.

But a few blocks away from the parade route, all weekend long, a conference was taking place that billed itself as “a radical gay event.” It was just the kind of redefinition of “radical” that makes conservatives squirm. Here, radical was translated as mainstream. It wasn't an S&M play party; it was the first annual meeting of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC).

Held at the Wyndham City Center hotel on New Hampshire Avenue, the crowd -- mostly men, about 90 percent of whom were white -- ranged in age from the 30s to the mid-50s. Signs dotted the room noting that JP Morgan Chase, IBM, Motorola, Wells Fargo, Intel and others were corporate partners.

A Wyndham advert on a placard outside the conference room had a clean-cut, attractive man with the tag line “I want to get married without having to make a statement.” In smaller writing beneath it, the text continued: “What's your request? Do you want a wedding venue with experience making two grooms happy?” It went on from there, but you get the gist.

Say hello to the new gay-rights movement. Justin Nelson and Chance Mitchell, the founders of the NGLCC, are former staffers for Republican Senator Craig Thomas of Wyoming and the National Republican Campaign Committee, respectively. They created the NGLCC in late 2002, using a decidedly pro-business approach to advance a radical queer agenda. Taking a page from the movement to increase diversity hiring of minority groups and women in corporations, the NGLCC is pushing for major structural reforms that will help gay men and lesbians live better, work better, and, sometimes, shop better. That means pushing for diversity development and procurement, access to capital (for gay- and lesbian-owned businesses), and establishing the “economic face” of the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgendered community.

They're wielding some impressive numbers: Spending $513 billion a year, Nelson says, gay dollars are “nipping at the heels” of African American and Latino spending totals despite the distinctly smaller gay population. Ninety percent of gay men and lesbians, Nelson said, are loyal to organizations and companies that are loyal to the community. What's more, gay men and lesbians are, according to Nelson, “two times more likely to own a small business.” Says Patricia Vivado, a vice president at JP Morgan Chase and board chairman of the NGLCC, “We are taking this to [Capitol] Hill and saying, ‘You have to start listening. This will be a community you can't ignore.'”

The NGLCC is going about civil rights by using the market. It's smart. Money is something Washington understands. And it's a better use of that money than, say, the 2000 Millennium March on Washington, which accomplished little beyond creating a deficit for the organizers and making a show of pointless consumerism without a major political agenda.

The NGLCC's efforts to make itself heard are being made in Washington language as well: lobbying. In fact, NGLCC planned to harness the collective power of those who came to town for the conference with a massive lobbying day on the Hill. Unfortunately for the organizers, it was canceled due to events surrounding Ronald Reagan's death and memorials. (That proved to be a smart move, however, given that no one in Washington was focused on anything else.) It was also an eerie juxtaposition -- between the Reagan funeral cortege, which drove past the Wyndham at 11 a.m. on June 10, and the decidedly forward thinking NGLCC convention. AIDS, the lack of recognition of which was one of Reagan's most shameful failures in office, was never even mentioned by conference-goers.

Instead the focus was on ways to push for greater expansion of gay rights through a few specific bills, namely HR 1430, the Family and Medical Leave Extension Act, which would grant the benefits of the Family and Medical Leave Act (12 weeks of unpaid leave for spouses of sick wives or husbands) to domestic partners, and HR 935, the Tax Equity for Health Plan Beneficiaries Act, which would erase the inequity that currently exists for domestic partners who share an insurance plan. (Unlike married couples, employees who extend health plans to a domestic partner, rather than a spouse, are taxed on the worth of the benefits.) Both plans have stalled in committee.

Chance Mitchell points out that more than just benefits are on the agenda: In 36 states, for example, you can still be fired for being gay. The NGLCC wants to make corporations themselves push for the passage of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, which has been stuck on the Hill since Republicans took over the House and Senate.

“Everyone gets the green,” Nelson said in his opening speech, a barrage of clichés that seemed slightly less egregious based on the urgency of the civil-rights agenda. “Having worked on Capitol Hill,” he said he knew that it was better not to “hate the players but [to] hate the game.” If they “played by those rules and win,” no one in the gay community would be “left out in the cold.” Rather, they could use “economic clout to move forward.” Despite the phrasing, it was clear that Nelson is pushing an agenda that's resonating with the business community, both gay and straight. The NGLCC claims 15,000 members so far.

And, perhaps more importantly, if either of the aforementioned bills is passed, it would represent a way, at least temporarily, around the marriage debate without abandoning the quest for marriage or civil unions. While, as The Hill newspaper reported last week, the NGLCC has been blasted by Concerned Women for America (CWA) -- the NGLCC's bills, the paper reported the CWA as saying, will “detract from the unique dignity of marriage” -- it's only the far right that's actually come out against them. One of the effects of the marriage debate has been a distinct shift in public thinking. Where just a few years ago the idea of civil unions in Vermont sparked the egregious “Take Back Vermont” campaign, not to mention promises of hellfire and damnation, now civil unions are consistently proposed as an alternative to marriage. And when Scott Bloch, special counsel at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, attempted to strip the anti-sex-orientation-discrimination clause from federal-employee protections this spring, he was ultimately forced to reverse that stance by the Bush Administration itself. Consistently, even the most conservative house members have started saying they don't want to deny anyone a job for being gay, it's just marriage they're concerned with. It might not sound like it, but it's actually progress given that, just a few years ago, no one was particularly concerned with denying people jobs. NGLCC is trying to move on that change.

In a recent interview with The Advocate magazine (which, full disclosure, I conducted), Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank pushed the idea of setting aside marches and photo-op-friendly publicity (like the mass weddings in San Francisco this spring that were lovely to watch but hardly more legal than your average commitment ceremony) in favor of National Rifle Association- and AARP-style lobbying efforts.

The NGLCC seems poised to do just that.

Sarah Wildman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect.