Outrage and determination mark NCLR gala
by Heather Cassell
The last week of May was a wild seven-day ride for the LGBT community and its allies. Many felt a mixture of frustration and determination at seeing the California Supreme Court uphold Proposition 8 and the 18,000 same-sex marriages that occurred last year, followed by the announcement of a federal challenge to Prop 8 by the legal odd couple Theodore Olson and David Boies.
"I'm sick of this shit!" Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, told an estimated 1,200 key supporters at a sit-down dinner at San Francisco's Westin St. Francis Hotel May 30. That was followed by a party at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
The crowd roared in applause and whistles, echoing her frustration and disappointment about the events earlier in the week.
"Things have gotten to the point in California that it's just ridiculous," agreed NCLR legal director Shannon Minter, who argued on behalf of marriage equality before the California Supreme Court. "I'm outraged by what happened. I'm outraged that Prop 8 even got onto the ballot, that we lost, that the court let it stand."
"We are so disappointed because we know how close we are. It's within our grasp," Kendell told guests, citing NCLR's legal victories in the areas of LGBT immigration, family, elder, sports, and youth rights throughout its 32-year history, and particularly during the 13 years she has been at the helm of the organization.
"Make no mistake, it is fire that tempers steel and it is struggle that tempers spirit,Ó Kendell said, describing the outrage expressed by the queer community and allies who have rallied in response to California's marriage equality setbacks as well as the gains in Iowa, Vermont, and Maine, and New Hampshire.
Minter agreed with Kendell that new important allies were stepping up and publicly speaking out on behalf of same-sex marriage, in particular conservatives.
"Even conservative folks – generally politically conservative – are recognizing that this really is just an equality issue and a fairness issue and that it's terrible to exclude our community from the right to marry," Minter said about Olson, the conservative Republican attorney who served as solicitor general in the Bush administration.
"I'm so grateful to him," said Minter, cautiously supportive of the early stages of Olson and Boies's federal legal challenge to Prop 8. "We should all be very grateful to him."
In another surprising turn of events, former Vice President Dick Cheney came out in support of legal recognition of same-sex relationships on June 1. Cheney made reference to his view that freedom means freedom for everyone, a theme he used during the 2004 presidential election. Cheney's daughter Mary is an out lesbian.
Some elected officials and members of the LGBT community expressed concern about the Olson-Boies lawsuit, fearing that federal judges are not yet ready to rule on same-sex marriage, particularly at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the lawsuit could end up.
State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) cautioned approaching the current U.S. Supreme Court with a marriage equality challenge. The timing might be too early due to the fact that the current Supreme Court doesn't "appear to be balanced in our favor" and that it's "very high stakes" and could halt the movement, Leno said.
In spite of Minter's statements that Olson supports marriage equality, he agreed with Leno. "We only really get one chance, one shot at the U.S. Supreme Court and we want to make sure that the case that goes up to them is the very strongest, most thoughtful, strategic, the best put together case it could be," Minter said.
Minter pointed to the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders' legal challenge to section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act as being crafted with "surgical precision" and "hopefully our best shot," compared to the Prop 8 challenge, which is in the very early stages of briefing. That lawsuit aims to repeal the section of DOMA that prohibits same-sex couples from receiving equal federal benefits, whether they are married or in a domestic partnership or civil union.
Diane Sabin, who with her wife Jewelle Gomez was one of the plaintiff couples in the San Francisco marriage cases, hoped that the lawsuit wasn't a "right wing conspiracy plot," to ensure same-sex marriage isn't granted to LGBT individuals.
Minter told the Bay Area Reporter that while he hadn't spoken with Olson, he didn't believe there was a conspiracy with the Prop 8 federal challenge.
"I believe that he genuinely does support us. He has genuinely come around to favor marriage equality and he's very eloquent and passionate about that," said Minter about his observations of Olson in the media.
And the fight goes on
Kendell and Minter agreed that while there are "more soldiers in the fight for equality than we ever had before," Kendell told dinner guests there was still much work to be done on many levels, from repealing Prop 8 at the ballot box to repealing DOMA and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Kendell and Minter said that the LGBT community and allies need to hold Congress and the Obama administration accountable to make sure the president's "change is for this community as well," Kendell said.
"That is the place where our community needs to be engaged and paying attention and active," Minter agreed.
Minter urged community activists and allies not to be distracted by the federal challenge to Prop 8.
"Whatever happens with that lawsuit, we cannot let it distract us for one second from continuing to push to reverse Prop 8 at the ballot. That needs to go forward no matter what," said Minter, stating that it could take years for the lawsuit to be legally resolved.
"We can't wait for that ... all of us have to continue doing the political organizing and the political work," Minter said. "I'm ready and I hope everyone's ready to do whatever it takes to get rid of Prop 8 once and for all."
NCLR honored The L Word writer, producer, and creator Ilene Chaiken with its Voice and Visibility Award for 10 years of positive images of LGBT life. The San Francisco-based El/La Transgender Latina Program was recipient of the Community Empowerment Award for its work strengthening and empowering the LGBT community; and NCLR client Lara Embry was awarded the Justice Award for her courage to stand up for her family and challenge the state of Florida's refusal to recognize her second-parent adoption of her former partner's biological daughter that took place when the couple lived in Seattle.
Kendell wrote June 1 in an e-mail that she was pleased by the turnout of more than 2,000 supporters that attended the dinner and the dance party that raised an estimated $150,000 to $175,000, which appeared to be close to the same as last year's fundraising marker. The figure was still being calculated.
"Our supporters certainly conveyed to us that they were inspired and energized for whatever fight comes next," Kendell wrote.