The Power Brokers

Article excerpt

In the ongoing political battles for equal rights, these are the people leading the struggle--when they're not struggling with each other

Kerry Lobel, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, learned about it from a press release. The Human Rights Campaign, her group's crosstown rival in Washington, D.C., was announcing its plans to sponsor a huge rally in 2000--a gathering that Lobel had made known in no uncertain terms she opposed as a wasteful diversion of scarce local political resources. Feeling angry and betrayed, she called Elizabeth Birch, HRC's executive director. "I felt we had intentionally been left out of the decisionmaking process," Lobel says. "I made it clear that something of this magnitude should not be done without consulting a lot of different people."

Lobel and Birch have since mended fences. And in their ensuing conversations with other gay leaders, each got what she wanted. They agreed to join forces for the Millennium March, which they hope will bring hundreds of thousands to Washington on April 30, 2000, to be preceded by "Equality Begins at Home" marches on every state capital in the spring of 1999. "I believe we have moved from lots of competition and little cooperation to lots of competition and lots of cooperation," Lobel says.

The sometimes heated debate over the Millennium March offers a rare peek inside the nation's gay and lesbian political establishment, a small, close-knit group that possesses tremendous influence over the future of the gay rights movement. The organizations range from the massive HRC, which has 60 staff members and a $13-million annual budget, to the relatively tiny National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum, with nine staffers and a $610,000 budget. Two of the groups, NGLTF and Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, are each celebrating their 25th anniversary. The newest, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, opened its doors in 1993. The Advocate spoke to the executive directors of several of the groups involved in the march debate to get a better idea of how they work--and don't work--together.

Each group, of course, is vying for its share of all-important fund-raising dollars and scarce press coverage. But more contentious still are the ideological divisions, pitting sometimes dashing visions of the movement's future against one another. The long-simmering debate over the proper relationship between national and local politics has been one source of division, but race and religion have also played roles.

HRC and NGLTF offer perhaps the clearest example of contrasting styles and philosophies. HRC focuses primarily on Capitol Hill, while NGLTF is known for its political organizing on the state and local level. The politics of the groups is reflected in the personalities of their leaders. Elizabeth Birch went to HRC from Apple, the stylish Generation X computer maker. One of her first acts was to commission a redesign of HRC's logo, now a simple blue-and-yellow equal sign. Under Birch the group has experienced phenomenal growth with its budget increasing from $7 million in late 1994 to $13 million today.

The growth already is allowing HRC to pour more than $1 million into fighting an anti-gay- marriage ballot measure in Hawaii. And to address concerns about HRC's less-than-stellar presence at the local level, the organization has added a top-flight field office headed by Donna Red Wing, a veteran political organizer from Oregon. Birch also has raised the group's profile by enlisting celebrity speakers, including Candace Gingrich and Betty DeGeneres. In May Ellen DeGeneres and her partner, actress Anne Heche, signed a letter to raise money to fight the Hawaii initiative. Birch returned the favor by lobbying ABC to retain Ellen.

In November Birch pulled off a coup when President Clinton addressed an HRC dinner that pulled in more than $250,000. At the dinner Birch and her partner, Hilary Rosen, sat at a table with DeGeneres and Heche. …