The Task Ahead

Article excerpt

As its sixth executive director in nine years, Lorri Jean hopes to make the left-wing NGLTF a thorn in George W. Bush's right side

As executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1990, Urvashi Vaid made headlines by interrupting a rare speech on AIDS by the first president named Bush, shouting and holding aloft a sign reading TALK IS CHEAP. AIDS FUNDING IS NOT. More than a decade later, Vaid's latest successor, Lorri Jean, promises a return to such confrontational rhetoric in the second Bush administration.

"I'm not interested in figuring out how to work with George Bush like some other gay leaders," Jean told The Advocate from her parents' home near Phoenix, Ariz., where she was vacationing in late May after being named to the high-profile post. "Like his father, it's already very clear Bush doesn't care about our rights, so we should work to oppose him. We should do whatever it takes to raise the stakes."

Will such fiery rhetoric breathe new life into the 28-year-old organization, which for much of the past decade has struggled to find its niche within the gay rights movement? By positioning NGLTF as the chief critic of the Republican White House, Jean hopes to capitalize on widespread anger among gay voters about the outcome of the presidential election, in which Bush took office despite losing the popular vote, as well as Bush's opposition to federal gay rights legislation.

Conservative interest groups logged huge increases in membership and donations during Clinton's eight years in office by attacking the former president's policies and personal life. "While there are gay organizations doing important work in Washington, there hasn't been a strong voice on the more liberal side of continuum," Jean says. "I've been hungry to provide the kind of leadership I'm not seeing on a national basis. I'm going to be talking a lot about social justice. I'm going to be unapologetic in saying that gay people should have all the rights and responsibilities of our straight brothers and sisters."

But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville's Center for Governmental Studies, says Jean faces enormous political and cultural obstacles. "Bush, who comes across as a nice but boring guy, is a much harder target for left-wing groups than Clinton, with his charisma and personal foibles, was for the right wing," he says. "The liberal groups are really finding it hard to get traction in stirring up anger about Bush. The White House is very careful not to give anyone ammunition in the culture wars, and gay issues are no exception to that rule."

NGLTF is headquartered in a sprawling concrete, glass, and steel building in the diverse Adams-Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C., across town from the Capitol. There, about 30 staffers run programs that include Creating Change, the largest annual conference for gay activists, and the Web-based George W Watch, where the president is regularly lambasted for his appointments and policies.

But in an unusual twist, Jean will not spend as much time in the office's stylish confines as her predecessors did. As a condition of accepting the job, she insisted on running the organization from Los Angeles, where NGLTF will open an office this fall. Los Angeles joins Cambridge, Mass., and New York--where the group's Policy Institute, which bills itself as the movement's "think tank," is located--as the only cities with NGLTF satellite offices. …