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Gay Rights Groups Map Common Agenda

Priorities Include Right to Marry, Ending Restrictions on Military Service

By Evelyn Nieves
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 17, 2005; Page A03

The November elections seemed to spell trouble for the gay equal rights movement, what with 11 new state laws banning same-sex marriages and wins for social conservatives in Congress.

Now, after weeks of soul-searching and much internal, and even public, debate over how to navigate the current political waters, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organizations, known as LGBT rights groups, have a plan: to advance an ambitious agenda, including marriage rights.

Unitarian minister Kay Greenleaf officiates at the marriage of Jennifer Romano, center, and Joyce Barlin of Albany, N.Y., in New Paltz, N.Y., where same-sex marriages were performed for a period last year. (Keith Ferris -- AP)

To underscore their determination, 22 LGBT organizations, representing a spectrum of political goals and strategies, have, for the first time, released a joint list of priorities. They include pushing for equal employment opportunities; adding sexual orientation and gender identity to federal hate crimes law; fighting for protections for children of LGBT couples; overturning military restrictions on gay soldiers; opposing anti-gay state and federal legislation; and fighting for the freedom to marry.

"We plan on working in a coordinated fashion," said Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest national gay advocacy organization. "The moment that we're in now in our civil rights movement is acknowledging that we play different instruments and have different strengths, but we want to hear from that orchestra together."

The groups banding together include the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, which focuses its efforts on depictions of gays in the media; Log Cabin Republicans; National Stonewall Democrats; the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force; and others.

Their list of priorities is a call to arms in the culture wars. Marriage, obviously, is the most controversial item on the agenda. The spate of same-sex marriages in San Francisco and other cities last year sent religious conservatives into action. They made unprecedented efforts to get out the vote for President Bush, who supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and are now focusing on winning 15 more state referendums to ban same-sex marriage, as well as on lobbying for federal judges who will bolster their conservative agenda.

"We were amazed at the amount of grass-roots support for the state marriage amendments," said Tom Minnery, vice president of public policy for Focus on the Family, which helped bolster turnout among evangelical Christians in the November elections.

Focus on the Family is among several conservative religious groups that meet weekly to plan strategies to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming accepted in the United States. As they see it, their side is on a roll. Last week, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging Florida's ban on adoption by same-gender couples, and Pope John Paul II condemned same-sex marriage, calling it a threat to the family.

But LGBT groups are also savoring recent victories. In California, the new year ushered in the strongest domestic partnership benefits in the country. In Montana, the Supreme Court ruled that excluding same-sex partners from dependent health benefits offered to state university employees violated the state Constitution's equal protection requirements. In Illinois, the legislature passed a bill banning discrimination against gays, joining 14 other states with such laws.

Advocacy groups say they are optimistic. It was only 18 months ago, after all, that the Supreme Court struck down Texas sodomy laws, which extended the right to privacy to same-sex couples. And, within the last year, thousands of same-sex couples married in San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and other cities, and same-sex marriage became legal in Massachusetts. An agenda that includes legalizing same-sex marriage is not as far-fetched as it may seem at first, said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"We're going to keep on doing what we've been doing as a movement for 35 years -- pressing forward for equal rights," Foreman said. "There's one national goal, and that is to make sure Congress defeats any form of constitutional amendment seeking to prohibit same-sex marriage. That's the number one national goal. After that, everything is a state-by-state strategy."

The statement of purpose does not specify how the groups plan to coordinate their efforts. But leaders of several organizations described a multi-pronged strategy, including fighting vigorously in the courts, launching a campaign to inform the public about the inequities LGBT couples must confront and lobbying politicians for incremental changes that might get through a Congress or state legislature hostile to same-sex marriage.

"We are always fighting on multiple fronts," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The organization, based in San Francisco, helped draft two bills that would legalize same-sex marriage in California and is a lead counsel in a case of several same-sex couples suing the state attorney general after nearly 4,000 same-sex marriage licenses were ruled void. The suit argues that barring same-sex marriage violates the state Constitution's anti-discrimination and privacy clauses.

When people become aware of the ways that LGBT families are denied rights that others enjoy, including the ability to petition for a foreign spouse to remain in this country, and the more than 1,000 federal benefits that married couples enjoy, they tend to support equality, Minter said.

One obvious difference, Minter said, is the ability to get Social Security benefits as a surviving spouse. "That, for many families, is the difference between poverty and the ability to provide for your children," he said. "There are a significant number of same-sex couples where one partner is staying at home and the other is working. Those are exactly the couples who need the protection. There are a lot of federal benefits associated with death that kick in: the ability to inherit a partner's 401(k) and other pension benefits without a tax penalty."

Stachelberg of the Human Rights Campaign said some groups will focus on policy, some on media, some on legal issues, some on the state level, some in combination. With the new statement of purpose, organizations that have competed and clashed have in effect announced that they plan to put aside their differences to work for a common goal. "It's historic," Stachelberg said. "This is a very big deal."

The Human Rights Campaign, which has focused primarily on effecting changes on the federal level, is facing emboldened congressional conservatives who favor the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The measure failed last year after heavy lobbying from the campaign and similar groups.

After the election, the campaign seemed to publicly fret about what to do next. It had to defend itself against most other LGBT organizations after the New York Times reported that campaign officials said they planned to focus less on same-sex marriage. Its officials also seemed to indicate that they might be willing to support Bush's plan for partial privatization of Social Security in exchange for certain benefits for domestic partners. The suggestion prompted 50 prominent LGBT organizations to send a letter to every member of Congress denouncing the idea.

The campaign then issued a release declaring that it did not support Social Security privatization and had no plans to back down on the marriage issue.

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