DODIE BUTLER, director of Runaway House in the District of Columbia went to a Ward 1 town meeting in early February to nominate herself to be a delegate to the White House Conference on Families. She wants the conference to address the needs of teen-agers and people living in nontraditional kinds of families.
Instead of low-key meeting, she found a well-organized coalition of Moslems and parishioners from Sacred Heart Church, lead by Father Joaquin Bazan, two diverse interest groups who say they came together to make sure that homosexual interests did not emerge as the dominant voice of Ward 1.
To Butler, however, "It got to be almost a joke. I'm afraid we're going to end up sending a right-to-life delegation." She is afraid, in other words, that the District will end up like Virginia and Oklahoma, where state delegations have been taken over by well-organized, conservative coalitions that label themselves prolife, pro-family and anti-big government.
Nothing has been easy about this White House conference, which first surfaced during President Carter's 1976 campaign as a proposal for strengthening the American family. Conservatives immediately spotted it as a rallying point for issues dear to their heart -- the traditional American family, antiabortion laws, strong parental authority. Liberals saw it as a mechanism for developing federal policies to deal with with changing American life-styles.
The conference has since become a target for interest groups representing diverse, often adamant and angry segments of American society: homosexuals, single parents, traditionalists, antiabortion groups, prochoice people, and so on. Everyone has gotten into the act. The conservatives got there first. They have, so far, won at least 22 of 24 seats in Virginia's delegation and all eight of Oklahoma's.
The District will send 12 delegates to the conference in Baltimore in June, one delegate to be selected by each ward, and four to be appointed by Mayor Marion Barry. The delegates will be elected next weekend at a conference at Howard University, but there's a catch: everyone who wants to vote had to register at the ward meetings Feb. 2 and 9.
Audrey Rowe, the city's conference coordinator, says a lot of people apparently didn't get the word that they had to register in early February. She has re-opened registration for two hours on Feb. 29.
Terrence Scanlon, a member of the D.C. prolife committee, says that Rowe, in effect, is allowing another election to be held. He also insists that while he is "prolife," he is not interested solely in that issue. There is no plot to take over the city slate, he says. "Obviously prolife is a very important issue, but I don't think any candidate would address only that issue."
To hear the people concerned with delegates on the D.C. slate, it seems that the wrong thing one can be is "single issue" and "narrow in focus."
Rowe, for example, fears that a prolife takeover would be "totally non-representative" of the city's interests. Ben Dudley of the D.C. Urban League says "we're not contesting their prolife groups' right to put their views forth in a public forum, but what we do fear is that their focus is so narrow that the broad spectrum of problems that affect minorities and black people in particular will get lost in the shuffle."
But surprise! Guess who else is worried about delegates being single issue and narrow?
Father Bazan says he is not part of any city-wide effort by prolife forces. Instead, he got involved after he "woke up" a week before the Ward 1 meeting and "found out that in Ward 2, the Gay Activist Alliance was handling the ward speakout.
"We felt that in Ward 1 the issues were racism, lack of housing, unemployment, underemployment of adults . . . and we didn't see that this should be made into a referendum on whether homosexual unions should be made into a family with the right to adopt children. We were not prepared to see Ward 1 used that way.
"The only people I met with were people from the Nation of Islam who had the same concerns I did. The issue was what one person could we put up to rally around with only a week to go . . . It was not a meeting in the sense that we sat down anywhere. It was a meeting in the sense of we understood what we were for. We were not, there against anybody. We were there on a positive basis. I've worked hard in this ward. I was born here. This was my church as a kid. I didn't see turning this into a referendum on gay rights."
Ali Abdur-Rahim Kahn, director of community relations for the Nation of Al-Islam, says the Moslems participated in all the ward meetings and ran delegates in an attempt to "highlight the traditional family. We felt that there were some elements in society that were getting away from family life and wanted to incorporate their own philosophy as to what a family should be.Specifically, there were organizations that have used the White House conference to push their own narrow point of view, for instance, the abortion rights organization, the gay rights organizations and others who seem to be single issue organizations."
Both Kahn and Bazan say they do not believe, for example, that two homosexuals living together should be considered a family. "I think that's a perversion of what a family is," Bazan says.
Karl Banks, staff director for the D.C. conference, says about 1,500 people registered to vote at the Ward meetings. "If the prolife people are getting their people out, they're not doing anything illegal. It's the responsibility of others to get their people out. In the name of the family, a lot of anger has been brought out in people."
A lot of anger, and not very much tolerance.