New HRC Chief Visits NY

Cheryl Jacques upbeat on prospects for prevailing against backlash

On the weekend before the Massachusetts Legislature’s historic constitutional convention tackling the issue of same-sex marriage there, Cheryl Jacques, who just last month resigned her seat in that state’s Senate, was in New York City in her new position as executive director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

In a one-hour interview on February 6 with Gay City News, Jacques (pronounced jakes) predicted that supporters of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s November decision giving same-sex couples civil marriage rights would prevail over legislative leaders who aim to overturn it through a constitutional amendment.

Noting that as a state senator she helped scuttle such an amendment when it first surfaced in the summer of 2002, and that she then had the help of the Senate Republican minority leader, Brian P. Lees, Jacques said, “This is the same vote with basically the same legislators, and it failed overwhelmingly in 2002. At that time, the radical right had really fanned the fuel, but when it came to the moment of truth, they lost by a large margin. And I see that happening again.”

Yet as the Legislature convened in Boston Wednesday morning, Lees, Jacques’ erstwhile ally, was on the record supporting a revised amendment, one of several under consideration, that would limit marriage to heterosexual couples, while opening up civil unions, which its supporters said would convey the same rights as marriage, to gay and lesbian couples.

Jacques acknowledged that “the other side is doing their job,” and specifically mentioned the role of the Roman Catholic Church in a state with a higher percentage of Catholics than any other, but argued, “I am cautiously optimistic that most of those folks who voted against it last time did so because they knew it was wrong to place discrimination in the constitution, and I don’t think anything has changed. Other than a lot more pressure. So, I think most of those votes are going to hold and I think it’s going to be defeated.”

Jacques’ comments came during a four-day visit to New York in which she played host Saturday evening to HRC’s annual New York area dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. During her Gay City News interview, Jacques also predicted that a federal amendment aimed at barring same-sex couples from marriage would fail both in Congress and as a wedge issue for the Republicans, renewed HRC’s commitment to broadening federal civil rights legislative efforts to include transgendered Americans, and addressed several controversies that emerged in the gay press in the wake of her appointment last November.

Addressing what had become perhaps the biggest question mark about her appointment, Jacques said they she and HRC had negotiated an annual salary of $225,000. In a press conference with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) press the first week in November, Jacques declined to reveal what she was being paid, saying that being out of public service for the first time in eleven years afforded her that privilege.

Recalling that press conference, Jacques last week said, “In all honesty, we didn’t have a number then and I didn’t want to reveal that I was still in negotiation with the board. The board was still doing their due diligence, as they should have, on comparable salaries at civil rights groups and other nonprofits.”

A January story in the Washington Blade reported that Joan Garry, the head of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), was the best paid leader in the LGBT movement in 2003, earning $208,000. Kevin Cathcart, who heads Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, earned $200,000, and Elizabeth Birch, Jacques’ predecessor at HRC, was paid $201,000, according to the Blade.

Discussing issues facing HRC on the federal level, Jacques made clear that while the group was not yet ready to make an endorsement in the presidential race, it will vigorously support the Democratic nominee once that contest has been nailed down definitively.

“Every time I hear Sen. Kerry speak, for example, he leads with his vote again [the Defense of Marriage Act],” she said, “he talks about his opposition to a federal marriage amendment, he talks about how he feels we can achieve equality for gay families though civil unions––which I don’t agree with that piece of it––but I’m glad he’s talking about a vehicle to provide civil rights protections, which the president says we don’t deserve at all.”

Jacques also mentioned pro-gay positions taken by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the two major candidates who are continuing their challenge to the Massachusetts senator’s dominant position in the race for the Democratic nomination.

Asked about the effort to amend the Constitution, a drive that Pres. George W. Bush is widely expected to explicitly endorse in the wake of last week’s reaffirmation of the Massachusetts high court marriage decision, Jacques predicted, “It will backfire,” arguing that “the president is reading the voters wrong.”

“All the polls show that the majority of the public don’t want to see the Constitution be used as a political football to achieve points,” she said. “Polls show that most Americans see themselves as fair minded and tolerant people and they don’t want to be associated with bigotry and discrimination.”

She also said that voters are “smart enough” to see that marriage and other so-called wedge issues are a “distraction” from other more pressing issues Bush faces on the economy, health care, and the war in Iraq.

Jacques noted that a constitutional amendment has opposition among some conservatives who object to the federal government dictating marriage policy to the states. HRC has run ads highlighting the comments against a federal amendment made by conservatives including former Rep. Bob Barr, the Georgia Republican who authored DOMA.

Jacques, and Winnie Stachelberg, HRC’s political director who joined her for the interview, also talked about a letter that the ten Democratic U.S. House members from Massachusetts sent to the state legislature opposing any change in the state constitution. Asked whether Kerry and his Senate colleague Ted Kennedy had declined to sign onto the letter, Stachelberg explained, “It was a House-driven letter.”

Jacques acknowledged, however, that the group hopes for more from the Democratic presidential front runner, saying, “John Kerry is not where I want to be. He is not where the Human Rights Campaign wants him to be. But, there is a clear contrast between him and Pres Bush. I think there is a stark contrast between the two of them.”

Though the interview and her speech the following evening made clear that what Jacques calls “the marriage moment” is at the center of HRC’s work this year, she took pains to emphasize other goals of the organization. She confirmed that the group is continuing its review of the congressional strategy for the long-stalled Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), specifically exploring how protections for transgendered people can be incorporated and also how its scope can be expanded beyond workplace bias to attack discrimination in housing, credit, public accommodations, and other areas. As Birch spelled out last summer, the group is looking at a range of options from running different bills on “parallel tracks” to introducing a modified, more comprehensive measure next year.

“All of those conversations are being held with our staff, our board, transgender leaders, and allies elsewhere including on Capitol Hill,” Jacques said.

Asked to raise important issues she had not been asked about, Jacques said HRC was devoting considerable energy to the issue of diversity, “on our staff, on the board, and in our membership.” Stachelberg estimated that about a quarter of the HRC staff are people of color.

Jacques also responded to emphasis in gay press reports that she had come out in 2000, less than four years ago and nearly eight years into her state Senate career.

“I think that I actually serve as a very good example and role model for the philosophy of the Human Rights Campaign––and I think that all of the community should share this philosophy––that we don’t judge,” she said. “We above all entities should not judge people because we don’t want them to judge us.”

Jacques went on to say that LGBT people understand the courage it takes to live openly and that the process of coming out is something that non-gay people understand as a marker for society’s progress on gay issues. She recalled that during her successful challenge to an entrenched conservative Republican in 1992, her opponent, asked in a debate for his views on gay rights, said he would rather burn to death in a fire than be saved by a gay firefighter, a comment Jacques said drew no response from the audience. After Jacques came out in a Boston Globe op-ed in early 2000, her Republican opponent that fall “ran against me ran solely on the campaign platform that I was unfit to serve.” She easily won the race.

That same district that had had that kind of orientation about gay people [in 1992] reelected me by my largest margin ever,” Jacques said. “That’s growth, that’s changing people’s minds.”

She went on to make the argument that coming out, while critical, is not enough, citing Harris Poll results commissioned by HRC that showed that more than half of LGBT people never talk to their families, friends, neighbors, and work colleagues about the discrimination they’ve faced in their life, missing an important opportunity to educate others on the need for civil rights protection.

“That’s the crowd that votes and will respond to what we tell them,” Jacques said. “Coming out is only a portion of it. They love [us] and they would react accordingly.”

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