New Leader, Same Direction for HRC

Cheryl Jacques, Massachusetts lawmaker, came out in 2000

State Sen. Cheryl Jacques (D-Needham), who first disclosed her sexual orientation in 2000, will succeed Elizabeth Birch who has led the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign (HRC) since 1994.

At the press conference announcing her hiring, Jacques (pronounced JAKES) said that her top priority would be “to continue Elizabeth Birch’s work” and “to make sure America understands why it is wrong to exclude people because of who they love.”

She insisted that she is “a good person to carry that message, because I know how many minds I changed when I came out.”

Jacques has served as a member of the Massachusetts legislature since 1992. It was during a caustic legislative battle over a statewide bill to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students in schools that Jacques first spoke publicly about being a lesbian.

Asked what had previously inhibited her from being open, she said, “My personal hesitation is mirrored by thousands of others. We deal with a lot of hate. I’m grateful that HRC helped me to find my way there.”

Many LGBT people struggle with concerns about survival or with a lack of self-acceptance prior to living openly, but Jacques’ experience in running a major national gay rights organizations just three years after coming out is unusual. Elizabeth Toledo was named head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 2000 one year after leaving the closet. Her tenure as executive director lasted less than a year.

Jacques’ comfort about her life and her family has evolved considerably since 2000. The HRC website features a picture of Jacques with her partner of five years, Jennifer Chrisler, and their twin baby sons, Timothy and Thomas, who were carried by Chrisler.

Jacques has a solid legislative record on LGBT issues including work on a hate crimes bill and various efforts to broaden recognition of same-sex partners.

At age 29, Jacques was a giant killer in her first run for the state legislature, knocking off a 32-year incumbent for the seat representing a Boston suburban district.

She made two attempts at higher office. In 2001, Jacques began a run for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, then dropped out to mount an unsuccessful Congressional bid for the seat vacated by the death of Rep. Joe Moakley.

The Boston Globe reported a Massachusetts connection on HRC’s board selection committee, which was co-chaired by Bay State lesbian activist Mary Breslauer and supervised by Isaacson Miller, “a Boston-based executive search firm.”

Jacques was pressed for her stance on transgender rights, given that HRC was willing to re-introduce this year the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) at the centerpiece of its legislative agenda without adding protections for gender identity and expression. Congressional sponsors, including out Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, had warned HRC and other leading civil rights and transgender groups that incorporating gender protections would weaken sponsorship of the measure.

“I know transgendered people have the hardest time in our community,” Jacques said, “and that they need us the most.”

Jacques called HRC “a bold leader in taking the issue [of transgender rights] to the Hill and educating” members of Congress, but made no commitment to revisit including transgender language in ENDA. Rather, Jacques pledged to support local LGBT groups fighting for transgender protections. Earlier this year, Birch, the outgoing chief, said that the group was working on a second, more comprehensive bill that would incorporate gender protections as well as a focus broader than ENDA’s exclusive attention to employment.

Two major bills pertinent to the LGBT community, ENDA and a Hate Crimes Bill, have been stalled on Capitol Hill for years. Critics have accused HRC of not exerting enough political muscle to at least force votes on the measures that would pin down legislators’ stances on gay rights.

Jacques defended the lack of concrete progress, noting, “I have had many controversial pieces of legislation that took years. HRC keeps right on pushing.”

She pledged to continue HRC’s strategy of being a bipartisan group, despite the fact that Republican control of both houses of Congress has stymied consideration of any pro-gay rights legislation, something Frank has often spoken out about.

“Civil rights is not a partisan issue,” Jacques said, citing pro-gay Republicans such as Sen. Gordon Smith of Washington and Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut, as well as out gay Republicans like Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona.

Jacques appointment was praised both by Patrick Guerriero, the head of the Log Cabin Republicans, who has known Jacques since his days in Massachusetts politics, and by Dave Noble, the head of the Stonewall National Democrats. Noble told Planet Out, “She knows how to get things done politically and she knows how to be responsive to a diverse community.”

New York gay and civil liberties activist Bill Dobbs ex-pressed concern about Jacques record as a prosecutor who concentrated on sex crimes and the honor she received from Survivor Connections, part of the True Memory Foundation which works with people who say that they have “recovered memories” of past abuse.

“She has exploited fears about children for political gain,” Dobbs said. “There’s an Anita Bryant streak in her and her support for the concept of recovered memory is alarming.”

Jacques led a fight to give judges the discretion to keep those deemed “sexually dangerous” in custody even after finishing their criminal sentences, a law upheld by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union did not return a call requesting comments on Jacques’ record on civil liberties.

Bob Roehr of the Bay Area Reporter asked Jacques if she would disclose her new salary at HRC, a sum that the non-profit organization is eventually required to disclose on tax forms. Jacques responded that since she was no longer an elected official she would keep her compensation private.

As a legislator, Jacques is leaving behind a red-hot debate over gay rights in Massachusetts where the state’s highest court is considering a same-sex marriage lawsuit. She is the sponsor of a same-sex marriage bill, a civil union bill, as well as legislation on domestic partners. Winning either of the latter two, she said, would be “temporary progress,” and helpful on the road to achieving full marriage rights for same-sex partners.

Jacques stewardship of HRC begins at a time when LGBT issues are emerging right at the center of the next year’s presidential and congressional campaigns.

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