Task Force Broadens Efforts

Matt Foreman announces new effort in D.C., based on deliverables, but also a broader vision

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), the nation’s oldest LGBT advocacy group, created a new department of public policy and government affairs this week to lobby for increased funding from the federal government for health and human services programs as well as for non-discrimination legislation.

Vowing to work with other national LGBT groups, Matt Foreman, NGLTF’s executive director, said it was time to end the unfair distribution of tax dollars to the gay community’s social service programs.

“It’s not right we have to fund so many of our social services,” he said, in a February 28 teleconference call with reporters. “We are going to build pressure to get tax dollars coming our way.”

However, in the same press conference, Foreman also admitted that given the difficulty of congressional ratification of such bills as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), NGLTF was prepared to work on more concrete, achievable goals.

The group’s new public policy department will focus on increasing the equality in distribution of public funds to local and state organizations providing services such as drug rehabilitation, HIV/AIDS prevention and mental counseling to the LGBT community.

“Appropriations [of money] is a much different conversation with congressional members. It’s much easier than talking about marriage equality,” Foreman said.

Using examples of “hard-hitting human issues,” NGLTF hopes to educate law makers and government agencies about the needs of the gay community.

Roberta Sklar, NGLTF communications director, said that the Empire State Pride Agenda, which Foreman led during two stints between 1998 and 2003, had great success with a similar program to gain funding from New York State for various LGBT-related health and human service programs.

Heading the new department will be Eldie Acheson, a former U.S. assistant attorney general. David Noble, former executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, will be the political director, and in the senior strategist position will be Amber Hollibaugh, who has worked most recently for Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE).

Yet even as Foreman emphasized the pursuit of concrete deliverables for the community, he also believes that the civil rights movement must chart a more expansive vision than was advanced by the long-languishing ENDA.

“While ENDA was a good bill, it’s not broad enough,” he said during the press conference. “We are going to be considering what new approaches might be pursued instead of ENDA.”

Foreman was more detailed in his discussion of ENDA and its alternatives in a follow-up interview later in the week.

“There is a consensus in the community that ENDA is dead,” he said in a telephone call on March 2. “I don’t think there is any real interest in continuing to push it.”

Foreman explained that a successor to ENDA would have to meet two goals—“political viability” in the view of allies on Capitol Hill and a “broad buy-in from all segments of our community.” He acknowledged that a broader bill would be a heavier lift politically at a time when the intransigence of Republican congressional leadership seems daunting, but noted that ENDA reflected a short run political calculation made when it was first introduced in 1993, but is no longer an accurate reflection of the community’s aspirations. According to Foreman, ENDA replaced an earlier, more comprehensive civil rights bill when Bill Clinton became president, and gay activists felt that the Democratic-controlled Congress could be pressed to pass an employment bill that would be signed into law.

“It now stands as a disturbing anomaly when there are discussions about marriage equality around the country and we are asking only for employment protection,” Foreman said in the follow-up interview. A replacement strategy should ideally articulate goals of full integration of the LGBT community into American society, he said.

Foreman insisted that such a positive, proactive approach was something that gay rights advocates in Congress are pressing for in response to the pressure against same-sex marriage that the right wing has been forcing in Congress and in state referenda nationwide.

“We were approached by members of Congress. We didn’t approach them,” he said. “They asked how can we put forward a positive approach.”

Asked whether by “we” he meant the broad range of gay rights groups, Foreman replied, “No, the Task Force.”

Still, he took pains to emphasize that NGLTF is not attempting to challenge the traditional lobbying role played by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) on Capitol Hill.

“We are not trying to compete with anyone,” Foreman said. “We have unique resources that we have, namely grassroots connections. We bring that to Washington regarding key issues, specifically funding and legislation.”

Later in the March 2 call, he said, “This is about us, the Task Force, re-establishing our presence in Washington.”

Foreman said that a March 3 conference call was planned among the Task Force, HRC, Lambda Legal, the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, which won the marriage ruling in Massachusetts as well as the Vermont court decision that led to civil unions there, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and Freedom to Marry to continue strategizing about the shape of a federal non-discrimination measure.

NGLTF’s announcement comes just weeks after HRC, which has the largest budget among LGBT advocacy groups, announced a major reorganization and several similar broad new initiatives to begin delivering gay Americans and their families the legal benefits conferred by marriage even as the battle for formal marriage recognition continues to take shape. At that time, HRC made clear that marriage equality remained its goal.

“Working with allies in the House and Senate, we intend to introduce a package that would repeal the ban on the provision of federal benefits to married same-sex couples,” David Smith, HRC’s vice president of policy and strategy, in a press release on February 8 announcing the new initiatives.

In an interview, Smith said this meant repealing the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that prevents same-sex married couples from receiving the same legal protections afforded heterosexuals. As well, Smith said his organization would be pursuing various avenues to ensure gay people receive the same benefits given heterosexuals in employment, housing, insurance coverage, Social Security and domestic partner benefits.

Smith also echoed some of Foreman’s realism on passage of gay rights bills.

“We’re in the most challenging political environment in a decade,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, but we’ve got to come to work each day and keep educating people and pushing for what we want. Eventually, we’ll get it.”

These changes in two of the nation’s most important LGBT political groups come at a time when many observers are pressing them to justify their relevancy. Pres. George W. Bush’s re-election, the gay marriage bans passed in 13 states last year and the increasingly belligerent rhetoric of the right wing which now assumes it is acting with the approval of a majority of American voters, has conveyed, correctly or incorrectly, to many in the queer community that gay rights groups are now losing their most important battles and that future victories are unlikely.

HRC echoed Foreman’s assertion that turf wars between the groups on Capitol Hill can be avoided. Foreman told the Monday teleconference, “All civil rights or social justice movements require multiple voices. The more angles you can hit legislators, the better.” In a subsequent interview, HRC’s Smith said of the new public policy effort at the Task Force, “We welcome their announcement. It sounds like a dynamite team.”

HRC and NGLTF praise each other publicly, but they are now in greater competition for funding and support. This might explain NGLTF’s national press release on Wednesday announcing that they were a “driving force” behind the defeat of a local ordinance that would have prevented Topeka, Kansas, from protecting gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender city workers from job discrimination.

It was a moment for them to claim the spotlight and announce a major victory.

There was other hints during Monday’s press conference that the NGLTF saw an opening for their brand of advocacy.

“We can be a hard, uncompromising voice in the struggle,” Foreman said.

Last year, Foreman criticized HRC for not backing a version of ENDA that included protection for transgendered people even though many political observers noted such a bill wouldn’t pass in Congress. The HRC board soon afterwards declared it would not back ENDA without transgender language.

“Having people push the envelope makes progress come more quickly,” Foreman said this Monday. “If there’s a need for bad cops in this, we are happy to do that.”

During Monday’s call, Foreman also discussed the group’s expanded fundraising capability, which has allowed them to raise a record-breaking $9 million this year. Only HRC and Lambda Legal have larger budgets.

In the subsequent interview, Foreman said the upsurge came in three areas—foundation support, major-donor contributions and the increasing frequency with which the group’s membership is donating.

“We have a number of anonymous donors who have given more than a million dollars to the organization,” he said.

Foreman emphasized, however, that the type of members his group attracts keep giving even when the political climate seems forbidding.

“People who support the Task Force really understand that we are in this for the long haul,” he explained. “We have a very membership who believes in grassroots efforts and they don’t expect quick fixes.”

That sort of support has apparently emboldened Foreman to think big.

“We are going to announce another department next month, so we are going to continue growing,” he said.

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