Thursday, May 22, 2008

Voices ‘96 Ring Out In San Diego

Monday marked the first official day of the Republican National Convention, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Communities were on hand to meet the assembled delegates. A march and rally, sponsored by Voices ‘96 - Voters Organized In Coalition for the Elections, brought more than 2,000 community members together in protest.

The parade began at Pantoja Park downtown, and wound it’s way through the heart of the city enroute to the police-designated protest zone at the Fourth and K parking lot across from the convention center. There, under heavy security and with the world’s media watching, lesbian and gay leaders spoke passionately and emotionally to an enthusiastic crowd.

“We are here to tell the whole country that in 1996 we are still fighting for basic civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. We are left out of the big tent, and tonight we are here to say that we want a federal government and we want a president that is inclusive and knows our issues, “ said San Diego City Councilmember Christine Kehoe. Introduced as the City of San Diego’s next mayor, Kehoe’s message was interrupted several times by the crowd chanting her name. “We have to let every American know, every time we speak, that civil rights for gays and lesbians are good for the whole country, ” said Kehoe.

Comedienne Robin Tyler hosted the event, and her humor brought roars of laughter. Speaking of the Radical Right, Tyler said, “I hear that a lot of them are born again. Well, I don’t mind that they are born again, but why do they have to come back as themselves?” She saved her best for the leaders, though, saying “Ralph Reed is to Christianity what paint-by-numbers is to art,” and “Jack Kemp is proof that it’s okay for homosexuals to marry, as long as they marry a woman.”

An impassioned Melinda Paras, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. brought tears to the faces of many in the audience when she spoke of the infamous “Family Values” debate. “We have stood and sat on the deathbeds of our partners, our friends, our lovers, and our families, and they have died from AIDS, breast cancer, and lying sick from chronic disease, and we are a community that can teach the country something about compassion and family values,” said Paras. She also underscored the importance of the upcoming election, reminding the crowd that the next President will very likely appoint at least two Supreme Court justices, who will in turn rule on every major decision in the gay rights movement. “Tonight, they are selling the myth of the moderate Republican Party, and we are here to tell America that’s a sham and a lie, and they have advanced themselves on the platform of Pat Buchanan and the extremism of the Radical Right. They have sold their souls to the Christian Coalition, and in November they are going to try and take the White House and the congress, and we say no!”

Donna Redwing, national director for community affairs and national spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), said that although the crowd physically numbered 2,000, they represented many times that number in spirit. “We are here not only for ourselves but for those who could not be here,” she said. “We are here for all of those people who came before us, those twilight lovers, those butches and femmes and fairies and queens. We are here for every kid in America who is beginning to identify as gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered. We are here tonight for everyone we have lost to this government’s genocidal response to AIDS. We are here for everyone of us who have been bashed or beaten or murdered in (the Radical Right’s) holy war against us. And we are here, I hope, for every young person, for every gay youth who has chosen a gun or a razor or a bridge overpass because death was easier to face than growing up queer in America. We are here because we know we have a right to be here, and we have a right to be heard.” Her words, echoing loudly and clearly off of the surrounding buildings and across to the convention center, summed up the sentiment of many. “I have a message tonight for that Grand Old Party, a message for that GOP leadership,” she quipped. “Citizen Dole, you are not in Kansas, anymore.” The responding cheers from the crowd were deafening.

Celebrated author and activist Urvashi Vaid spoke of the parallels between the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston and the 1996 Convention here in San Diego. She said that the anti-gay sentiments were still the accepted norm within the Republican Party. The only difference is that they had learned to mask them behind rhetoric of tolerance. “We stand here tonight on an urgent mission to challenge and reject leadership of a political party which has made a platform and a growth industry out of intolerance,” she said, adding that nearly a third of the delegates to the convention were members of the Christian Right. Her words were deliberate and here message emphatic. “This is not a symbolic protest, not a purile attempt at media attention, not our idea of a good time. This is a protest against the evil this party represents. We are here to challenge the evil of intolerance,” she said. Paraphrasing poet W.H. Auden, Vaid said that the assembled crowd was “a gathering of people bearing moral witness against evil with the evidence and goodness of our lives.”

The speaker receiving the warmest welcome from the crowd, as well as the most intense media coverage, was Human Rights Campaign Spokesperson Candace Gingrich, half-sister of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Jokingly referring to the gathering as the first meeting of Republicans Anonymous, she introduced herself with “My name is Candace, and someone in my family is a Republican.” She told the crowd that her mother had admonished her to be nice to her brother when she spoke, and that she assured her mother that she would be as soon as he and his fellow Republicans were nice to immigrants, people of color, people with HIV/AIDS, women, gays and lesbians, the poor and homeless, and other groups disenfranchised by the party.

“The GOP claims to be a ‘Big Tent,’ even going so far as to state in their platform that they are tolerant of those with differing opinions,” said Gingrich. “ If they are so tolerant,” she asked, “then why does their platform also state that gays can’t serve in the military, that we aren’t deserving of protection against discrimination in the workplace, and that we should not have the freedom to marry? Sounds to me like they’re trying to change the definition of tolerance, doesn’t it?” A wide smile on her face, she said, “Big tent, my ass.” Her final words for the cheering crowd were as clear as the message on her T-shirt. It read “You have the power. Vote.”

Also present was Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women. Criticized in the past for her reluctance to identify herself as lesbian or bisexual, Ireland was anything but vague. “I have to say this now,” she said. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.” Then, in thinly disguised criticism of Republicans and Democrats alike, Ireland spoke of the need for sex education, not only in schools but in the congress. “Do you remember Senator Strom Thurmond - angrily, vehemently - maintaining that heterosexuals do not engage in sodomy? No wonder he looks so sour and unhappy.” She went on to say that members of houses on both sides of the aisle don’t seem to know where babies come from. “They think they come from welfare checks,” she joked. “Well, what do you expect,” she asked, “in a country where the U.S. Surgeon General got fired for admitting that people masturbate?” Her voice no longer joking, she said, “We are a majority. We’re going to defeat the deceptively named and worded (Proposition) 209 that would take away affirmative action here in California, we’re going to stop the p
olitics of hate and division, we’re going to turn the political momentum around in this country, and we will win.”

The Radical Right’s attacks on the gay community were also the focus of the message from the Human Rights Campaign’s executive director, Elizabeth Birch. “The gay community is the scapegoat when the right wants to raise money, when they want to whip up hysteria, when they want to put fear in our communities,” she said. “They want to win, and they want to do it on our backs.” Referring to the congressional debate regarding gay marriages, Birch said that the dialogue has been led by a bunch of hypocrites, philanderers, and divorcees, judging the morality of gay relationships. “Tell us, Mr. Bahr,” she asked, referring to Georgia Representative Bob Bahr, who has led the fight for passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, “which marriage are you defending. . . your first, your second, or your third? Given all that tears at our relationships, you should not consider them immoral. They are miracles.”

The protesters, most of whom had quieted down during the speeches, were suddenly energized at the sight of the Republican delegates leaving the convention. Without prompting from the speaker, the crowd moved quickly to the far fence and began chanting. Their angry voices loud and passionate, “GOP, go away, racist, sexist, anti-gay” rang out across the tracks and carried to the hall. Delegates paused, read the signs and heard the calls, then quickly left the convention center.

Later, as a diminished crowd gathered back in front of the stage, BiPol of San Diego head Karin Bauer quipped, “It’s not over till the bisexual speaks.” Though she looked forward to the day when the Bisexual community appeared first on the program, she was satisfied as always to have a public forum to speak on behalf of the community. “Never doubt our importance to the gay and lesbian community, because believe me, the enemy knows we exist,” she said, referring to the inclusion of bisexuals in the language of Colorado’s Amendment 2.

Other featured speakers included Tom Ammiano, San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Nicole Ramirez-Murray, vice-chair of the Mayor’s Advisory Board on Gay and Lesbian Issues, Russell Roybal and Alex Garner, Chicano Youth Activists and members, LBGT Voices ‘96 Steering Committee, Eric Rofes, Activist and author of Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men’s Sexuality in the Ongoing Epidemic, Delores Dickerson, President of Trans-Action, Joe Zuniga, former Army Soldier of the Year and current Director of Public Affairs, AIDS Action Council, and Lorri Jean and Sky Johnson, representing the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center. Entertainment was provided by The Flirtations, and Brenda Schumacher and Tony Valenzuela served as event Co-Chairs.

Originally published in San Diego Gay and Lesbian Times, August 1996