With the 1998 election season over, NOW activists are rejoicing that we helped send the first open lesbian, Tammy Baldwin, to Congress. Two other openly lesbian women also ran incredible races. Christine Kehoe ran for Congress in the 49th district of San Diego, Calif., coming within 4,000 votes of ousting Republican incumbent Brian Bilbray. Grethe Cammermeyer, running in Washington state, fared better than the experts predicted in her first attempt at public office.
Some might say that one out of three is not bad, and NOW agrees. The problem is that only three open lesbians ran in an election year that decided more than 450 congressional seats. Unless more lesbian and gay rights supporters start running for state and local governments, we will again have few viable options for the next elections.
The demise of Newt Gingrich may cause some of us to let out a breath of relief, but his successor only appears to be less of a threat. Bob Livingston, R-La., the new Speaker of the House, presents himself as a moderate but underneath the surface is a politician who voted against every feminist issue in NOW's 1998 voting guide. Livingston received a zero rating from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and the American Association of University Women, and a 2 percent rating from Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, the National Right to Life Committee gave Livingston a 100 percent rating.
In the last congressional session, Livingston voted for the Hefley Amendment, an effort to overturn President Clinton's executive order that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal civilian workplace. He also voted to support a prohibition on same-sex adoptions in the District of Columbia. Now is not the time to let our guard down.
Surely there is not a single feminist-lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or straight-who was not offended and outraged at the attacks on lesbians and gays this past year. Congress attacked us through legislation; the right-wing attacked us in the media; and hate attacked Matthew Shepard, taking the life of a bright young gay man.
The death of Matthew Shepard brought the reality of homophobia to the front of national attention. We had to stomach talk shows and radio call-ins from religious right-wingers saying that a wonderful, caring individual actually deserved to be beaten to death. Despite this tragedy, Congress still failed to pass the Hate Crimes bill. We have learned it is not good enough to lobby the existing people in power; we must elect activists who have fought in the trenches and who personally understand the dangers of homophobia and discrimination.
The enemy no longer comes in the form of clear targets such as Gingrich. We witnessed an all-out media attack on lesbian and gay lives under the guise of "Hope and Healing." Radical right-wingers want the public to think they are offering homosexuals a better life, which is an outright lie. They are, in fact, opening our lives to vicious attacks like the one Matthew Shepard suffered.
To effect change in a system that turns its back on and fails to protect women, lesbians and gays, and people of color, more of us need to be on the inside. It is essential that we encourage lesbians and lesbian rights supporters to hold public office.
On April 23-25, NOW will host the Lesbian Rights Summit: A Feminist Strategy Session in Washington, D.C. As we approach the new millennium, lesbians and allies must come together as a force and make our voices heard. The Summit will provide an opportunity for coalition-building, skills-sharing and breaking the barriers that often splinter our movement. With the hostile climate in which we live today, it is important that people of all sexual orientations, diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds and all economic circumstances assemble to celebrate our commonality and provide the necessary support for effective organizing in our movement.
We were disappointed to see our friends at the Human Rights Campaign endorse a Senate candidate who has the same voting record as Jesse Helms on reproductive issues. We were dismayed to see the lack of major party support for feminist candidates in general, and were appalled at the Democratic Party endorsement and backing of many anti-abortion candidates, despite the party platform.
This Summit will be a place for dialogue about the feminist lesbian rights movement - not to drive wedges between friends, but to launch collaboration among allies. How does the feminist movement value lesbian rights? How does the LGBT movement value feminism? NOW is inviting all feminist organizations to co-sponsor the Summit so that the participants can have quality discussions about how we collaborate.
Come to the Lesbian Rights Summit, April 23-25. Be an integral part of the feminist presence in the LGBT movement. If you are committed to equal civil rights for all people regardless of sexual orientation, your participation is essential to our success as a community in the next century.
The Summit registration form is below or you can connect to www.now.org/lrsummit.html to register online.