Nov. 13 2002 12:00 AM

Politics and the gay community


Nicole Ramirez has it down. He (yes, he) will put on the hair and makeup, don one of those fabulous gowns and throw a fundraising bash that no rational local politico would pass up. He, in fact, organized the only drag ball in the history of San Diego drag balls that was attended by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, Brian Bilbray and Bob Filner, respectively.

Ramirez, in full drag, sauntered up to Bilbray that night to greet him. "I said, ‘Hi, Brian, glad you could make it,' and he's, like...." Ramirez pauses and laughs-there's no need to complete the sentence. As his alter ego, Empress Nicole, Ramirez is the president of the Imperial Court, an international fundraising organization ("like a gay Shriners," he says) headed by a bunch of intensely philanthropic drag queens.

Catch Ramirez on another day, however, and he'll speak in a deeper voice, the ball gown replaced by a suit and tie. His first name, though, always stays the same. He's parlayed more than three decades of political activism into charismatic rhetoric, expected, perhaps, since his father had hoped his son would become a politician. His mother, on the other hand, hoped he would become a priest.

He's served on more appointed advisory boards than there's space here to list. He's chatted with Bill Clinton, dined with Gray Davis, advised former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan on gay civil rights and says he talked Vince Hall into his nearly successful bid for the state Assembly. In some settings, less-enlightened Republicans have moved their chairs a little farther away from him. On the other hand, Ramirez has helped raise hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars for charity and worthy political candidates.

"I've never hidden that I entertain and I emcee under a female personality," he says bluntly. "Why should I? Half my closets are suits, the other half are drag. I know when to wear both and how. [Politicians] know me-Nicole, a gay activist who also does things as an entertainer but is a person of his word, is loyal and will deliver, and that's what politics is all about." His influence in the political realm, however, nods in the direction of a past many have forgotten.

"Let's not forget who started the Stonewall Revolution," Ramirez points out. "It was the drag queens and the bull dykes. We fought that; we had nothing to lose."

A seat at the table

A then-and-now look at the evolution of the gay political movement, both locally and nationwide, is a study in contrasts. Indeed, the movement's earliest members occupied the far-left fringe-the tiny minority of gays and lesbians who didn't mind flaunting their sexuality in tandem with protesting the shoddy treatment they received from just about everyone outside their group. The past 30 years, however, reveal a quantum leap between the way things were and the way things are now. True, mainstream American society is far from outright acceptance of homosexuality, but it's the older members of the gay community who will be the first to tell you what a shock it is to compare their lives even 10 years to ago to the present. This holds especially true for San Diego, where the city's first state Assembly speaker pro tem in more than a century is not only a woman, but also a lesbian.

Gay community leaders cite 76th District Assemblywoman Christine Kehoe as a standard bearer for their community. Her successful 1993 campaign for San Diego City Council, they say, infused the gay community with an energy that still lingers and cleared the path for women like City Councilmember Toni Atkins and newly-elected District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. Of the roughly 200 openly gay elected officials nationwide, three of them are from San Diego. However, the greatest gain, the gay community says, is that in recent political campaigns (most notably Dumanis') sexual orientation is not an issue.

Success is rarely without criticism, though, and some people will argue that the gay community both here and elsewhere is hell-bent on electing and protecting its own, willing to overlook any shortcomings of gay elected officials in order to keep them in office. Others argue that the gay community is a jackpot of expendable cash for which double incomes and no kids means the ability to cut large checks for selected campaigns and issues. Kehoe's City Council bid, in fact, generated more contributions than any of her peers in that race, and the predominantly gay San Diego Democratic Club is known as one of the state's top three democratic clubs, fundraising-wise.

Arguments such as these come from within and outside of the gay community. They are by no means new claims and could easily be dismissed as politics as usual. Regardless, the evolution of gay and lesbian political power both here and nationwide is a study in what motivates a community to organize around a common goal and, as simplistic as it may sound, work together to achieve it.

Kehoe readily attributes her success to a foundation laid by others' work-riding a crest of a wave, she says, and stepping in to run for office when the time was right. The move to district-only City Council elections in 1988 gave Kehoe a largely gay constituency that rallied behind her. "It took years of activism," said Kehoe's District 3 successor, Toni Atkins, "years of activism to get a place at the table."

Unquestionably, gays still have not achieved the equal status they'd like-Nevada just last week became another of many states to vote against gay marriage. But the issues that motivated the gay political movement early on-basic civil rights and funding for AIDS research-are no longer as grave as they once were. For a movement that was essentially spawned from, and driven by, the politics of protest, what happens when, as one activist put it, there's not a whole lot left to rail against? What's there left to do once you have a foot in the door, when you finally have that seat at the table you've been coveting? As with any marginalized group, an us-versus-them mentality drives solidarity; but does that solidarity falter when the "them" becomes less of a threat, perhaps even allies with the "us"?

The politics of yelling

The 1969 Stonewall riots, while not the sole catalyst for the gay rights movement, are considered its touchstone. The Stonewall Bar in New York was, quite literally, a black box-black brick, boarded up windows-that served as a nondiscriminatory meeting spot for the more flamboyant members of the city's gay and lesbian population who were denied service in other bars. When police raided the bar one early morning in June, four days of small-scale riots followed, fusing together a vocal segment of the gay community and drawing others to follow. The credo, "Out of the closets and into the streets" drove gay liberationist politics throughout the 1970s.

It's been referred to as "the politics of yelling"-make enough noise about the issues and someone's bound to pay attention. "At some point, it all begins to feel a bit uncivil," writes gay political columnist Paul Varnell, "but there seems little alternative."

During the '60s and '70s, said Ramirez, "politicians wouldn't touch us, the mayor wouldn't let us through the back door, police routinely harassed, beat and arrested gays.

"Stonewall," he said, "was our Boston Tea Party."

Lesbian activist Jeri Dilno, who spent time in Philadelphia before moving to San Diego in the mid-'70s, said that in the early years of the gay civil rights movement, public demonstration was often the only way to negotiate with mainstream power-talking it out around a table only got you so far. As example, she recalled an instance when a popular 1970s television series was going to feature an episode in which a gay male teacher rapes one of his male students. A contact at CBS leaked a copy of the script to Philadelphia's gay community leaders, Dilno among them. "They had all kinds of inaccuracies and stereotypes in this script," she said. "We got a meeting with the station manager to tell him how upset we were going to be if this episode ran, and we said, ‘You know there's these radical elements in the community that are going to be marching the streets.'

"Well," Dilno said, "we were the very same people. We were having meetings [saying], ‘We're the reasonable ones-you're going to have to listen to us or these other elements in the community are going to be up in arms.'"

Dilno's story functions as a metaphor of sorts, tracing the maturation process of lesbian and gay activists. Street protests evolved to sit-down meetings with the other side, her experience with the Philadelphia TV station falling somewhere in between.

"The [gay and lesbian civil rights] movement, overall, has become more conservative," says Dilno. "When you can't get in and you have to jump around outside and scream and holler for someone to open the door, it's a lot different than when the door's open and you can walk right in and you've got your friends sitting at the table."

This paradigm shift is in line with the natural progression of any successful political movement. Says Mark Conlon, editor of the left-leaning Zenger's Newsmagazine and a long-time participant in local gay politics: "Civil rights movements, in general, get more conservative as they get older." At the root of these movements, he explained, are people with nothing to lose, people on the utmost margins of society. Once a movement starts to gain ground, however, suddenly there is something to lose; therefore, negotiation with the mainstream-the give and take that characterizes politics-becomes necessary.

Conlon's critique of Kehoe is that any gains she's made have come through compromises with conservatives. Dilno, however, paints a different picture. In talking about both Atkins and Kehoe, she attributes both women's success to their skills as negotiators and consensus builders.

"Chris has never been a raving radical," she said. "Some of the people thought she would be leading this charge at City Council... but she's a good moderator and knows how to negotiate and work with people. It's the give and take of politics and she does that extremely well."

AIDS' silver lining

The liberationists who drove the gay-rights movement in the '70s were replaced in the '80s by leadership that demanded involvement with mainstream politics, not out of choice but as a means of survival. The AIDS crisis, Conlon says, forced the gay community to change its attitude towards the government. "Prior to that," he said, "it was, ‘Leave us alone,' but with AIDS the gay community had a reason to ask things of the government."

Clearly, this process was complicated by the very fact that AIDS was so prevalent in the gay community, adding fodder to moralist arguments against homosexuality and increasing the necessity of the gay community to seem less a counterculture and more as a credible element of society. The push, then, for the gay community was to gain this credibility through persuasive PR and thereby win the attention of elected officials.

"Politics became very important to us because of AIDS," Ramirez said. "If there was a silver lining in AIDS, it awoke the gay and lesbian community. The community awoke to the fact that we were fighting for our lives. We had to get involved in the political process because that's where government is and that's were the funding was."

Two other things happened as a result of the AIDS epidemic: fundraising became a necessity and the gay community started looking towards its female members, who had remained virtually untouched by the disease. Ramirez recalls a time before AIDS when a gay political event was doing good to raise $50 total; once AIDS hit, $250-a-plate dinners were the norm. The gay community now has become a fundraising machine. "In the early days of AIDS," Ramirez said, "it was only us; we didn't have any corporate sponsors." It's not uncommon now, he pointed out, to raise $8,000 in a one-night event at a local bar for an AIDS charity.

At a gay national conference in the mid-'80s, Ramirez recalled, a speaker asked everyone with AIDS to stand up. More than half the men in the room stood. "I realized right then we were losing our movement, losing our leaders." He estimates that 95 percent of the gay activists that he worked with in the '70s have since died of AIDS.

It's no coincidence that, presently, women comprise the majority of leadership roles in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered (LGBT) organizations-the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Conlon noted, has had eight lesbian chairs in a row.

"There seems to be this undercurrent of [men] complaining, ‘Oh, the women are controlling everything,'" Ramirez said. "I always remind them, I say, ‘Honey, I've been around and I remember those early days and we let lesbians be secretaries if we let them be on our board. They're doing a damn good job, so be happy.'"

It barely needs reminding that San Diego's only three successful gay political candidates are women. Two male candidates preceded them: Dr. Al Best was the first openly gay man to run for City Council, though he didn't make it past the primary. Neil Goode ran unsuccessfully in 1987 against Bob Filner for a council seat. Whether or not Kehoe's success can be attributed to gender or timing is anyone's guess. As Atkins points out, Kehoe's campaign was when "it sort of all came together" through a combination of district support and grassroots organizing.

Joining the club

Jeri Dilno was once a Republican; so too was Nicole Ramirez. It was a choice, both say, that stemmed from a conservative upbringing. The gay Republican is a rare breed, but it does exist. Its political lean tends to be more toward economic interest than anything else.

It's natural, then, that gay political power in San Diego can be attributed to a successful, predominantly gay Democratic club. Jess Durfee, the current president of the San Diego Democratic Club (SDDC), wasn't around when it started up in 1975 but knows the history pretty well. Back then, candidates and elected officials kept their distance from the SDDC. The group didn't meet in public but rather confined their meetings to private homes. Today, however, the club is 300 members strong and, while predominantly gay, includes straight members as well.

If you're a Democrat running for office in San Diego, an SDDC endorsement is a valuable thing to have, due largely to a rigorous screening process the candidate must go through. The club requires candidates seeking an endorsement to fill out a questionnaire for which they receive a score based on their positions on the party's usual issues: medicinal marijuana, assisted suicide, needle exchange, but also on issues pertaining specifically to the LGBT community.

Candidates are then meticulously ranked: acceptable, endorsed, priority campaign and unacceptable. For the most recent election, priority campaigns included labor-backed Democrat Michael Zucchet and state Assembly candidate Vince Hall. Unacceptables included uber-right-wing incumbent U.S. Reps Randy "Duke" Cunningham and Duncan Hunter and Boy Scout President and county treasurer candidate Dan McAllister. Dumanis, whose Republican label made her ineligible for endorsement, received the highest ranking the club could give a opposition-party candidate: acceptable (her opponent, Paul Pfingst, was ranked unacceptable).

Durfee described the club as sophisticated-an adjective that pertains far more to organization. The club has a mailing list of more than 6,000 individuals targeted as being either gay or gay-friendly voters. Durfee says it's rare for a Democratic candidate not to seek the club's support.

"We do a lot with voter files," he said, "building lists, cultivating donor files, cultivating volunteers. Because of our endorsement process, we really hold accountable anyone who we endorse. Once we get those answers on the questionnaire, [the candidate has] taken a position on a lot of gay and lesbian issues that no one ever asked them.

"Along with the support we provide," Durfee said, "there's also the accountability we expect."

Dilno is one of Durfee's predecessors as SDDC president. Prior to her was Doug Scott, who died of AIDS in 1989. Scott, Dilno said, moved the club in the right direction and set the foundation for its current success. "He saw the wisdom of precinct organizing," she said. "He and I used to go down to the registrar of voters and with a big legal pad, track where the voters had voted." Through that process, Dilno explained, they were able to target areas that they thought had gay or gay-friendly voters. The five or six precincts Dilno and Scott targeted back then have now grown to 20. Precinct data also helped shape what's now District 3, which is estimated to be one-third homosexual.

The credibility the SDDC has earned is an about-face from the days when homosexual support meant certain failure for a candidate. Ramirez recalled Yvonne Schultz's bid for City Council two decades ago. "A week before the election, the news asked her about her homosexual support. And she said, yes homosexuals are supporting me; they're part of my constituency.

"That week," Ramirez said, "the churches were flooded by news that homosexuals were supporting Yvonne Schultz." Schultz ended up losing by only 300 votes. "We were heartbroken," Ramirez said. "We knew why she had lost, and she never blamed the [gay] community."

The big bucks

In the absence of a threatening far-right contingent, which typically drives leftist politics, San Diego's gay community tends to be middle-of-the-road politically. Conlon, who writes for the SDDC newsletter, wrote an objective piece on the club's recent endorsements, though an article for Zenger's spoke differently:

"Queer demos stiff labor, endorse business backed candidates."

Conlon's story cited club support of Steve Padilla and Katherine Nakamura, tagged as being supported by downtown business interests, over union-backed Mary Salas and Jeff Lee for Chula Vista mayor and San Diego school board member, respectively.

"Mainstreaming" is something that's bound to happen as homosexuality generally becomes less of an issue-to be gay or lesbian doesn't carry the stigma it once did. And it's no small factor that, especially in San Diego, the gay community is, simply put, quite likable.

"Look at what we do to the neighborhoods," Ramirez said. "We're fabulous. We fix up houses, we have the most beautiful gardens. Our community [is made up of] good citizens. The biggest parade in San Diego is the [Pride] parade that brings over 130,000 people. Our community in the '70s had two gay bars, and now we have over 40. We had one business and how we have several hundred."

While leftist gay activists decry this sort of participation in mainstream capitalist society-arguing it's created the stereotype of the gay male with too much expendable income. In terms of politics, success costs money, and money, much to the chagrin of some community members, has become very important in gay politics.

"We can raise the big bucks," said Ramirez, who, with only a week's worth of planning, threw together a luncheon fundraiser that generated $4,000 for District 4 City Council candidate Charles Lewis, who has promised to be a friend to the gay community, unlike his predecessor, George Stevens.

Bill Beck, who worked as the treasurer for both the Kehoe and Atkins campaigns, said the gay community's ability to generate money for qualified candidates is the best, if not the only, way to play catch-up for the years they were on the outside looking in. "Activists are only part of the equation," he said. "That other part of the equation is having the funds to be able to pick the best candidates and having the funds to get them into office.

"It's sort of like the startup of a new company," he explained. "Sometimes when you start up a new business, you have to have more money to start that business.... There's always an influx of money that's needed for something new, something that hasn't been seen before by the voters.... It's necessary to raise good sums of money to get our message out.

"But our message," he added, "is always coupled with the candidates that we recruit. We're not going to throw money after bad candidates. It's a level of a Chris Kehoe, who's been exemplary as far as we're concerned; it's a high caliber of a Toni Atkins who, as far as I'm concerned, understands the issues as well, if not better than anybody else on City Council."

Beck is also the San Diego representative to the Victory Fund, a national organization geared toward getting more gays and lesbians elected to office. San Diego, he said, is held up as a model city by the Fund's board. "When you hear the kinds of things that go on in other states, the kinds of fliers that circulate and the kinds of things that appear in the papers then you realize that gay-baiting has disappeared in our campaigns in San Diego, because the people will not put up with it."

Kehoe knows of what Beck speaks firsthand; her experience, however, is far more sobering. "I've heard the most reactionary, prejudiced, biased language on the Assembly floor that I've ever heard anywhere," she said. "The conservative Assembly members are so far to the right that the majority of conservative Californians have already passed them. In San Diego you don't hear people say that homosexuality is a sin, that it's a vilified lifestyle." She cites Sam Aanestad, who, on the Assembly floor in opposition to AB 25, the domestic partners bill, said "I can't vote for this bill because my God commands me not to."

"Chilling," Kehoe said. "The Assembly's been an eye-opener for me in many regards." Dennis Hollingsworth, who represents the North County on the state Senate has expressed similar sentiments, though not as vociferously as Einstead, Kehoe noted.

"There's plenty of reason for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered voters in San Diego to be very, very active," she said, "because although San Diego is a great place, and we've made a lot of progress, we've got a long way to go with some parts of the rest of the state."

Future of the movement

As the gay political movement matures, the us-versus-them mentality that motivated early solidarity is being replaced by a push to form alliances with other groups. Recently, Atkins and Councilmember Ralph Inzunza called a meeting of leaders from both the gay and Latino communities to discuss strengthening the relationship between the two groups-a wise move since both groups have a growing influence on California politics, Latinos especially. Latinos, however, tend to vote conservatively when it comes to social issues, a fact that drives a potential wedge in the alliance. Despite that, Atkins believes there is a number of issues the two communities can agree on.

It's an alliance long-needed, said Ramirez, who's critical of the lack of diversity among leaders in the gay community. Out of the SDDC's 250-person membership, Ramirez estimates only about 2 to 3 percent are people of color.

"When it comes to the gay and lesbian community working with people of color, I say, ‘Don't you dare set that table, already serve the hors d'ouvres and then invite us. You better have us involved with the building of that table-we better set that menu.'

"Almost every gay bar has a Latino night," he points out, "and it's one of their most profitable nights." When he encourages gay Latinos to get more involved in local politics, however, there's some resistance. "They say, ‘Oh, we don't feel welcome,'" Ramirez said, "and I say, ‘Hey, you've got to push down those doors. [The Latino population] is the future. You've got to get involved.'"

And, as her district becomes increasingly Latino, the question arises whether District 3 will see a split between the gay and Latino population, each community vying for control of that seat on the City Council.

"In my mind, if the progressive community starts to fight each other for seats," said Atkins, "then it will be business as usual in San Diego and we will go back to the mainstream, conservative, very-white-male establishment."

"We don't want to fight amongst ourselves," she added. But at the same time, she said, it's unfortunate that certain council seats carry with them the expectation of being filled by certain people.

"We will truly be equal when you see a black person elected in District 1 and a gay person elected in District 4 and a Latino person elected mayor. Then I think we're talking about level playing fields."


See all events on Friday, Oct 21