This Isn't a Free Ride

Glenn Amoroso, a 42-year-old gay man from Chicago, has distributed fliers denouncing Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry's stance on gay marriage for 30 minutes – yet hasn't found many takers. It's 9:00 p.m. on Monday night, and he's standing outside Avalon, on Lansdowne Street, the scene of the much-ballyhooed Unity 2004 Celebration for the 255 gay delegates and gay-rights advocates attending the DNC. Several dozen people have already lined up on the red-velvet carpet leading into the dance club. But when Amoroso approaches the partygoers – most of them affiliated with such national gay-rights organizations as the Human Rights Campaign and the Stonewall Democrats – he receives a decidedly chilly reception. People hold up their hands to his fliers, as if to say 'Thanks, but no thanks.' Some take a flier, fold it up, and stash it away. No one engages Amoroso in debate.

"People aren't interested in human rights," Amoroso says, when asked about his attempts to hand out literature to fellow gay men and lesbians. Donning a blue T-shirt that offers the message EQUAL MARRIAGE RIGHTS NOW, he adds, "They want to back a candidate who doesn't back us."

Amoroso is talking about Kerry, of course, who has managed to put off many gay folks with his less-than-satisfactory stance on gay marriage. While Kerry has said he opposes changing the US Constitution to bar civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples, he also opposes gay marriage. Worse still, he's made it plain that he backs the proposed anti-gay amendment to the Massachusetts constitution, which would strip same-sex couples of marital rights in the one state where they're reality. Amoroso and his fellow protesters find it "utterly offensive" that a politician who claims to be pro-gay could say that separate but equal is good enough.

But if the protesters' colleagues in the gay / lesbian / bisexual / transgender community are ignoring their message, they don't seem to be deterred. They yell themselves hoarse over the "hypocrisy" of the Democratic Party. They wave banners and posters ("MARRIAGE IS A HUMAN RIGHT NOT A HETEROSEXUAL PRIVILEGE" ) at casual passersby. They even move their staging area directly before the Avalon to get noticed by the crowd.

In a separate conversation with the Phoenix, Andy Thayer, the national action coordinator for DontAmend.com, which sponsored the demonstration, explains that he and his colleagues, much like the partygoers, simply want to win full-marriage rights for same-sex couples nationwide. Unlike the partygoers, though, the protests question the means to that end: How, Thayer asks, can such a goal be realized when gay-rights groups fail to challenge political allies? How can it happen when, in his words, "gay Democrats put their party first and gay people second?"

As evidence, he points to the fact that the sponsors of Unity 2004 dropped Margaret Cho from the line-up of entertainment just days before the big event. On Monday night, protesters blasted HRC and party sponsors for dis-inviting a favorite lgbt performer out of fear that her provocative material might harm Kerry. Charges Thayer, "Kerry says 'Jump' and the HRCs of the world go, 'How high?' It's hard to get more politically craven than that." (Evidently, at least one of the Unity '04 organizers agreed; in a July 22 statement, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in New York, said it was so "dismayed" by the decision to drop Cho from the line-up that it withdrew its sponsorship of the event.)

Inside the Avalon, in the VIP room upstairs – where Chrissie Gephardt, Dick Gephardt's openly lesbian daughter, mingled with the likes of Joan Jett and where waitresses offered trays full of miniature ice-cream cones and skewered chicken – Cheryl Jacques, the HRC president, tries to downplay the rift within the glbt community over the Cho affair. Standing beneath a blue neon light, surrounded by a few eager reporters, Jacques says that HRC and other party sponsors decided to cut Cho as a headliner only after reviewing a transcript of her comic material. All of the sponsors decided that, as she says, "This was a unity event, and it was important that nothing overshadow that." Asked why sponsors invited Cho knowing her controversial reputation to begin with, Jacques simply says, "It was an unanimous decision among the coalition" upon reading her new jokes. (Read: After the SlimFast response to Whoopie's Bush jokes, we weren't taking any chances.)

As for the protesters, Jacques puts a diplomatic spin on things. "They are members of our family," she says, with whom "we can agree to disagree." Yet in her mind, she notes, the lgbt community needs to get behind Kerry, who may not embrace civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples today, but who represents "the way to go" in order to reach that goal in the future.

If anything, the DontAmend.com demonstration sheds light on a dilemma for these gay-rights groups in this election. On the one hand, many advocates privately admit that they're "annoyed" at how Kerry has handled the gay-marriage issue. After all, it's not helpful that he says he believes marriage is a union of a man and a woman. "It's kind of like the issue of choice," one veteran advocate explains to me. "It doesn't matter what you personally think about gay marriage. Do you believe the state should treat people equally or not? That's the question."

On the other hand, Kerry boasts a stellar gay-rights record overall. In 1985, he became the first U.S. Senator to sponsor the gay-rights bill. And he has kept up the fight on behalf of gays and lesbians ever since – from anti-discrimination efforts to HIV/AIDS funding to allowing open gays in the military. He is, in short, a better man than President George W. Bush, who has done nothing but use gay folks to bait the religious right. The HRC's Jacques, who is scheduled to speak at the DNC, says that she intends to broach the issue of same-sex marriage in her prepared remarks to convention delegates – despite the fact that the Democratic ticket officially rejects the notion. No one on the Kerry campaign has tried to stop her from doing so, she points out, adding, "I think that speaks volumes about where the Democratic ticket is."

The veteran advocate puts it more bluntly: "It is in the community's interest to get Kerry elected. So what are we supposed to do? Vote for [Ralph] Nader?"

For protesters like Amoroso, that just might be an option. Personally, Amoroso tells me outside the Avalon, he cannot bring himself to vote for a candidate who does not consider gay men and lesbians to be full human beings. "The issue of gay marriage is an attack on my soul," he says. "It supersedes all other things as far as I'm concerned."

So will he vote for Nader? Maybe. Or maybe he and his fellow protesters will abstain from voting altogether. Or maybe, they'll just have to hold their noses while plunking down a vote for the Democrats this year – after they put the party on notice. In the words of Thayer, "We want the Democratic Party and gay leaders to know that we're not giving you a free ride just because Bush is evil incarnate. We will not write Kerry a blank check."

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