The nation’s oldest LGBT organization sets Obama-era priorities.
The Obama win may have let the average left-wing citizen breathe a deep sigh of relief, but for progressive organizations, it was a call to turn up the heat. PW talked to Equality Forum panelist Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, about what lies ahead for LGBT activism in 2009.
Tell me about the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is the oldest LGBT organization in the country. We’re about 35 years old. The mission is to build LGBT political power from the ground up. And we do that work in various ways, obviously working at the grassroots level around the country with local and statewide activists to ensure that the LGBT people receive full equality. We do everything from organizing and campaign work and training, beating back LGBT ballot measures and doing lots of work around capacity building within the racial and economic justice frame to ensure equality for all LGBT people from all different racial and ethnic groups.
“We move on from the ground level all the way up to addressing policy—congressional as well as some nonlegislative—issues that we have the opportunity to work on with the new administration. So we’re very excited about that. We have a think tank. It’s just a really exciting organization.”
Do you think the Obama administration is taking the gay rights issue as seriously as it can?
“I think the administration has espoused some very clear statements about full equality for LGBT people. I think it’s our job as an organization, as well as other activists in the community, to ensure that they actually follow through on the things they say. It’s early on yet and we have time to see if the things they’ve stood behind in their words actually come to fruition in their time in office. I look forward to working with them.”
Obama says he’s against gay marriage but in favor of civil unions. What are your thoughts on that?
“I’m not sure if that’s exactly the position of the administration. It’d be interesting to hear where it is currently. We just want to be clear that our position is that LGBT couples be offered the same rights as anyone else in society. Same-sex couples should have the same right to marriage equality as everybody else.”
How high a priority is overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell” for you?
“It’s among the priorities that we have on our legislative agenda. Congress is the kind of place where things can happen either very quickly or not as quickly, and there are a number of things that are important and that’s among them. We certainly look to our colleagues at the Legal Defense Network to take the lead on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s critically important to us, along with [national nondiscrimination legislation] ENDA, which is our No. 1 priority. Things like hate crimes, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ repealing DOMA are on our top list of legislative priorities.”
Do you think it’s possible that “don’t ask, don’t tell” will be overturned within the next year or two?
“It’s one of those funny situations where the timing could happen in the next few years ... but it really depends on how things go with hate crimes and potentially with ENDA. I don’t know if I have a real guess about the timing. I think the most important thing is that we have an administration that seems poised to address our issues in a way that will be extremely meaningful for our community members. I think it’s important for the LGBT community to not just assume that it will automatically happen, but rather, to stay alert, be prepared and do the kind of advocacy work that’s necessary to ensure that the administration follows through on lots of the promises that have been made."
So you see the Obama administration as an opportunity for activists to work harder?
“It’s not a forgone reason for us to sit back on our laurels and just think, ‘Great, they’re on our side so everything is taken care of.’ I think you stated it exactly right; it’s an opportunity for us to work hard to achieve full equality for LGBT people. Not the other way around.”
Is the fear of complacency a big concern for LGBT activists?
“Absolutely. I think there is a worry among activists that we can confuse statements that have been made with actions being taken. I think we can rest when all of the things that will offer us full equality and the ability to live full and complete lives have been achieved. And we’re nowhere near that point, so we don’t want to get complacent given the fact that there are tons of recommendations that we as activists have to make to improve the lives of LGBT people.”