After gay marriage, a transformative coalition splinters into just another interest group
As spring turned into summer last year, a battle over gay rights was brewing in New York City.
This was not the years-long struggle to legalize same-sex marriage in the state, a clash being waged at the highest levels of government, with millions of dollars helping frame the issue as a civil rights battle that became a generational test of progressive values.
Instead, it was a battle about whether “Queers Against Israeli Apartheid” should be allowed to meet at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Greenwich Village.
“Make no mistake, everyone is welcome at the center; but these particular organizing activities need to take place elsewhere,” center director Glenda Testone said in June, three weeks before same-sex marriage was legalized.
To the unapologetically radical activists behind the group, this flew in the face of the idea that gay politics should fundamentally challenge the status quo.
“If radical people can’t meet there, then it just becomes another occupied space for wealthy bigots,” group organizer Sherry Wolf told The Village Voice.
To them, the fight over who can meet at the center symbolized new fissures at the heart of the gay rights movement in New York.
On one side are moneyed mainstream gays and their straight allies who turned a once-inconceivable idea into a same-sex marriage law. On the other are activists ready to keep protesting for transgender rights, expanded social services and other items on their agendas. Other groups fall into the middle but are unwilling to compromise on strategy again.
But the cracks seem less surprising than that these disparate groups were able to unite behind one cause in the first place. Gov. Andrew Cuomo pressured organizations famous for their rivalries and squabbling to march in lockstep, forsaking individual credit for the sake of the larger goal.
It worked. And as soon as they won, the unraveling began. A year after the governor first pulled those groups into a room in the Capitol and gave them an impetus, gay rights are once again just another New York special interest.
Bringing same-sex marriage to New York took more than 29 Democrats and 4 Republicans to voting “yes” in the State Senate.
It also took a $1.8 million political campaign put together by Secretary to the Governor Steve Cohen, SKDKnickerbocker media strategist and political consultant Jennifer Cunningham and a coalition of powerful gay rights groups and legislators.
Paul Singer, a major donor to Mitt Romney’s campaign, helped bankroll the state’s same-sex marriage crusade. World Economic Forum
“That was a big change from the last time we tried to pass the gay-marriage bill, when everyone was at loggerheads and the groups were competing a lot,” said Ethan Geto, a gay rights activist and former Empire State Pride Agenda lobbyist.
The United for Marriage coalition included all the issue’s heavy hitters, such as the Empire State Pride Agenda, Equality Matters, Freedom to Marry New York, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Sen. Tom Duane, Assemblyman Danny O’Donnell and the Human Rights Campaign—which spent an extra $770,000 on its own.
Yet, this key liberal priority was largely bankrolled and advanced by conservative Republican donors, who helped push the idea in the Republican-led Senate.
Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, conservative donor Paul Singer and financiers Steven Cohen, Clifford Asness and Daniel Loeb all poured money into the marriage campaign, and the four Republican “yes” votes are relying on them for contributions to hold onto their seats against nasty primary fights this year.
This top-heavy strategy was pioneered in the mid-2000s by a group of wealthy donors known as “the Cabinet,” who targeted antigay politicians nationwide and pledged to support candidates who supported their positions on gay rights.
The group’s financiers, who included Colorado Internet entrepreneur Tim Gill, Stryker Corporation heir Jon Stryker and Henry van Ameringen, the International Flavors and Fragrances heir, also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republican senators after the marriage bill passed in New York.
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