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Gays and lesbians are taking more public role in politics, as elected officials, activists

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 26, 2010 -  A.J. Bockelman knew the gay-rights movement had hit a new level of political clout -- and status -- when he found himself with other activists in Washington this week for a special reception in their honor at the White House.

President Barack Obama addressed the group, citing the progress that he says has been made on the gay-rights front.

Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, Missouri's largest statewide organization lobbying for gay rights, doesn't believe that Obama has lived up yet to his campaign promise to "be a fierce advocate."

Still, the activist added, "I see tremendous improvement. There is progress being made."

Eleven years ago, when PROMO began making political endorsements, "you rarely had a candidate seeking an endorsement," he recalled. "Now, we do -- on both sides."

He's also counted more than a dozen gays or lesbians named by Gov. Jay Nixon to various posts or panels.

Bockelman credits the gains in clout and acceptance, in part, to the increasing willingness among gay and lesbian public figures in Missouri and the country to go public about their private lives.

"I think we're closer to that point," he said, "where sexual orientation is no longer a powerful weapon."

But what Bockelman calls a leap forward, social conservative lobbyist Kerry Messer views as a immoral step back.

A White House reception for gay-rights activists, said Messer, "shows something of the character of the president we currently have" -- and he doesn't mean it as a compliment.

Messer, head of the Missouri Family Network, questions the premise of the White House to hold a reception that "uses the criteria of the way people have sex. That points to where we're going, as a culture and a country."

He also calls it "the world's worst timing" for Obama to reach out to gay-rights activists and for Democrats to try to end the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military,

"During a time of war, (Obama) is stepping into the military environment with social experimentation," Messer said. As for Congress, he says they should focus on the economy, joblessness and the bulging budget deficit -- not gay rights.

Such starkly different viewpoints offer a backdrop for this weekend's PrideFest in St. Louis.

All in the family

Pridefest, a celebration of sexual diversity, was controversial when it was first held in 1980, and no public officials dared to participate.

Now, after 30 years, a growing number of public officials -- gay and straight -- show up for the festivities, including Sunday's parade.

"We are a gay-friendly city, and we're proud of that," said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, who was grand marshal of the parade a few years ago.

Although Slay has been attending PrideFest for 10 years, he's only the third sitting mayor to take part. Freeman Bosley Jr. was the first mayor to participate in the early 1990s, followed by fellow Democrat Clarence Harmon.

Slay approaches the gay-rights issue, and the weekend's festival, from a personal as well as political perspective. Of his 10 siblings, three -- a brother and two sisters -- are gay.

"It had an effect on me 30 years ago, when my brother told me he was gay," Slay recalled. "It was a meaningful time in my life.''

Over the years, he experienced similar emotions when two sisters told him they were lesbians.

"It didn't change anything of how I thought about them. It made me a better person, actually," the mayor said. "I respect them for being open about their sexual orientation. We all have differences one way or another."

Slay says he's also seen more public acceptance of gays and lesbians, which he attributes to the bravery of those willing to go public about their private lives.

As more people become aware of friends, relatives, colleagues or acquaintances who are gay, Slay said, they become more accepting.

"The changes have been significant and very noticeable," the mayor said. "More people are more open minded and have a better understanding of this whole issue."

Underscoring the mayor's point, Bockelman cites a recent poll showing that 70 percent of Americans say they know someone who is gay or a lesbian.

Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University who specializes in polling and demographics, said that polls have consistently shown a generation gap on the gay-rights issue. "The older you are, the less likely you are to be tolerant of gay rights," he said.

Warren has witnessed the contrast first-hand in his college classes, where he says that his students -- regardless of their political persuasion -- are generally unanimous in favor of gay rights and don't see what the controversy is about.

The exception, Warren added, is the issue of gay marriage. Polls continue to show that the public overwhelmingly opposes giving same-sex marriage the same rights as traditional marriage, he said.

More Missouri officials 'out'

In Missouri, Bockelman and others say that no politician deserves more praise than state Rep. Jeanette Mott Oxford, D-St. Louis, who's been public about her sexual orientation from the beginning. She was first elected to the state House in 2004 -- the same year that Missourians also overwhelmingly approved a statewide measure banning single-sex marriage.

"I think that, bar none, Jeanette Mott Oxford has done tremendous good in knocking down stereotypes," Bockelman said.

But it hasn't been without a price.

Oxford, now 55, recalls being forced to leave seminary more than 20 years ago when she informed officials of her sexual orientation. She chuckles as she observes that her partner successfully completed ordination in 2008 in the same denomination -- the United Church of Christ -- that once shunned Oxford.

"I have noticed some changes, but not all the ones that I'd like to see," Oxford said.

When she was elected, Oxford was only the second Missouri legislator -- and first woman -- to be "out" about her sexuality.

Now, Oxford is among three such members of the Missouri Legislature. The other two are state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, and state Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis. Statewide, seven public officials acknowledge they are gay or lesbian, according to a count by the national Gay and Lesbian Leadership Institute.

Oxford said some of her conservative colleagues have asked her about discrimination and other experiences she has had. "There's certainly more conversation," she said.

In 2009, she suspected that her sexual orientation was the reason she was removed from the House's Special Committee on Children and Families, her favorite panel. She was reinstated this past session. House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, has said that her sexual orientation had nothing to do with last year's removal, or his decision to put her back on the committee this year.

Oxford is not as adament as some gay-rights activists about the importance of same-sex couples achieving the legal right to marry.

Oxford is more interested in winning approval of legislation barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in jobs, housing and public accommodations.

"Discussing marriage is a luxury until you know you can keep your job," she said.

Fighting for marriage equality

Gay-rights activist Ed Reggi says his primary issue is still legalized marriage, but he prefers to cast the issues as one of "marriage equality," not "gay marriage."

Reggi, a St. Louis actor, founded the group, "Show Me No Hate," which is more involved in public protests. Earlier this month, the group organized a protest outside the Jefferson City office of U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Lexington.

Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, touched off controversy over his opposition to the elimination of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy -- and his observation that the debate could be harmful to children.

Reggi sees that discussion as indicative of the approach that social conservatives are increasingly taking as they push back against gay-rights efforts.

"Children are being used as a 'fear tactic,' " said Reggi, observing that gays and lesbians are finding themselves increasingly accused of trying to "indoctrinate children" into a homosexual lifestyle.

Reggi said the real issue should be that children often are more accepting of people's differences than adults. "I see kids being completely tolerant," he said. "They get it."

In any case, Reggi's goal is to repeal Missouri's same-sex marriage ban -- a quest that other gay-rights activists, and social conservatives, say has no chance of success in the foreseeable future.

But that doesn't deter Reggi. "We'll keep chipping away," he said.

As for Bockelman, he's more optimistic about winning legislative approval of an anti-discrimination measure relating to employment, housing and public accommodations. He noted that such a bill did pass a House committee last session.

The best hope on the marriage equality front, he said, may be if Missourians see what's happening in other states that have allowed same-sex marriage. Massachusetts, he said, has now had legal same-sex marriages for six years.

"Their economy is healthy and strong," Bockelman said, adding with a touch of sarcasm, "A tsunami has not drowned the state. The sky has not fallen."

As Oxford sees it, the discussion about gay rights often misses a key fact. "Straight people," she said, "never have to tell people anything about their sexual lives."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.