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Gay-rights activists focus on changing laws state by state

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2009 - The focus was on the pluses, not the minuses, as dozens of gay-rights activists from around the country celebrated their political achievements while seated Thursday morning in a giant circle spanning a Clayton ballroom.

But the stories of their new-found success weren't about national headline-grabbing news, such as the fact that six states -- most recently Iowa -- have legalized same-sex marriage.

Rather, it's the smaller gains that won applause, such as the inclusion of sexual orientation in the city of St. Louis' new anti-discrimination law pertaining to city contracts.

Those lesser-known local victories are touted by national and regional gay-rights leaders as evidence of their wisdom in recent years -- fueled largely by necessity -- in directing most of their anti-discrimination energies at changing laws in states and local communities. Not in Washington.

While not deriding the gay-marriage wins, "there's not enough focus on these other things,'' said Lynne Bowman, board chairman of the Equality Federation Institute, a coalition of 51 state-based advocacy groups for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders that is holding its national summer meeting through Sunday at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Clayton.

About 110 gay-rights leaders are attending the event, which is hosted by PROMO, Missouri's most prominent gay-rights group.

National federation executive director Toni Broaddus believes that building grassroots support in the states has helped stem the tide of anti-gay legislation and ballot measures in recent years, while bolstering the gay-rights movement nationally during the eight years that Washington was deemed under the control of socially conservative Republicans in Congress and the White House.

She and others also contend that local efforts to win acceptance -- or, at minimum, less antagonism -- toward people's sexual orientation partially explains why the nation now seems to be in the midst of a cultural change.

Regardless of the reasons, Broaddus said there is no dispute that "the political shift is fairly obvious."

Even Missouri, where voters overwhelmingly approved a ban on gay marriage in 2004, is seen as showing some progress. Bowman and PROMO executive director A.J. Bockelman noted that the legislature has several openly gay members, who won election despite public awareness of their sexual orientation.

Paul Scott, head of the federation's Texas arm, won applause when he cited a recent statewide poll showing that -- while only 14 percent of the Texans polled favored gay marriage -- close to 60 percent "supported some sort of relationship recognition'' to protect various rights for same-sex couples, such as hospital visitations, child custody and inheritances.

In addition, Scott said, "not a single state legislator (in Texas or elsewhere) has been defeated because of their pro-equality views'' on gay rights.

But such optimism is couched with concern. Although hate crimes nationwide are down, violence against gays has shown an upswing, federation leaders said.

And some are still reeling after last fall's defeat in California, where voters approved Proposition 8, a measure that bans gay marriage, overturning state judicial rulings that allowed it.

The federation, which is based in California, is among the gay-rights groups planning to go back to the ballot box and seek a repeal of the ban -- although Broaddus said that effort is unlikely to take place before 2012.

Activists say their experiences in the states, good and bad, has seasoned them for a return to Washington to launch a new battle for a longstanding quest: to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act, approved in 1996, that defines marriage only as between a man and a woman.

"Nothing happened on the federal level for years, but that has changed,'' Broaddus said.

But she and other federation leaders emphasized that their movement won't forget the importance of continuing its state focus: "We all have seen that what happens in one state impacts what happens in another.''

Such optimism even fueled a bit of humor Thursday during the opening session. Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, one of the national social-conservative groups active in winning passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, has its education center just two blocks away from the hotel. (Schlafly declined to comment on the gay-rights gathering on Thursday.)

Bockelman stood up and pointed out the Eagle Forum's proximity, touching off a few chuckles. Not long ago, some said, no gay-rights activist would have laughed.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.