After more than 40 years of activism and three terms as mayor of Houston, Annise Parker has taken on a new leadership role as CEO of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund and Institute.
The change in leadership for the organizations was announced Friday at the annual International LGBTQ Leaders Conference. Parker, 61, told the crowd times have changed since she began her activism in the 1970s, but too many LGBT people “still have to fear” many of the dangers LGBT people faced decades ago.
“We celebrate milestones,” Parker said. “My race was one. But when you’re checking off milestones, it means you have not reached the end of the journey, and we don’t reach the end of this journey until all those fears are swept away and until all of our communities — across the United States, across cultures, across ethnicities — everyone of us has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
In an interview with the Washington Blade on Friday at the conference, Parker said the focus of her work would be on supporting LGBT candidates ready to make a difference.
“But it’s not just about having candidates, it’s about making sure that those candidates are funded and the Victory Fund does a great job of vetting candidates,” Parker said. “You have to have a good candidate, but passion’s not enough. You have to demonstrate their viability, and their ability to be successful.”
Parker takes the reins of the Victory Fund and Institute after the organizations were led for two-and-a-half years by Aisha Moodie-Mills, whose tenure was marked by historic wins by transgender candidates in local races in 2017. Moodie-Mills has left the organization with the stated purpose of championing work as a progressive activist.
Based on her long history in the LGBT movement, Parker said she brings a “different mindset” than Moodie-Mills and will be focused on the candidates, not progressive activism.
“I bring a different energy, I bring a different focus. My focus is on the candidate, but that doesn’t mean that anything we’ve done has been wrong or misplaced or inappropriate,” Parker said. “We just bring different styles and interests.”
Parker said the Victory Fund and Institute would take on the Trump administration “whenever we feel it’s necessary,” but keep electing LGBT candidates as the focus.
“Because it’s clear that simply standing up and speaking out against President Trump doesn’t have an impact, the best way to blunt his ability to hurt us is to put people in office who can vote against his anti-gay policies,” Parker said.
Parker will stay in Houston as CEO of the Victory Fund and Institute, but plans to travel often for the organizations, and will regularly be in D.C. Her tenure as CEO begins Monday.
Read the full interview here:
Washington Blade: We’ve seen a lot of success with LGBT candidates in 2017, particularly with the transgender wins in local races. How do you plan on building on that success going forward?
Annise Parker: Being successful in political campaigns starts with the candidate, so we are just as proud of the turnouts for our candidate training, the expressions of interest from candidates all over the country in running out and seeking Victory Fund support, so continuing to tap into the passion that people have right now and helping channel that into the campaigns.
But it’s not just about having candidates, it’s about making sure that those candidates are funded and the Victory Fund does a great job of vetting candidates. You have to have a good candidate, but passion’s not enough. You have to demonstrate their viability, and their ability to be successful. And so, that process is an important piece.
But then, once you have the right candidate in right race, it’s about making sure they have the resources and I know a lot of what I’ll be focused on, as the board does, is making sure that our candidates have the funding they need.
What I’ve seen over this — not quite a year — now, but through 2017 is the energy across the country. LGBT candidates, candidates of color, candidates who are women who are stepping up saying, “Enough is enough.” I want to make a difference and I’m going to jump into races, and they’re not discouraged at all by the idea that it’s an uphill battle, or that from an objective perspective, doesn’t look like they can win there.
They’re in it to win, but they’re not afraid of losing. They want to get out there and make statements. It’s a great time to come and tap into that kind of energy.
So we’re going to do that, but the fundamentals of Victory Fund haven’t changed in a very long time.
Blade: I wanted to ask you about that because I know you talked in your speech about how hard it was to be part of an organization in 1975 compared to 2017.
Parker: Different and it’s not different.
We have made tremendous progress, but if you look at when I was an activist in the 70s and 80s, I used to debate homophobes all the time, and they used to talk about the gay agenda. Remember the gay agenda? And I used to laugh and say there was no gay agenda.
Over time, I finally realized that there was a gay agenda, and the gay agenda is fairly straight forward. We want to be able to go to school without being bullied, we want to be to work at jobs we love and earn a paycheck so we can pay taxes to this country, we want to be able to serve openly in the military, we want to be able to walk down any street in America in safety, we want to be able to marry the people we love, we want to be able to adopt and raise children. That’s the GLBT agenda.
Many of those things we have achieved, but what we see now is how easily they can be swept away when we have the wrong person in the White House and the wrong attitude in Congress. So we made progress, but we can take this giant step back if we don’t keep our eyes focused on moving forward.
Blade: But what I wanted to get at there is do you think it’s simply enough for candidates to be out about their sexual orientation and gender identity, or is there something more that’s needed in 2017 in order to make an impact?
Parker: Yes and no.
It’s not enough to be a gay candidate. You have to be good at what you do. We have high expectations for our candidates, and that’s why we vet them, it’s why we look closely at their viability and the races they’re in. Not everybody who seeks a Victory Fund endorsement gets that Victory Fund endorsement.
But are we sending them out to be activists? No. We are sending them out to be who they are and represent their constituents and do the job they’ve been elected to do because when they do that, they make the really profound changes that we need to see that have been so transformative in America.
This latest anti-trans movement really, I think, unfortunately, wasn’t launched in Houston, but our HERO campaign [the 2015 campaign to preserve the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance] was where it really flowered. We had right-wing groups from all over the country, pouring money and resources in Houston. We had the right-wing ideologues coming through, the Mike Huckabees and Ted Cruzes coming though Houston and doing trans-bashing in Houston, and then they took it on the road to North Carolina and back to Texas with the statewide bathroom bill.
The difference in my more than 40 years of activism: No one in America can say they know no person who is gay or lesbian. Whether it’s simply they say, “Well, I know Ellen on TV,” whatever it is, they know someone, and very, very few people in America today can say they don’t know anyone, either in their family or their community who is gay.
But for too many Americans, transgender issues are unknown. They don’t know someone who is transgender; they don’t understand what the issues are, and they make them the other. And a lot of what we’re seeing is the arguments are the same arguments they used against us — us meaning the gay and lesbian part of the LGBT community — against the transgender community. Today, it’s the same arguments just slightly repackaged, but it’s all about taking something that is unknown and that you can create a fear around it and use it for either for political purposes or economic purposes.
And so, what is going to be so powerful, just as it took us a long time to get there for the gay and lesbian community, but this is a different era, and I think we’re going to make much faster progress, but what it’s going to take is our transgender brothers and sisters to get out there and speak for themselves, to go out as candidates and raise awareness.
And again, they don’t have to carry the flag for the community. They have to be out and they have to do a good job, and that’s what changes hearts and minds.
Blade: Let’s talk about the Victory Institute. Where do you envision that going as an organization, particularly the robust international program?
Parker: I started by saying the focus is on the candidates. We can’t win races if you don’t have the candidates, and that is the Victory Institute.
But we all understand we can turn this negative tide that’s coming out of Washington, we can firmly secure our rights here in America and we have to realize that agenda that I outlined, that still has to be won in all of these other countries around the world, and that we have a responsibility from our positions of relative privilege to make sure to support people who are doing the seminal work in those countries. It’s not about America; it’s about the LGBT community.
And some of the most horrific problems are going on in other places. When I was mayor of Houston, Houston has a huge international focus and I did a lot of trade missions. And everywhere I went, I made a practice of meeting with local LGBT leaders and women’s organizations, so I have met with lesbians in South Africa and transgender women in Indonesia, India and Brazil.
The tip of the spear right now is transgender issues. Their courage particularly in countries where it’s not — they’re not worried about walking down the street and having someone say something rude to them, they’re worried about walking down the street and having someone kill them. And we have to make sure that we stand together with them.
Blade: The anti-LGBT policies of the Trump administration are ongoing. To what extent will the Victory Fund and the Institute tackle that?
Parker: As an organization, our focus is on supporting candidates, but we are advocates for LGBT rights and issues, so with the other organizations in this space, we’ll stand up whenever we feel it’s necessary, but we also believe that the best way to blunt that — because it’s clear that simply standing up and speaking out against President Trump doesn’t have any impact, the best way to blunt his ability to hurt us is to put people in office who can vote against his anti-gay policies.
What I’ve seen over the last year, I actually did some extensive polling in Houston for other purposes, people in an odd way, they see Trump as a one-off. Trump is not the embodiment of the Republican Party for a lot of people. I know we like to think that that’s the case, those of us who are Democrats probably think that’s the case and we’re going to use that to demonize him, which doesn’t take much work, and use that to run. It’s not enough.
He’s Donald Trump, and there’s a core following that he has, but for most Americans, whether they love him or hate him, he’s over there, he’s a one-off, and it doesn’t translate into other down-ballot races.
Blade: That’s kind of what I wanted to get at with your vision for the Victory Fund and Institute. Would you say that they’re progressive organizations, or do they seek to advance LGBT people, LGBT rights regardless of political affiliation or ideology?
Parker: So that’s a really interesting question.
It’s clear that Aisha Moodie-Mills is very much a part of the progressive movement. I like to consider myself there as well, but as an organization our focus is completely bipartisan and it is about finding capable, qualified LGBT candidates, helping them get elected.
Now, capable and qualified, someone who’s LGBT but is ashamed of it, someone who’s LGBT and actively supports anti-gay legislative initiatives, we would not support that kind of candidate. So does that make us a progressive organization?
We also build alliances. Many of our candidates are pro-choice, they have progressive political agendas and they build coalitions in order to get elected. It’s not as if there’s any place in America — well, maybe West Hollywood, who knows — where we are a majority, so it requires us to build coalitions.
And our LGBT candidates are masters of putting together strong coalitions across racial and ethnic lines, with labor, with environmental organizations and voters in order to put a winning package together, so by that definition, we are absolutely a progressive organization, but that’s not our focus.
Blade: Would you say you’d have a different approach than Aisha going forward, or is it building off what she did?
Parker: I think we have to reflect what’s happening in the world around us as an organization. I’m a generation of activists older than she. I have children older than she is — adopted children, children nonetheless — and I bring a different mindset.
I was an activist in the 70s and I have seen the changes and sort of the arc of our history. I bring a different energy, I bring a different focus. My focus is on the candidate, but that doesn’t mean that anything we’ve done has been wrong or misplaced or inappropriate. We just bring different styles and interests, and as I said, we have to have coalitions to get elected. Maybe someday the right will offer us opportunities for coalition building, but today all of our coalitions are going to be on the left and in progressive communities because the right has become so virulently anti-gay.
There are gay elected officials here who are Republicans and so stand up proudly within their party and never waver on our issues, and we need more of that.
Blade: In the past, the Victory Institute has sought to appoint LGBT people to the U.S. government. Will the Victory Institute continue that within the Trump administration? I’m aware of four Trump appointees who are LGBT. Would the Victory Institute support them?
Parker: Our goal is to put people into office where they can make a difference. It’s not very fertile ground to plow, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try to plow it.
Blade: And will you continue to support Republican candidates who are LGBT?
Parker: Yes. But they have to, obviously, support, as I have outlined, the LGBT agenda.
It’s not about political party, it’s about making sure we have candidates who can advocate, or just being present. There are times when I was in office in the 18 years that I was in office that I had to stand up and articulate LGBT issues, but I think I was just as effective those times when I was simply there with my wife and making sure that they had to deal with me on human basis.
And if you talk to the office holders in the room, you’ll find out that they all have those kinds of stories where they’ve managed to change the trajectory of a bill or made inroads in some way simply because they were there and fully present in all aspects of their life.
Blade: Let’s talk about the approach to the candidates Victory Fund endorses. I think one big issue, and you talked about this in your speech, is religious freedom and the tension that has with LGBT rights, rightly or wrongly.
Parker: No one has a right to discriminate against me. I mean, that’s what RFRA bills are. The right to discriminate. If you are given the right to discriminate against me because I’m gay or because I’m transgender, why is that any different from you having to discriminate against someone who happens to be black or who happens to be a religion you don’t agree with. We have to fight against these bills.
Blade: But what would be your advice to candidates who are confronted with this? I remember when you were mayor of Houston, this became an issue with the subpoena of the sermons and there was this big argument that was infringing upon these pastors’ religious liberty.
Parker: There was a big argument. It happened without me knowing about it. I didn’t think it was wrong, but I rescinded it simply because it created too much of a peripheral issue. But that had to do with litigation around HERO. It wasn’t anything to do with RFRA or the ability to discriminate. That actually was around the litigation.
Blade: But what would be your advice to candidates who are confronted by those who say your views are an assault on religious liberty?
Parker: We are all Americans, and one of the bedrock values of America is that we treat each other fairly and decently and that everyone should be afforded the full rights of being an American.
We have fought wars against people who targeted minority populations. In World War II, millions of Americans died to fight an enemy that was specifically targeting Jews, Gypsies and LGBT people. It is fundamentally un-American. It took us a long time to get it right. We had to go through segregation, but it is fundamentally un-American to say I don’t like you, I’m not going to serve you. Once you allow someone to do that, it’s impossible to draw the line again.
Blade: One other thing I wanted to ask you about, we mentioned the Trump administration, I’m very curious as to what your take is on the massive hurricanes we had in recent months and Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. How would you evaluate the administration’s handling of the response?
Parker: And I had a great deal of fun with Ann Coulter and my hurricane weather control abilities.
His response to the hurricane?
Blade: How would you evaluate that?
Parker: Inadequate across the board, but mediocre in Texas and in Florida and absolutely embarrassing in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Blade: Why do you think there’s that discrepancy?
Parker: I think it’s all about his voting base. In Texas we’re also fighting against an incompetent state government that is not fully funding the recovery.
And this is my opinion. I’m not going to speak for the Victory Fund here because this is far afield of that. But having been an elected official at the local level, the Bush 43 administration learned after Katrina, and the Obama administration absolutely, Texas, Republican leadership, Rick Perry — I had a great working relationship with Rick Perry — they understood what was needed to recover from those kinds of storms, and you saw that in Sandy.
Now I think we have an administration that fundamentally doesn’t understand the role of the federal government in disaster recovery, doesn’t want to spend money on people who aren’t part of the president’s voting base and have had a tremendous amount of turnover in those positions, so actually have lost the expertise to know what to do, so it’s a three-fer, and it’s causing tremendous problems.
Texas voted for Trump.
Blade: Houston did not, though.
Parker: Houston did not. The big cities across Texas are all Democratic islands in a big, red sea, but Texas voted for Trump. 20 percent of the refining capacity is in Houston or just on the border of the city of Houston. You would think from a strategic standpoint that he’d be focusing on making sure that there’s a complete recovery across the energy industry base down there, but it’s not happening.
And Puerto Rico? They don’t vote. It’s an afterthought.
Blade: I want to go back to Texas and talk about Pigeon v. Turner. [A case in which the Texas Supreme Court questioned whether the Obergefell ruling guarantees same-sex spousal to city employees. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the decision of the Texas Supreme Court, which remanded its findings to lower state court.]
Parker: Actually, it was Piegon v. Parker. It’s referred to both ways, but yeah.
Blade: You mentioned that in your speech. How concerned are you about that litigation?
Parker: When you track what happened, the state Supreme Court refused to intervene, and then the lieutenant governor of the state of Texas, the governor and the right-wing leaders across the state put pressure on the elected state Supreme Court, and they re-evaluated and then sent it back down to the appellate court.
It’s transparent to everybody in the state that they bowed to political pressure. That said, the argument being made by the right is that the Supreme Court says you can have marriage, but you can’t have benefits. There’s no right to benefits. Well, that’s absurd. Ultimately, if we get all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, they’ll straighten it out.
But from a practical standpoint, even if we lose Pigeon v. Parker, Pigeon v. Turner, even if the city of Houston loses, there’s no impact because the mayor of Houston is going to continue to offer benefits. They possibly have a pyrrhic victory which says no you don’t have to offer benefits, and well say, no, we don’t have to offer them but we’re going to. Mayor Turner’s clear on that and we’ll go forward.
But I have no faith in the Texas Supreme Court. In fact, we have several really great candidates running statewide. One of our LGBT candidates is a local elected judge who’s running for the state Supreme Court for precisely this reason, that they are making these kinds of political decisions. But there’ll be no practical impact from it.
Blade: My last question is as someone how has been part of the movement for so many years, how would you evaluate the LGBT movement now? Is it stronger than it was, or is it more anemic?
Parker: Yes and no.
It’s stronger in the sense there’s so many more people, it’s broader and deeper and it’s really reflective of the vast diversity of our community across America, but it’s weaker in only one sense. And that is that we have made gains and there a lot of folks who felt we can lay our burden down, no, we got this, it’s going to go in the right direction, I can go do other things, I don’t have to show up and vote every time, I don’t have to send money to all these organizations, I don’t have to protest or write letters or do this. Yes you do.
So on the whole it is much stronger, but it’s different and the issues evolve, and how we have to address those issues evolved. And I’ll just close with we had a vote on Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance.
And to be clear, because the media gets this wrong all the time, we had no non-discrimination ordinance. We didn’t decide to add gender identity and sexual orientation. We had zero ordinance. So we wrote a comprehensive ordinance that included everybody, and when the citizens of Houston voted it down, we don’t have an ordinance that protects black people in Houston.
Everything about the anti-HERO vote was about men in women’s bathrooms, but what was interesting is the average age of voters was 68 years old. If the average age of voter in the city of Houston election had been 50, we would have won. If the average age of voter had been 35, they would have laughed it off the ballot.
I think we’re going to win the war. In fact, we’ve already won the war, but we lose a lot of battles between now and then, and we can’t take our foot off the pedal. All of the things we’ve been doing for the last 45 years since Stonewall basically throwing ourselves into the political process, showing up, voting, protesting when necessary, we still have to keep doing it.
It’s extremely frustrating, the HERO vote because of the low turnout. And young people, you absolutely got it, but they have to vote.
Note: This interview has been edited for length.
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Honoring the legacy of New Orleans’ 1973 UpStairs Lounge fire
Why the arson attack that killed 32 gay men still resonates 50 years later
On June 23 of last year, I held the microphone as a gay man in the New Orleans City Council Chamber and related a lost piece of queer history to the seven council members. I told this story to disabuse all New Orleanians of the notion that silence and accommodation, in the face of institutional and official failures, are a path to healing.
The story I related to them began on a typical Sunday night at a second-story bar on the fringe of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, where working-class men would gather around a white baby grand piano and belt out the lyrics to a song that was the anthem of their hidden community, “United We Stand” by the Brotherhood of Man.
“United we stand,” the men would sing together, “divided we fall” — the words epitomizing the ethos of their beloved UpStairs Lounge bar, an egalitarian free space that served as a forerunner to today’s queer safe havens.
Around that piano in the 1970s Deep South, gays and lesbians, white and Black queens, Christians and non-Christians, and even early gender minorities could cast aside the racism, sexism, and homophobia of the times to find acceptance and companionship for a moment.
For regulars, the UpStairs Lounge was a miracle, a small pocket of acceptance in a broader world where their very identities were illegal.
On the Sunday night of June 24, 1973, their voices were silenced in a murderous act of arson that claimed 32 lives and still stands as the deadliest fire in New Orleans history — and the worst mass killing of gays in 20th century America.
As 13 fire companies struggled to douse the inferno, police refused to question the chief suspect, even though gay witnesses identified and brought the soot-covered man to officers idly standing by. This suspect, an internally conflicted gay-for-pay sex worker named Rodger Dale Nunez, had been ejected from the UpStairs Lounge screaming the word “burn” minutes before, but New Orleans police rebuffed the testimony of fire survivors on the street and allowed Nunez to disappear.
As the fire raged, police denigrated the deceased to reporters on the street: “Some thieves hung out there, and you know this was a queer bar.”
For days afterward, the carnage met with official silence. With no local gay political leaders willing to step forward, national Gay Liberation-era figures like Rev. Troy Perry of the Metropolitan Community Church flew in to “help our bereaved brothers and sisters” — and shatter officialdom’s code of silence.
Perry broke local taboos by holding a press conference as an openly gay man. “It’s high time that you people, in New Orleans, Louisiana, got the message and joined the rest of the Union,” Perry said.
Two days later, on June 26, 1973, as families hesitated to step forward to identify their kin in the morgue, UpStairs Lounge owner Phil Esteve stood in his badly charred bar, the air still foul with death. He rebuffed attempts by Perry to turn the fire into a call for visibility and progress for homosexuals.
“This fire had very little to do with the gay movement or with anything gay,” Esteve told a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I do not want my bar or this tragedy to be used to further any of their causes.”
Conspicuously, no photos of Esteve appeared in coverage of the UpStairs Lounge fire or its aftermath — and the bar owner also remained silent as he witnessed police looting the ashes of his business.
“Phil said the cash register, juke box, cigarette machine and some wallets had money removed,” recounted Esteve’s friend Bob McAnear, a former U.S. Customs officer. “Phil wouldn’t report it because, if he did, police would never allow him to operate a bar in New Orleans again.”
The next day, gay bar owners, incensed at declining gay bar traffic amid an atmosphere of anxiety, confronted Perry at a clandestine meeting. “How dare you hold your damn news conferences!” one business owner shouted.
Ignoring calls for gay self-censorship, Perry held a 250-person memorial for the fire victims the following Sunday, July 1, culminating in mourners defiantly marching out the front door of a French Quarter church into waiting news cameras. “Reverend Troy Perry awoke several sleeping giants, me being one of them,” recalled Charlene Schneider, a lesbian activist who walked out of that front door with Perry.
Esteve doubted the UpStairs Lounge story’s capacity to rouse gay political fervor. As the coroner buried four of his former patrons anonymously on the edge of town, Esteve quietly collected at least $25,000 in fire insurance proceeds. Less than a year later, he used the money to open another gay bar called the Post Office, where patrons of the UpStairs Lounge — some with visible burn scars — gathered but were discouraged from singing “United We Stand.”
New Orleans cops neglected to question the chief arson suspect and closed the investigation without answers in late August 1973. Gay elites in the city’s power structure began gaslighting the mourners who marched with Perry into the news cameras, casting suspicion on their memories and re-characterizing their moment of liberation as a stunt.
When a local gay journalist asked in April 1977, “Where are the gay activists in New Orleans?,” Esteve responded that there were none, because none were needed. “We don’t feel we’re discriminated against,” Esteve said. “New Orleans gays are different from gays anywhere else… Perhaps there is some correlation between the amount of gay activism in other cities and the degree of police harassment.”
An attitude of nihilism and disavowal descended upon the memory of the UpStairs Lounge victims, goaded by Esteve and fellow gay entrepreneurs who earned their keep via gay patrons drowning their sorrows each night instead of protesting the injustices that kept them drinking.
Into the 1980s, the story of the UpStairs Lounge all but vanished from conversation — with the exception of a few sanctuaries for gay political debate such as the local lesbian bar Charlene’s, run by the activist Charlene Schneider.
By 1988, the 15th anniversary of the fire, the UpStairs Lounge narrative comprised little more than a call for better fire codes and indoor sprinklers. UpStairs Lounge survivor Stewart Butler summed it up: “A tragedy that, as far as I know, no good came of.”
Finally, in 1991, at Stewart Butler and Charlene Schneider’s nudging, the UpStairs Lounge story became aligned with the crusade of liberated gays and lesbians seeking equal rights in Louisiana. The halls of power responded with intermittent progress. The New Orleans City Council, horrified by the story but not yet ready to take its look in the mirror, enacted an anti-discrimination ordinance protecting gays and lesbians in housing, employment, and public accommodations that Dec. 12 — more than 18 years after the fire.
“I believe the fire was the catalyst for the anger to bring us all to the table,” Schneider told The Times-Picayune, a tacit rebuke to Esteve’s strategy of silent accommodation. Even Esteve seemed to change his stance with time, granting a full interview with the first UpStairs Lounge scholar Johnny Townsend sometime around 1989.
Most of the figures in this historic tale are now deceased. What’s left is an enduring story that refused to go gently. The story now echoes around the world — a musical about the UpStairs Lounge fire recently played in Tokyo, translating the gay underworld of the 1973 French Quarter for Japanese audiences.
When I finished my presentation to the City Council last June, I looked up to see the seven council members in tears. Unanimously, they approved a resolution acknowledging the historic failures of city leaders in the wake of the UpStairs Lounge fire.
Council members personally apologized to UpStairs Lounge families and survivors seated in the chamber in a symbolic act that, though it could not bring back those who died, still mattered greatly to those whose pain had been denied, leaving them to grieve alone. At long last, official silence and indifference gave way to heartfelt words of healing.
The way Americans remember the past is an active, ongoing process. Our collective memory is malleable, but it matters because it speaks volumes about our maturity as a people, how we acknowledge the past’s influence in our lives, and how it shapes the examples we set for our youth. Do we grapple with difficult truths, or do we duck accountability by defaulting to nostalgia and bluster? Or worse, do we simply ignore the past until it fades into a black hole of ignorance and indifference?
I believe that a factual retelling of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy — and how, 50 years onward, it became known internationally — resonates beyond our current divides. It reminds queer and non-queer Americans that ignoring the past holds back the present, and that silence is no cure for what ails a participatory nation.
Silence isolates. Silence gaslights and shrouds. It preserves the power structures that scapegoat the disempowered.
Solidarity, on the other hand, unites. Solidarity illuminates a path forward together. Above all, solidarity transforms the downtrodden into a resounding chorus of citizens — in the spirit of voices who once gathered ‘round a white baby grand piano and sang, joyfully and loudly, “United We Stand.”
Robert W. Fieseler is a New Orleans-based journalist and the author of “Tinderbox: the Untold Story of the Up Stairs Lounge Fire and the Rise of Gay Liberation.”
New Supreme Court term includes critical LGBTQ case with ‘terrifying’ consequences
Business owner seeks to decline services for same-sex weddings
The U.S. Supreme Court, after a decision overturning Roe v. Wade that still leaves many reeling, is starting a new term with justices slated to revisit the issue of LGBTQ rights.
In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court will return to the issue of whether or not providers of custom-made goods can refuse service to LGBTQ customers on First Amendment grounds. In this case, the business owner is Lorie Smith, a website designer in Colorado who wants to opt out of providing her graphic design services for same-sex weddings despite the civil rights law in her state.
Jennifer Pizer, acting chief legal officer of Lambda Legal, said in an interview with the Blade, “it’s not too much to say an immeasurably huge amount is at stake” for LGBTQ people depending on the outcome of the case.
“This contrived idea that making custom goods, or offering a custom service, somehow tacitly conveys an endorsement of the person — if that were to be accepted, that would be a profound change in the law,” Pizer said. “And the stakes are very high because there are no practical, obvious, principled ways to limit that kind of an exception, and if the law isn’t clear in this regard, then the people who are at risk of experiencing discrimination have no security, no effective protection by having a non-discrimination laws, because at any moment, as one makes their way through the commercial marketplace, you don’t know whether a particular business person is going to refuse to serve you.”
The upcoming arguments and decision in the 303 Creative case mark a return to LGBTQ rights for the Supreme Court, which had no lawsuit to directly address the issue in its previous term, although many argued the Dobbs decision put LGBTQ rights in peril and threatened access to abortion for LGBTQ people.
And yet, the 303 Creative case is similar to other cases the Supreme Court has previously heard on the providers of services seeking the right to deny services based on First Amendment grounds, such as Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia. In both of those cases, however, the court issued narrow rulings on the facts of litigation, declining to issue sweeping rulings either upholding non-discrimination principles or First Amendment exemptions.
Pizer, who signed one of the friend-of-the-court briefs in opposition to 303 Creative, said the case is “similar in the goals” of the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation on the basis they both seek exemptions to the same non-discrimination law that governs their business, the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA, and seek “to further the social and political argument that they should be free to refuse same-sex couples or LGBTQ people in particular.”
“So there’s the legal goal, and it connects to the social and political goals and in that sense, it’s the same as Masterpiece,” Pizer said. “And so there are multiple problems with it again, as a legal matter, but also as a social matter, because as with the religion argument, it flows from the idea that having something to do with us is endorsing us.”
One difference: the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation stemmed from an act of refusal of service after owner, Jack Phillips, declined to make a custom-made wedding cake for a same-sex couple for their upcoming wedding. No act of discrimination in the past, however, is present in the 303 Creative case. The owner seeks to put on her website a disclaimer she won’t provide services for same-sex weddings, signaling an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples rather than having done so.
As such, expect issues of standing — whether or not either party is personally aggrieved and able bring to a lawsuit — to be hashed out in arguments as well as whether the litigation is ripe for review as justices consider the case. It’s not hard to see U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who has sought to lead the court to reach less sweeping decisions (sometimes successfully, and sometimes in the Dobbs case not successfully) to push for a decision along these lines.
Another key difference: The 303 Creative case hinges on the argument of freedom of speech as opposed to the two-fold argument of freedom of speech and freedom of religious exercise in the Masterpiece Cakeshop litigation. Although 303 Creative requested in its petition to the Supreme Court review of both issues of speech and religion, justices elected only to take up the issue of free speech in granting a writ of certiorari (or agreement to take up a case). Justices also declined to accept another question in the petition request of review of the 1990 precedent in Smith v. Employment Division, which concluded states can enforce neutral generally applicable laws on citizens with religious objections without violating the First Amendment.
Representing 303 Creative in the lawsuit is Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has sought to undermine civil rights laws for LGBTQ people with litigation seeking exemptions based on the First Amendment, such as the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
Kristen Waggoner, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote in a Sept. 12 legal brief signed by her and other attorneys that a decision in favor of 303 Creative boils down to a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment.
“Colorado and the United States still contend that CADA only regulates sales transactions,” the brief says. “But their cases do not apply because they involve non-expressive activities: selling BBQ, firing employees, restricting school attendance, limiting club memberships, and providing room access. Colorado’s own cases agree that the government may not use public-accommodation laws to affect a commercial actor’s speech.”
Pizer, however, pushed back strongly on the idea a decision in favor of 303 Creative would be as focused as Alliance Defending Freedom purports it would be, arguing it could open the door to widespread discrimination against LGBTQ people.
“One way to put it is art tends to be in the eye of the beholder,” Pizer said. “Is something of a craft, or is it art? I feel like I’m channeling Lily Tomlin. Remember ‘soup and art’? We have had an understanding that whether something is beautiful or not is not the determining factor about whether something is protected as artistic expression. There’s a legal test that recognizes if this is speech, whose speech is it, whose message is it? Would anyone who was hearing the speech or seeing the message understand it to be the message of the customer or of the merchants or craftsmen or business person?”
Despite the implications in the case for LGBTQ rights, 303 Creative may have supporters among LGBTQ people who consider themselves proponents of free speech.
One joint friend-of-the-court brief before the Supreme Court, written by Dale Carpenter, a law professor at Southern Methodist University who’s written in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment legal scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues the case is an opportunity to affirm the First Amendment applies to goods and services that are uniquely expressive.
“Distinguishing expressive from non-expressive products in some contexts might be hard, but the Tenth Circuit agreed that Smith’s product does not present a hard case,” the brief says. “Yet that court (and Colorado) declined to recognize any exemption for products constituting speech. The Tenth Circuit has effectively recognized a state interest in subjecting the creation of speech itself to antidiscrimination laws.”
Oral arguments in the case aren’t yet set, but may be announced soon. Set to defend the state of Colorado and enforcement of its non-discrimination law in the case is Colorado Solicitor General Eric Reuel Olson. Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would grant the request to the U.S. solicitor general to present arguments before the justices on behalf of the Biden administration.
With a 6-3 conservative majority on the court that has recently scrapped the super-precedent guaranteeing the right to abortion, supporters of LGBTQ rights may think the outcome of the case is all but lost, especially amid widespread fears same-sex marriage would be next on the chopping block. After the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against 303 Creative in the lawsuit, the simple action by the Supreme Court to grant review in the lawsuit suggests they are primed to issue a reversal and rule in favor of the company.
Pizer, acknowledging the call to action issued by LGBTQ groups in the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, conceded the current Supreme Court issuing the ruling in this case is “a terrifying prospect,” but cautioned the issue isn’t so much the makeup of the court but whether or not justices will continue down the path of abolishing case law.
“I think the question that we’re facing with respect to all of the cases or at least many of the cases that are in front of the court right now, is whether this court is going to continue on this radical sort of wrecking ball to the edifice of settled law and seemingly a goal of setting up whole new structures of what our basic legal principles are going to be. Are we going to have another term of that?” Pizer said. “And if so, that’s terrifying.”
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman, named president of Human Rights Campaign
Progressive activist a veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund
Kelley Robinson, a Black, queer woman and veteran of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, is to become the next president of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s leading LGBTQ group announced on Tuesday.
Robinson is set to become the ninth president of the Human Rights Campaign after having served as executive director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund and more than 12 years of experience as a leader in the progressive movement. She’ll be the first Black, queer woman to serve in that role.
“I’m honored and ready to lead HRC — and our more than three million member-advocates — as we continue working to achieve equality and liberation for all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer people,” Robinson said. “This is a pivotal moment in our movement for equality for LGBTQ+ people. We, particularly our trans and BIPOC communities, are quite literally in the fight for our lives and facing unprecedented threats that seek to destroy us.”
The next Human Rights Campaign president is named as Democrats are performing well in polls in the mid-term elections after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving an opening for the LGBTQ group to play a key role amid fears LGBTQ rights are next on the chopping block.
“The overturning of Roe v. Wade reminds us we are just one Supreme Court decision away from losing fundamental freedoms including the freedom to marry, voting rights, and privacy,” Robinson said. “We are facing a generational opportunity to rise to these challenges and create real, sustainable change. I believe that working together this change is possible right now. This next chapter of the Human Rights Campaign is about getting to freedom and liberation without any exceptions — and today I am making a promise and commitment to carry this work forward.”
The Human Rights Campaign announces its next president after a nearly year-long search process after the board of directors terminated its former president Alphonso David when he was ensnared in the sexual misconduct scandal that led former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to resign. David has denied wrongdoing and filed a lawsuit against the LGBTQ group alleging racial discrimination.