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Their Own Worst Enemies?

As the gay rights bill goes down to yet another defeat, its chief supporters start pinning the blame on each other.

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By Ben Joravsky

It's been three months since the gay-rights bill was defeated in the state house, and its supporters are still trying to figure out what went wrong. State representative Larry McKeon says the bill lost because the Republican Party is filled with wimpy hypocrites who allow themselves to be pushed around by right-wing gay bashers. Rick Garcia, chief strategist for the bill, says it lost because McKeon, the state's only openly gay legislator, outed the siblings of three Republican legislators.

Their argument has turned nasty and could lead to a major rift, with Garcia, political director of the Illinois Federation for Human Rights, a leading gay-rights group, backing a candidate against McKeon in next March's primary. Not surprisingly, allies of the two are trying to get them to make peace. "This is a family feud," says Jim Snyder, a north-side independent activist. "Families feud all the time, and then they make up. Or they better make up. Because I'm telling you right now, whoever runs the Christian Coalition is laughing his ass off."

At the heart of the dispute is a bill that's been around in one form or another for almost 20 years, though it passed the house only once, in 1993, and has never passed the senate. To north-siders, it seems a fairly innocuous proposal: it would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But down in Springfield that's pretty hot stuff, generating intense lobbying, theatrical rhetoric, and bitter partisan debate.

On one side are gay activists such as McKeon and Illinois Federation cofounders Garcia and Art Johnston. On the other are leaders of the right who liken homosexuality to a curable disease and predict various disasters--molested children, higher insurance rates, the annihilation of family values--should the bill pass. "It is beyond logical explanation why any sensible person would want to involve themselves with a group that is defined by the sex they perform," reads one lobbying letter sent to legislators by Jack Roeser of the Family Taxpayers' Network. "When that sex act involves inserting their genitals into excrement, the unsanitary aspects add to a normal person's disgust."

In the middle are the mushy mainstream Republicans and Democrats. Bill supporters have been wheeling and dealing and vote swapping and backslapping. In this last go-around, for instance, McKeon and three other lakefront representatives--Sara Feigenholtz, Julie Hamos, and Carol Ronen--negotiated with Rosemont mayor Don Stephens, promising to swap votes for a suburban gambling casino if the mayor could get a few Republican legislators to vote for gay rights.

In the past such maneuvers have been countered by the right, which threatened to challenge any Republican incumbent who dared vote for gay rights. But this time the bill had been endorsed by House Speaker Michael Madigan, Governor George Ryan, and other leaders from both parties, and so it looked as if it might pass.

It came up for a vote on March 22. "We need 60 votes to pass, and we make it to 59," says Garcia. "And that's where it stuck. We just couldn't get that last vote."

Ten Republicans voted for it, and 20 Democrats voted against it. Still, Garcia had hope. According to the house's arcane rules, they had more than enough votes to bring the bill back for a second vote without having to steer it through committee. Supporters planned to bring the bill up for another vote on March 24, and the plan was to flood the general assembly with lobbyists in order to reach the magic number of 60.

"In politics, it's all about winning," says Garcia. "You can't take it personal."

But McKeon, the bill's chief sponsor, had taken the loss hard. He was tired of the duplicity, the flip-flopping, and the horse-trading. Why, he wondered, should Republican moderates have to be bribed into voting against discrimination? It angered him that some Republicans privately told him they supported his goal and then publicly voted against it, particularly since he didn't believe they were risking their seats. No suburban Republican had ever lost after voting for gay rights. It just wasn't a hot issue in Lake, Cook, or even Du Page county.

"One legislator told me he would vote for it no matter what, even if he lost his seat," says McKeon. "He said it was the right thing to do, because his brother's gay. Then he was seen on the floor talking to me, and the Republican leadership came after him--and he flipped his vote. He told me that the leadership had threatened to run someone against him in the primary. When I asked him about his brother, he said, 'Oh, my brother lives in Chicago. He's protected by their ordinance.'

"I was frustrated and upset. I'd seen it going on for too long. Two years ago [house Republican leader] Lee Daniels pulled three votes from the floor on the bill. I met with Daniels, and he told me this is not about social justice or doing the right thing. This is about taking back the house. He told me that his base was the religious right. He said, 'Your boss, Mike Madigan, would do the same thing.'"

In other words, the Republican leadership was pandering to the far right's hatred for gays. "When you look at the agenda of the far right, we're one of the two big money raisers," says McKeon. "Abortion and gay rights are what they use to stir the base and raise a ton of money."

McKeon says he lost his cool. Soon after the vote was taken, he went to the press section and told reporters the bill would have passed had the three Republican legislators with gay siblings voted for it. He also named the legislators. His comments were reported in several newspapers, none of which identified the legislators. "It was essentially a human response to public circumstances," says Snyder. "The very next day a Republican legislator called another Republican legislator a prick. These things happen. People get over them."

But this wasn't so easy to get over. Garcia and other strategists were outraged. For starters, they note that Republicans don't have a lock on hypocrisy and cowardice. "Hypocrisy hits both ways," says Garcia. "In my mind there's no difference between most Democrats and Republicans. There's only one party--the party of self-preservation. Legislators in this party will vote to keep their seats. Give somebody from Marion, Illinois--which is, by the way, Glenn Poshard's hometown--the north-lakefront constituency, and he will be a cosponsor of our bill. Put one of the city Democrats down in Marion, and they'll vote against it."

Then there was the matter of the tactics McKeon had used. By outing people, he'd embarrassed the bill's supporters, angered opponents, and set back his cause. "Let me get this straight--we're all supposed to be surprised 'cause Springfield's filled with hypocrites?" says Garcia. "Please. Call me cynical and jaded, but being a hypocrite is a prerequisite for running for public office. There are those who run around saying that what Larry did was honorable since he exposed hypocrisy, but I disagree. This is not a masturbatory exercise. I wouldn't do this work if I thought this was a major circle jerk. I'm doing this because I think we can win. Our role is to pass legislation--it isn't to take the high moral ground. Yeah, Larry exposed hypocrisy. But the reality is, you can't give your opposition any tools to use against us. You can't give them wiggle room to get off. And Larry handed the opposition a way to keep this bill from coming up again."

Instead of being recalled on March 24, the bill was buried. "If we called it again, some of our weak supporters would have pulled their votes," says Garcia. "It was too controversial, it was too hot, people were really pissed off. I happened to be in a restaurant when Lee Daniels came in. He ranted about Larry. He said that piece of shit's bill will never pass. Larry had embarrassed his members.

"Look, I think some of these representatives are slime. But our job is to get legislation passed. They don't need to love the legislation we propose. They just need to push the green buttons at the same time."

Garcia concedes that without activists who play rough, gay-rights lobbyists can come across as beggars, pleading for legislators to do the right thing. "But it's not my role--and it shouldn't be Larry's--to play tough cop," he says. "If you want to take the high moral ground, then you shouldn't be in the house. You should be a member of ACT-UP. I used to be a street activist. Now I have to keep doors open. I want to be able to say to a representative, 'Do you want to have this bad person come in and piss on your rug, or do you want to deal with someone nice like me?'

"The whole issue of outing is a lot bigger than this vote. It's very controversial in the gay and lesbian community. If outing is wrong when it's used against us, is it right for us to use it? That's a whole other issue. The real issue is whether it works. Because if I thought it worked, I'd be out there with a list of all the closeted representatives and senators and all their closeted aides."

In the aftermath, things have got nasty and complicated. Garcia suspects that McKeon threw a fit because he'd been supplanted by Feigenholtz, Hamos, and Ronen in the negotiations with Mayor Stephens. McKeon contends that Feigenholtz had betrayed the cause by telling him she would join his efforts to swap votes with Stephens only if McKeon talked Snyder, a close friend and ally, out of challenging her in next year's Democratic primary. When McKeon turned her down, she and the other two lakefront independents made a deal with Stephens without him. McKeon felt humiliated, felt his role as chief backer of the gay-rights bill had been diminished. He blamed Garcia for engineering their end run and went so far as to propose a rival statewide gay-rights advocacy group. Things got even meaner when both men called their friends in the press hoping to spread nasty rumors about each other.

Where this will end is anyone's guess. Snyder says he'll probably run against Feigenholtz, which means Garcia will have to decide whether to support an openly gay candidate over a progressive incumbent who supports gay causes. Garcia must also decide if he'll back McKeon or get behind a challenger put up by committeeman Richard Mell or Ed Kelly. As far-fetched as that proposition once might have seemed, it's no longer unimaginable. Garcia says the cause is greater than any one person, and right now he blames McKeon for setting back the cause. Garcia also says he won't endorse McKeon for reelection unless McKeon apologizes for all the nasty things he's said.

Meanwhile Snyder is running around trying to patch things up, and the Republican right is continuing to lobby against gay rights. McKeon is willing to say this about the outing: "What I did was wrong, but it's history. Now let's move on."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.

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