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Will Dallas gays change the face of city politics?

In 1979, there was a talent hunt of sorts within the Dallas gay community. It wasn’t a casting for a “Mr. Oak Lawn”; it was a dead-serious search for a plaintiff to challenge the constitutionality of Section 21. 06 of the Texas Penal Code. The “homosexual conduct” statute outlawed any “deviate sexual intercourse with an individual of the same sex. ” Though rarely enforced and punishable by a maximum $200 fine, 21. 06 was often cited as grounds for discrimination against gays. They wanted it off the books.

Enter Donald F. Baker, son of an Assembly of God minister, active Democrat, former Dallas schoolteacher with a master’s degree from SMU. Thirty-two-year-old Baker was articulate, a conservative dresser, a devout Christian, a former Navy man-and a practicing homosexual. Under statute 21. 06, he was also a criminal.

Represented by attorney James C. Barber, Baker filed suit against District Attorney Henry Wade, City Attorney Lee Holt and all city, county and state district attorneys throughout Texas. On August 17, 1982, an opinion was rendered by U. S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer. Section 21. 06 was determined to hinder the right of privacy between consenting adults-and was declared unconstitutional.

Baker vs. Wade was a watershed in the local gay political movement-a movement that is still embryonic in some ways but one that has gathered significant momentum during the past five years. Today, gay activists are politically astute, economically well-grounded and committed to a steady infiltration of the political system from the grass-roots level up. They count among their “friends” a majority of current City Council members and more than a handful of state-level politicians.

The past 10 years have seen the growth of a “gay ghetto” in Oak Lawn, the area of town with the highest concentration of Dallas’ estimated 90, 000 gays. Oak Lawn has always attracted more than a proportionate share of gays, but today it is that community’s business, recreational and residential heart. Gay leaders attribute the phenomenal growth of gay-related community groups, businesses, restaurants and bars-which have tripled in number in five years-to the growth of “gay pride. ” As social bans are eased, more and more individuals are coming to terms with their homosexuality and choosing to live among their own. And more gays “coming out” has meant more gays available for political mobilization. To some, the crescendo of the gay voice has the ring of justice long overdue. To others, the cacophony of issues sounds a disastrous alarm.

SEVEN YEARS ago, the Dallas Gay Political Caucus was born in an Oak Lawn living room. The 20 gay men who assembled there did so in an attempt to offer mutual encouragement and support. In the process, they outlined a series of goals for their organization: (1) educate the public about homosexuality and thereby create an atmosphere of tolerance and respect; (2) seek legal and governmental reform on issues that discriminate against gays; and (3) establish gay community services. Goals 1 and 3 were civic objectives to be accomplished within the community. Goal 2 required a political consciousness-raising and the marshaling of a voting bloc.

On the recent anniversary of that first meeting in 1976, current president Mike Stewart regretted to report that not one goal was securely in place -although significant progress has been made on each. That bittersweet message is the crux of the local gay community’s status. Each political victory has had a political defeat at its heels. Each step forward has been stalked by a potentially crippling step back.

The growth of gay political activism in Dallas dates to 1979, with the launching of a clever, deliberate plan to impact the 1980 elections. Project 80, masterminded by Baker, had as its eventual goal the passage of a gay-rights resolution at the state Democratic convention. Baker had been active in partisan politics for some time, and he realized that few people paid attention to political maneuvering at the precinct level. By mobilizing other gay activists, the caucus was able to elect eight gays to precinct chairs, raise $5, 000 for political contributions and register some 1, 500 new voters. Twenty-nine homosexual delegates from Dallas went on to the state convention, where -united with gays from Houston, San Antonio and Austin -they mounted an impressive show of strength. All in all, some 100 gay delegates (out of a total of 3, 700 delegates) pushed hard for a resolution calling for the repeal of Texas’ homosexual conduct laws.

Before 1980, motions for gay rights were inevitably ground down in the backroom obscurity of committee. But this time, the repeal resolution passed committee 20 to eight. It was narrowly defeated on the floor in a roll-call vote.

In 1982, with two years’ experience and an even greater show of strength, the gays took their cause to the convention again. The resolution carried.

The passage of a state Democratic gay rights motion and Judge Buchmeyer’s decision declaring statute 21. 06 unconstitutional were victories for Texas’ gay communities. There remains an ongoing, uphill struggle for recognition and “fair treatment” in all facets of life. Not the least of the gays’ problems is convincing the “straight” community that the gay community is okay.

“Before there can be anti-discrimination ordinances, before there can be appointments to city boards and commissions, ” says one gay who asked for anonymity, “conservative Dallas has to see that we’re not the vile, venomous creatures they imagine.”

“Conservative Dallas” has been a challenge for those gays with more militant tendencies. But wisely, gay leaders have realized that the only way to gain acceptance here is to work within the system. “Dallas is a city that is run on a level of business first, ” says Mike Stewart, who presides over what was formerly the Dallas Gay Political Caucus (DGPC), now renamed the Dallas Gay Alliance. “The caliber of our members is inscrutable, ” he says. “On our board we have well-placed managers, entrepreneurs, officers of major corporations, ad executives and educators. In our membership of 600 active members, we have many doctors, attorneys and financiers. ” Gay Alliance leaders, Stewart says, apply their management skills to running a tight, disciplined ship.

Getting into the mainstream of the Dallas system has been an avowed political strategy of the gays, but it evolved as a natural extension of what is generally a pretty conservative group. “Were it not for gay issues (which tend to be taken on by liberals), most of our members would fall squarely to the right of the center line, ” Stewart says. “We’ve kept a much lower profile than the ’Coast’ gays, but 1 think we’ve been more effective. Our progress is probably more secure.”

A local minister, who is still in the closet when it comes to the church, agrees: “If all the queens were to dress up in drag and parade down the center of Cedar Springs, it would set the cause back five years.”

To infiltrate the system, however subtly, the gays must have allies in the right places. Making sure that candidates who are friendly to the gay community get elected may be the Alliance’s most important political task. Since its inception, the gay caucus has invited any candidate running for local office to seek its endorsement by first responding to a questionnaire. If the candidate answers satisfactorily, he or she is invited to a screening interview, where the issues are discussed in detail. Whether or not a candidate receives gay backing is dependent solely on his or her support of the gay cause.

As recently as two years ago, a gay endorsement was not necessarily considered a political plus. Stewart says, “The first few years we were around, candidates largely ignored us, although a few would say they supported us but couldn’t do so publicly.”

As gay activists continue to hone their political skills, there is evidence that those days are gone. In the April City Council elections, 21 of 50 candidates sought the group’s endorsement. That’s 25 percent more than in 1981 and a threefold increase over 1979.

The number of gay endorsements at the state level also has increased. Allan Calkin, a Democratic activist and a professor at Richland College, says that in 1978 and 1980 virtually no statewide candidate sought the backing of the DGPC. But in 1982, many candidates courted the gay vote, touted it openly and won. Among them were Jim Hightower, Ann Richards, Bill Hobby, Gary Morrow and Bob Bullock. “Already we’re beginning to see people throw their hats in the ring for 1984, ” Calkin says. “They’re communicating privately with us now to establish support. “

Quantifying the size, the character and the power of the gay bloc in Dallas is a difficult task. There’s no slot for sexual preference on either the census or voter registration forms. “Since the DGPC was formed, we have registered some 10, 000 new voters, ” Stewart says, “and there are 4, 000 who choose to receive our political mailings. ” Beyond that, gay leaders are hard pressed to assess their group’s size. As one leader put it: “We can’t exactly say, ’Okay, tomorrow morning every homosexual in Dallas come out of your door wearing a purple lambda [the Greek symbol of gay love]. ’ There are gays throughout the power structure. We just don’t know who all of them are.”

Guesstimates of the number of gay voters inevitably fall back on Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s assertion that one in 10 males and one in 15 to 20 females is gay. With the City of Dallas’ population currently pegged at 938, 250, it can be presumed that 93, 825 of its citizens are gay. But do homosexuals-both those who have “come out” and those who have not -vote as individuals, or do they vote as a bloc?

“The Alliance tries to emphasize the importance of voting as a bloc, ” says activist Bill Nelson. “And when it comes to social issues, I’d say they do. But on economic issues, I think it’s fair to assume that gays vote in their own self-interests like everybody else.”

Since gays first became politically active five or six years ago, they have backed a number of ideologically diverse campaigns. The Alliance was an active force in the passage of Parkland Hospital’s bond drive three years ago, and it voted to support a referendum on behalf of police and firefighters -groups that recently have been vocal adversaries of gays.

The conservative character of the community was underscored by its role in the Tea Party tax referendum in January 1981. Working alongside the city establishment, gay volunteers fought diligently to defeat the rally to put a ceiling on city taxes. Says Jean Wicker, who ran the opposition’s East Dallas campaign office, “Gays were certainly opposed to the tax proposal. There was an unusually diverse alignment of groups working for SOS [the opponent group’s name], and they worked as hard as anyone else.”

Calkin believes that the community is beginning to reckon seriously with the gay bloc. And for good reason: Gays, Calkin says, can deliver votes. First, he says, if you accept Kinsey’s figures and add to that the fact that gays tend to gravitate to metropolitan areas, it can be assumed that homosexuals account for well over 10 percent of the Dallas population. While fewer in number than the estimated 112, 500 His-panics and 270, 000 blacks, Calkin contends that gays are much more effective politically than the minorities that politicians have been courting for years. “It’s our judgment that gays have a higher incidence of voter registration and a higher voter turnout than either blacks or His-panics. We believe that there are as many gays as ethnics at the polls.”

The gay community is “much more politically aware than the average man on the street, ” says Don Ritz, managing editor of the Dallas/Fort Worth Gay News. “I think we proved that in the heavily gay-populated Districts 2 and 5. Voter turnout was twice that of other districts citywide.”

While gay activists are convinced that their endorsement can help a politician win, they admit that, even today, some candidates prefer not to flaunt the fact that the gays are on their side. Says Calkin, “We leave it up to them whether to announce our endorsement or not.”

If each election year brings more office-seekers to the gay community’s door, each election has its share of triumphs and defeats. In fact, this April the gay community was dealt a rather stunning blow in the District 2 defeat of Ricardo Medrano, who, in Calkin’s words, has been “the best friend the gays have ever had.”

The contest between Medrano and political ingénue Paul Fielding was one of the most intense -and the nastiest -of all council races last spring. In Fielding’s words, it was “tainted with smear tactics from Day One. ” Fielding’s victory has been the subject of much after-the-fact speculation. For one thing, gay leaders have questioned their “tenuous coalition” with the blacks, accusing them of deserting Medrano and “selling them down the river” on runoff night. “What really happened with Medrano and the blacks is that in a meeting of West Dallas minority leaders, Medrano refused to guarantee to back a black candidate in 1985, ” says Calkin, who attended that meeting. “Also, the Progressive Voter’s League endorsed Medrano two-to-one, but the black leadership refused to put Medrano’s name on the slate card.”

If Fielding managed to pull off his victory with a “coalition of bigots and blacks, ” as one gay leader observed, it was, in personal terms, a costly win. Throughout the campaign there were rumors that Fielding was gay -that he had simply looked hard at the demographics of his district and made the decision to run as a “straight.”

Fielding’s entry into the District 2 race caused a furor in the gay community because of accounts that he had appeared before the Alliance screening committee and had admitted that he was gay but said that he didn’t want the group’s endorsement because Medrano would use it against him in the campaign. A tape of that meeting, later leaked to a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, was the source of a story recounting the event, which was published in the News the day before the election.

Fielding was outraged that the story was published. For one thing, he says, Alliance president Mike Stewart personally assured him that the tape was for screening purposes only and would be destroyed once a candidate was endorsed. Fielding maintains that the tape was doctored to misrepresent the content of his appeal. He also called for Stewart’s resignation, charging that Stewart undermined the Alliance’s credibility with future candidates.

Stewart refutes Fielding’s charge. “Emotions and feelings were very strong in the District 2 race, ” he says, “and our support of Ricardo Medrano simply reflected our appreciation of his three-year record representing gay constituents. Recognized political analysts have demonstrated that other issues in the West Dallas and Walnut Hill areas decided the election. I trust Paul [Fielding] and I can work together on issues that directly affect the gay community, and specifically gay citizens in his district.”

Fielding mouths similar rhetoric but is quick to point out that this is a case of the gays not wielding the political power they say they possess. “1 think it’s significant that in the district thought to contain the second-largest concentration of gays, the candidate that ran without the endorsement of the Gay Alliance is the candidate that won.”

There was a similar brouhaha over the gay endorsement in District 5, where the largest community of gay-identified voters is said to be located. According to Stewart, candidate Rex Aymond sought the DGPC endorsement and found himself merely a backup to Craig Holcomb, the gays’ first choice. When Aymond and Holcomb squared off in a runoff, Aymond used the gay backing against his opponent as “proof” that Holcomb was not as conservative as he claimed. He lost, the gays believe, because of it. Says Calkin, “District 5 proved that tactics like gay baiting don’t work. “

The high-profile role played by gays in both districts 2 and 5 is proof that, for better or worse, their involvement is crucial to that area’s future political campaigns. Whether that influence will grow enough to make a difference on citywide and countywide elections remains to be seen. “For now, ” says political advisor Judy Bonner Amps, “any effect they have city-wide is canceled out by the resurgence of conservative pockets in North Dallas.”

Conspicuously absent from the gay slate in April was an endorsement for either Starke Taylor or Wes Wise. Though Taylor adamantly opposed the hiring of gays as police, neither candidate supported the idea. The police department’s bias against homosexuals has been a bone of contention with gays since 1981, when former Mayor Jack Evans was darn-near roasted for saying at a gay forum that he saw no problem with hiring gays as police. Since then, it was revealed that certain questions about homosexual orientation appear on a routine lie detector test, administered as part of the police-hiring process. Though gays have gone through the city manager’s office to determine the content of the questions, they’re getting a royal runa-round right now.

Bob Shaw, a spokesman for the police department, replied when asked to recant the official policy on the hiring of homosexuals, “We will hire no individual who knowingly commits a criminal offense under Texas law. ” It was Shaw’s understanding, he said, “that only part of the sodomy statute had been declared unconstitutional. ” He went on to say, “Our police chief, Billy Prince, has made his feelings known on the subject in an interview in the national press. As I recall, he’s quoted as saying, ’It was not Adam and John. It was Adam and Eve. ’ “

It’s unclear whether, under Judge Buch-meyer’s decision, the police department can continue to discriminate against gays. It will probably remain unclear until an individual puts it to a legal test. For now, the question is moot. As Bill Nelson, owner of Crossroads Market and an active force in gay politics says, “There aren’t exactly busloads of gays lining up to be cops. “

A city ordinance that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation falls into the realm of long-term gay policy goals. Austin is the only city in Texas with an equal-rights ordinance on the books – even Houston, where gay gains have been impressive, has buried its ordinance proposal in committee for years. Stewart says, “We probably have enough votes to get past the Council, but we know we could never win in a referendum.”

Nationwide, anti-discrimination ordinances have met with tough opposition. For one thing, there are those who argue that gays are not a recognizable minority; that theirs is a lifestyle preference incomparable to being born black or female. To guarantee the equal rights of those “who choose to engage in homosexual acts, ” so the argument goes, is tantamount to protecting the rights of drug abusers or Hari Krishnas.

Gays would disagree -especially with the term “lifestyle preference. ” Most homosexuals contend that no one chooses to be gay. “We choose to lead a gay lifestyle, ” Stewart says, “but we do not choose to be gay. “

Given their sexual “orientation, ” gays feel they are not treated fairly and equitably. “The loss of a job, housing or child custody on the basis of being gay is simply not defensible at this time, ” Stewart says.

Though it has never been an avowed goal of the Dallas gay community, the contemplation of a discrimination ordinance raises fears in the business world that a gay-hiring quota-affirmative action for homosexuals – would be an inevitable next step. Yet Stewart insists, “We’re not seeking preferential treatment. We’re only asking for equality. “

WITH THE elections behind us and discrimination issues at a standstill, gays find most of their political energy aimed at battling a new threat. Rising alarm over Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) -a mysterious, incurable, often fatal disease -has thrust the political struggle into the arena of public health. Since some researchers believe that AIDS is transmitted sexually among homosexual males, gay foes can point to a legitimate health concern. Says Jim Barber, “AIDS hysteria has fueled the kind of base prejudices that have existed for years. “

In February of this year, a group of Dallas citizens, fearful of the potential dangers of AIDS, began to launch what has become the most threatening attack on gays so far. With private funding and the legal expertise of Charles Bundren of Jackson, Walker, Winstead, Cantwell & Miller, the Dallas Doctors Against AIDS (DDAA) backed Potter County District Attorney Dan Hill in petitioning the Fifth Circuit Court in New Orleans to reconsider the verdict on statute 21. 06. Citing new medical evidence not available during the trial, the group asked the court in February for permission to file a “friend of the court” brief outlining its AIDS-related concerns. According to Barber, the motion was immediately contested by affidavits from AIDS researchers who questioned the link between making homosexuality a crime and curbing the spread of AIDS. One real concern, Barber says, is that tougher statutes will cause gays to go underground, making it even harder for public-health officials to track the disease. “One doctor, ” says Barber, “compared it to criminalizing hand-shaking during the flu season. “

On March 7, the “friend of the court” motion was denied. At this writing, attorneys on both sides await the court’s decision on whether or not to reopen the trial.

Simultaneous to the refiling of the 21. 06 appeal, a new bill to criminalize homosexuality far beyond the scope of the original statute was introduced in the Texas House by Republican Bill Ceverha of Richardson. House Bill 2138 called for the outlawing of any sexual contact outside male/ female intercourse and made it a felony to proposition someone if caught on a second offense. Charles Bundren, attorney for the DDAA, admits to assisting Ceverha in drafting the legislation, which died in committee at the close of the 1983 session in May.

In testimony to the committee considering House Bill 2138, the bill’s supporters presented their star medical witness, a Nebraska psychologist and self-styled expert on homosexuality. Dr. Paul Cameron. Cameron’s graphic descriptions of the dangers and depravity of homosexual acts have been widely quoted, arousing the ire of both gays and civil-rights groups. In one newspaper interview, Cameron made the statement, “Homosexuals’ diseases threaten the demise of Western civilization. “

The Dallas gay community was active in lobbying for the defeat of House Bill 2138, meeting individually with members of the Dallas delegation and working with statewide gay groups to influence other legislators. It was largely because of these well-coordinated efforts, Calkin believes, that the bill never made it to the floor.

The gay community shares its enemies’ concern for the increasing specter of AIDS, but it is adamantly at odds over how to fight the disease. Stewart says, “AIDS is a public-health issue, and it should be dealt with as a public-health issue. There are ways of dealing with AIDS other than legislating an entire segment of the population. ” Jerry Diggin, the gay appointee to the Human Services Commission, agrees: “One in five Americans has herpes, but there’s not a bill out there trying to get them to stop touching each other. “

What the AIDS-related struggle boils down to is whether or not homosexuals have a right to sexual privacy. It was this question that was at the core of Judge Buchmeyer’s decision on statute 21. 06. In his memorandum opinion, he noted that “21. 06 does not concern rape, sexual abuse by force, offenses involving minors or sexual conduct in public. Nor does it prohibit sodomy between a husband and wife or between an unmarried male and female. Instead, it condemns only homosexual conduct done in private between consenting adults. Accordingly, it is unconstitutional because it violates both the fundamental right of privacy and the right to equal protection of the laws guaranteed to the plaintiff [and other homosexuals] by the United States Constitution. “

The pursuit of freedom -sexual, social, legislative – is the ultimate gay cause. Gay political leaders say that their goals differ from those of other minorities’ in that gays ask only for equal -not privileged – rights. “We don’t want 2 percent of the city government to be gay, ” says one. “Nor are we asking for segregated schools for homosexual first-graders. Our people are already in positions of leadership and power. What we’re striving for is a social climate that allows each of them to stand up and say, ’I’m gay and I’m proud. ’ “

The trouble with that argument is that in other places-San Francisco, specifically-gay demands have reached far beyond a quest for tolerance. Conservative San Francisco politicians have all but bailed out, accusing the gay bloc of liberalizing the Bay City beyond control.

San Francisco is the undisputed leader in the gay-rights movement. It is one of the few cities that has elected openly gay politicians; its police force was the first in the nation to accept gay recruits. One factor in the ascent of gay power-there and elsewhere-is the economic clout that homosexuals are believed to possess. A survey by a “straight” marketing firm in LA discovered that the average gay household of 1. 4 persons had an income twice the national average. And since gays don’t normally have families to support, discretionary spending is exceptionally high. In California, gays have been able to channel their funds to effective political means.

Though New York and San Francisco are the prime seats of gay power, Texas is not far behind. Gays who are tuned into a national social network say that Houston and Dallas are considered gay “meccas, ” second only to Florida and the East and West coasts. The number of AIDS cases reported in Texas (26) is useful in bearing that out: The New York City area has seen the highest incidence of AIDS, followed by San Francisco, then Florida. Texas ranks fourth.

In its political viability, Houston’s gay community is about two years ahead of Dallas. Both cities have adopted strategies of entering the mainstream of the system and grass-roots infiltration of the political structure. Houston simply began its campaign a couple of years sooner. Several of Houston’s elected officials-including its mayor – have openly courted the gay vote. A conservative incumbent councilman who ran a few years ago on a platform opposing Montrose’s “oddwads and queers” was promptly voted out.

If Montrose and Oak Lawn are indeed gay meccas and the political and economic clout of gays continues to grow, Dallas may be in for a lesson in brotherly tolerance. The more that gays work to improve their image and the more accepted they become, the more openly homosexuality will be touted -in schools, in churches, in the medical realm and in politics. While it would be wrong to declare that the day has dawned, it may not be far off.

There’s no doubt that gays face an unenviable social bias that thwarts their progress. Attitudes toward gays can be compared to the deep-rooted prejudices against blacks 20 years ago. But, in some ways, homophobia strikes an even deeper chord. Kinsey would say that latent gay tendencies in many of us cause us to recoil when we openly view homosexuality. Gay opponents would argue that homosexuality goes against the very moral fiber of society-that it is an aberration of nature, looked upon by God as evil.

Whether or not the state has a right to legislate sexual conduct in private and whether or not gays are entitled to protection of equal rights under the law are philosophical questions that will rage for some time. But the ultimate resolution of gay issues has little to do with dogma. The ease with which gays are integrated into society hinges primarily upon the extent of theirpolitical success.

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