Last Wednesday night at 7:20 was a bad time to call Randal Beach on his cell phone. "I'm watching Kathleen and Jindal debate gay rights!" Beach answered gruffly, sounding incredulous that anyone should call at such a moment.
It takes a lot to ruffle Beach, a lawyer whose passion for political and legal debate is matched only by his love of LSU football. On Nov. 5, however, news of Mayor Ray Nagin's endorsement of Bobby Jindal for governor went beyond ruffling. As soon as he learned of the endorsement, Beach decided to resign as chair of the Mayor's Advisory Committee (MAC) on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues. When he called the six other members of the committee, they told him that they had made the same decision. The entire committee resigned en masse the following day, an event that prompted mention in national media, including The New York Times. Emails flew. A few suggested starting a gay travel boycott of New Orleans -- something that none of those resigning from the mayor's committee would assent to.
"After enduring eight years of a Governor who refused to meet with our community leaders, it is now apparent that his protégé and hand-picked successor would, if elected, follow his policies of exclusion," wrote Beach in the group's letter of resignation. "It is unconscionable and incomprehensible to us that the Mayor of Louisiana's most richly diverse city would not only condone candidate Jindal's actions, but would support his exclusionary campaign with an endorsement."
The reason for the resignation was not Jindal's politics, Beach insists. "Our problem was that this man refused to meet with us. Had he met with us, we could not have faulted the mayor."
During the campaign, Jindal declined to meet with members of the Louisiana League for Equality, an umbrella group of GLBT political organizations from around the state that coordinates efforts to pass legislation and also reviews candidates for office. The league structure makes the process easier for candidates, says Christopher Daigle, a political adviser to the Lesbian and Gay Political Action Committee (LAGPAC).
As a mayoral committee, the MAC was not member of the league. Several of the committee's members, however, were also active in LAGPAC, Louisiana PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), or LEGAL (Louisiana Electorate of Gays and Lesbians), all of which are part of the umbrella organization and were active in vetting candidates.
The League kept a painstaking account of efforts to contact Jindal. Two invitations to meet with the League, faxed to Jindal's campaign headquarters on Aug. 26 and Sept. 9, went unanswered, as did more than eight phone calls to campaign manager Phillip Stutts and scheduling manager Jamie Tanner. On Sept. 25, League chairman Joe Traigle confronted Jindal face-to-face at a debate at Tulane University and asked if the candidate would meet with the League. "I would be glad to meet with you after the election," Jindal replied, according to Traigle.
Trey Williams, who served as press secretary for Jindal's campaign, said before the election last week that Jindal would be a governor for "all Louisianians," but that the campaign didn't have time to meet with the Louisiana League for Equality. "We've had requests for hundreds of special-interest groups to meet with them in the last few months," he said. "Unfortunately, we have a limited amount of time and it simply isn't possible to meet with everyone. It's just impossible."
Asked whether the mayor's advisors weren't giving up power by resigning, Rev. Nicholas Romans, the lone Nagin appointee to the now-resigned MAC, laughed. "Clearly we're not," said Romans. Beach agrees. "Do you seriously think," Beach asks, "that had Ray Nagin said, 'Bobby, I'm for you, but you need to meet with these representatives from my constituency first,' that he would have refused?"
That the mayor of New Orleans even has a advisory committee on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues came as a surprise to many New Orleanians. The Sidney Barthelemy administration first set up a committee to address gay issues -- but it had pretty well ceased activity by the time Barthelemy left office. In return for broad support from New Orleans' GLBT voters, then-mayoral candidate Marc Morial pledged to set up a new committee to advise him on matters of concern to the community. The committee that he instituted in 1995, early in his first administration, focused primarily on civil rights. When Nagin was elected, he agreed to keep the existing committee in place for six months. In fact, the committee persisted into Nagin's second year with the addition of only one member, prompting some criticism that he was neglecting it.
For Beach, who was part of the first committee appointed by Morial, being counted as a gay man was at the heart of his political involvement in New Orleans. A native of Shreveport, Beach was always what his father called "a joiner." He participated in student government, then went on to run as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention when he was 22. (He made it when he was 26.) As both a lobbyist and as a law student, he hid the fact that he was gay.
"I wasn't out, but I didn't lie," Beach recalls. He stayed that way during a seven-year stint with the East Baton Rouge Parish Attorney's office, then as a member of Baton Rouge mayor Pat Screen's staff, where he ultimately became the mayor's chief administrative officer. When Screen left office in 1988, Beach made the decision to enter private practice in New Orleans -- and to come out of the closet. Three years later, when Insurance Commissioner Jim Brown asked Beach to join his staff, Beach said that he wouldn't hide the fact that he was gay to take a government position. "He said, 'You shouldn't have to,'" Beach says. He eventually rose to the position of deputy commissioner, becoming one of the most powerful gay men in Louisiana state government before leaving Brown's office in 1994.
"In January of 1995, I made the decision that my life was completely in my own hands and I made a decision to devote a great deal of my time to fighting for what I believe," says Beach. "That summer, the mayor appointed me to the Mayor's Advisory Committee."
Beach looks back with pride at the committee's accomplishments under Morial. So does Toni Pizanie, a longtime political activist and columnist for Ambush magazine, who joined the MAC shortly after Beach. It was that early MAC that asked Morial to extend health benefits to same-sex domestic partners, a measure that the city council approved in 1997. The city's human rights ordinance was also amended to include discrimination on the basis of "gender identity" -- which refers to people outside conventional gender norms, such as being in the middle of a transition from one sex to another. The MAC urged the mayor to support hate-crime legislation at the state level, making Louisiana the second state in the South with a hate-crime law. At the prompting of MAC members, Morial also supported efforts to repeal the state sodomy law. LEGAL brought the 1994 case to repeal the sodomy law; the law was upheld by the state's Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal in November 2002 but was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court decision last spring in Lawrence vs. Texas, which made consensual homosexual activity in private legal.
The MAC was also able to enlist Morial's support in keeping the HIV Outpatient Clinic in New Orleans running smoothly after a missed deadline threatened Medicaid reimbursements to the clinic. The HIV Outpatient Clinic, or "HOP," is the largest outpatient facility for AIDS and HIV-positive patients in the state.
Morial's ease with the GLBT community made him a tough act to follow, say activists. "He was very open-minded," Pizanie says, "very educated, very clear about what he thought about discrimination." Beach agrees: "With Morial, we created our own role. Marc wanted us to tell him what we wanted."
Rather than consulting with the MAC, Beach and other former MAC members say, the Nagin administration has presented the group with tasks, like preparing for Southern Decadence. The now-resigned members say they've only had one face-to-face meeting with Nagin. The administration counters by saying that Larry Bagneris, the mayor's liaison, attends practically every meeting and conveys the committee's concerns to the mayor. Nagin spokesman Patrick Evans also says the mayor has made a point of appearing at GLBT community events: at this year's Gay Pride celebration in Armstrong Park, Nagin walked from booth to booth and visited with festival-goers. Both the mayor and his wife -- along with key staff members and their families -- attended Christmas celebrations at well-known gay bars Oz and the Bourbon Pub.
"I challenge anyone to prove that this mayor and this administration is intolerant," says Evans. "To use a quote from Mike Tyson, 'That's ludiquous.'"
It's a hot time politically for GLBT issues. A "safe schools" act requiring schools to have a policy for dealing with bullying was withdrawn by state Rep. Cedric Richmond in June, after state legislators removed language specifying protection for students or groups based on sexual orientation and gender identity. A lawsuit filed against the city in July alleges that the city's domestic-partnership benefits policy violates state laws upholding traditional marriage. Funding for the HIV Outpatient Clinic is due to be reviewed as part of the Charity system overhaul next year. Rev. Grant Storms' success at gaining passage of a statewide law prohibiting public sex "for the purpose of drawing a crowd" in advance of Southern Decadence this year dismayed many in the community.
Bagneris, who was appointed by Morial but who has come to the fore as Nagin's point man on GLBT issues, says nobody is to blame in the flak over Nagin's endorsement of Jindal. "I thought the gay folks spoke quite eloquently in saying, 'If you won't listen to us, we quit,' but I thought the mayor also spoke eloquently," says Bagneris. "I applaud both groups, and that's coming from my heart."
The day the resignations hit the news, Bagneris says, he received 15 inquiries from people interested in replacing the advisors who had left. Among the letters was a note from a group of Log Cabin Republicans saying that the former MAC had never represented their concerns. Resumes and phone calls have continued to come in since, Bagneris says. The mayor expects to present final appointments to the city council within two weeks.
The new Mayor's Advisory Committee will consist of representatives from nine groups, says Evans: one each from the business and religious communities, one representative of gay entertainment businesses, one representative each from the Democratic and Republican parties, one organizer apiece from the Southern Decadence and Gay Pride celebrations, one woman, and one representative from the transgendered community. The committee that resigned included black and white members, one transgendered female, a mix of lesbians and gay men, a Protestant minister and an Anglican priest. The administration thinks the revised structure will bring a broader range of community members to the table -- but Beach doesn't see much difference. "Everything in that formula was represented in our group except for a gay Republican," he says.
The new group will take up where the previous group left off, says Bagneris, with the mission of developing the GLBT contribution to the city's economic growth. Two priorities will be to develop Gay Pride into a regional celebration and to continue to develop Southern Decadence into a major tourism event. The third effort is the gathering of the International Network of Lesbian and Gay Officials (INGLO), scheduled to be held in the city next November. The recent resignations have not jeopardized the event, Bagneris says.
Several studies have suggested that the more gay-tolerant a community is, the more likely it is to attract the types who drive high-tech corporations. The cover story of the October 2003 Governing magazine drives home the point that corporations favor gay-tolerant locations. The fact that 335 of the Fortune 500 companies ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and 202 offer domestic-partner benefits, suggests that GLBT issues matter to successful corporations.
By resigning, Beach says, he hopes that the MAC sent the message that the city's GLBT community can't be taken for granted. Bagneris, for his part, calls the city an oasis -- largely due to the former members of the MAC. "The protections are on the books in the city of New Orleans," says Bagneris. "These people are leaving a legacy." As for the economic benefits of being a gay-friendly city, he's seen it firsthand. "I've dealt with groups at the convention center who say, 'We won't deal with the city unless you prove you don't discriminate,'" Bagneris says. "I've had four calls this week about conventions. They want assurance. They won't come to town unless we can show them we have these policies."
Members of the now-departed MAC applaud Nagin for his economic initiatives, which have included focus groups on gay and lesbian tourism and a concerted effort to reach out to gay and lesbian travelers though advertising and special promotions. If there's one legacy they value more than any other, though, it's the sensitivity training on GLBT issues that they introduced into the police academy's training. Since 1994, members of the Mayor's MAC have served as volunteer instructors at the academy, giving cadets a two-hour crash course in everything from offensive language to AIDS transmission. In 2001, instructors even took the department's sergeants and lieutenants through a remedial session.
Beach is still a member of LAGPAC and plans to remain active in gay politics. He wishes the mayor's new advisers well and says he hopes the new committee will be an effective one. But he doesn't regret his decision to resign. "I don't think there's a homophobic bone in Ray Nagin's body," Beach says. "I just don't think he understands the implications of tacit assent to discrimination."
- Donn Young
- "Do you seriously think," asks Randal Beach (pictured), "that had Ray Nagin said, 'Bobby, I'm for you, but you need to meet with these representatives from my constituency first,' that he would have refused?"