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Out Democrats and Republicans look to change politics from the inside

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In a lot of ways, the defeat in November for South Carolina's gays and lesbians was no surprise. The constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage (even though it's already illegal) was expected. But community leaders aren't looking back — they're looking ahead to future fights, hoping to position themselves so that the political might of the gay and lesbian community won't just be present, it will be unavoidable.

Prior to November, the focus was on educating straight people about the impact of the legislation on the gay and lesbian community. Now efforts are centered on getting the gay and lesbian community active in both the Democratic and Republican camps. Meanwhile, over at the College of Charleston, one of the nation's leading gay political organizers of the '80s is inspiring the next generation with a course on gay politics.

The Present

Patrick Sammon, president of the gay and lesbian Log Cabin Republicans, and Jo Wyrick, executive director of the gay and lesbian National Stonewall Democrats, spoke at recent meeting of the Alliance for Full Acceptance, a local gay advocacy and education group, about the importance of gays and lesbians getting inside each party's political machine.

There's a wealth of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) groups like AFFA and the Equality Coalition that focus on education and awareness campaigns while carefully avoiding association with a particular party.

"We are the only national Democratic LGBT organization," Wyrick says. "We are fiercely partisan. AFFA does a fabulous job in promoting cultural change, but they can't say, 'Don't vote for this guy, he's awful.' Which needs to be said."

Stonewall Democrats start at the local level with chapters that make their own decisions on a platform and endorsements. The group recognizes that the benchmarks a gay-friendly candidate has to meet in San Francisco will be different from those in Charleston.

"I'm not an expert on Charleston, you are the experts," Wyrick says.

A South Carolina Chapter of the Stonewall Democrats will hold its first meeting in Charleston in July, says Susie Prueter, outgoing board president of AFFA, who will be developing the group.

"So many LGBT folks are getting involved in the Democratic Party and getting a presence at the table," she says. "What we're trying to do is build some leverage and some clout."

While the local group may just be getting on its feet, the national group has had significant success in attracting attention from the Democratic Party, including some grant funding for get-out-the-vote efforts in 2006 and a sympathetic ear from many Congressional Democrats.

"It's now very difficult and very embarrassing for a Democrat on the hill to not talk to the LGBT community," Wyrick says.

Things aren't quite so easy for Wyrick's counterpart in the Republican Party. Though the U.S. House recently approved a hate crimes bill that protects gays and lesbians, it was quickly followed with a rebuke from the White House and a promised veto. It's one of many rebukes by the Republican leadership, but Sammon says the role of gay Republicans is more important than ever.

"Equality is impossible to achieve without Republican votes, particularly in red states like South Carolina," he says. "You can get angry about the voices of intolerance that are in the party, but that anger is best channeled by rolling up your sleeves and working to make the party better. We're never going to defend bigots, we're never going to make excuses for those who use our families as a wedge issue. But it's so critical to have people stand up in the party."

South Carolina's Log Cabin Republicans were already active in November, producing a radio campaign against the marriage amendment that garnered them a grassroots award by the national organization. Sammon says the priority for the Log Cabin Republicans is to return the party to the issues that unite them as Republicans — like limited government, controlled spending, tax cuts, etc.

"If you look back at the Contract with America in 1994, there was nothing in there about social issues," he says.

There are signs of progress for the gay and lesbian community, Sammon notes. Eight House Republicans who voted against the hate crimes bill last time voted for this one, bringing GOP support to 25. There are also successes on the state level (though obviously not in South Carolina), with civil union and partnership benefits making strong movement in Washington, Oregon, New Jersey and New Hampshire. And polls across the country support gays and lesbians on a host of issues.

The Past and the Future

This spring, the College of Charleston hosted a class on LGBT politics for the first time. The class was led by visiting assistant professor Tom Chorlton, one of the pioneers in gay politics in the early '80s, leading the National Association of Gay Democratic Clubs, the precursor to the Stonewall Democrats. The class was popular and will likely be offered every other or every third semester, depending on demand.

"It's a really good primer on how political change comes about," Chorlton says. The class first focuses on the time before the 1950s, "so students have some idea of how bleak things were back then."

The class then moves on to the Stonewall riots of the '60s, a defiant protest by gays and lesbians against the heavy-handed New York police that has galvanized a generation, and beyond to the modern battles raging in statehouses and in Washington.

"I thought I knew a lot about the subject, but I learned a lot more," says Nick Shalosky, a Conway native who just finished his freshman year at CofC.

In February, Shalosky started a blog on the gay rights movement and politics in South Carolina called OUTloud in South Carolina. Chorlton says that getting students involved in politics is one of the benefits of the course.

"I tell students that democracy is a participatory sport," he says. "A lot of times we have to own up to our own responsibilities."

That idea of involvement is at the root of what the Stonewall Democrats and the Log Cabin Republicans are doing.

"If we just show up, we know we're going to have a positive influence," Pewter says. "We just want to start discussions with candidates. We want to have a presence. Even if we disagree, we want to have those conversations."

Gays and lesbians, regardless of party affiliation, need to come out and share their lives with family, friends, neighbors, and elected leaders, Sammon says.

"It's about converting one heart and one mind at a time," he says. "The best way to do that is to tell the story of your life."

On the web:
The Log Cabin Republicans: sclogcabin.org
The Stonewall Democrats: scstonewall.org
The Alliance for Full Acceptance: affa-sc.org
The South Carolina Equality Coalition: scequality.org
OUTloud in South Carolina: outloudinsouthcarolina.blogspot.com

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