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Gay group opens convention, plans marches nationwide

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

By Jan Ackerman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With the lynching of gay activist Matt Shepard fresh on their minds, the nation's largest gay and lesbian organization is planning a national initiative to take gay rights to the heartlands of America.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force will unveil plans to conduct marches and demonstrations in March in state capitols across the nation at the group's 11th annual "Creating Change" Conference, which opens today at the Westin William Penn, Downtown.

The convention is expected to bring to the city 1,500 to 2,000 activists for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender movement from across the nation. It will continue through Sunday

Planning to attend are notables such as Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women; Virginia Apuzzo, assistant to the president for management and administration, the highest-ranking lesbian in the Clinton administration; and Linda Chavez-Thompson, a top official in the AFL-CIO.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Dan Cohen, who co-wrote a letter welcoming the group to Pittsburgh, hoped that in these times of combative sexual politics, there wouldn't be any demonstrations.

"I would think that Pittsburgh is a welcoming city, and I would hope they welcome this conference," said Cohen, co-sponsor of the city's 1990 gay and lesbian rights ordinance, which makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, housing and public accommodations.

The conference convenes at a time when President Clinton is calling for the enactment of national hate crimes legislation, when conservatives are mounting stronger opposition to gay rights than ever before and when the death of Shepard Oct. 12 in Wyoming alerted the nation.

The task force will bring to the convention several friends of Shepard, who will help launch the grassroots initiative and talk about their friend's death. The initiative, called Equality Begins at Home, will be a series of rallies and demonstrations to promote gay awareness from March 21 to 27. It will be the first time the task force has coordinated its efforts in each state and territory.

One of Shepard's friends attending will be Hauva Manookin, a 22-year-old gay activist at the University of Wyoming.

"He wanted to make change in the world," she said in a phone interview last week. "He believed in human rights. It would give me peace to think that even though it came at the ultimate price, that he did accomplish that."

Manookin said the impact of Shepard's death will be felt more nationwide than in Wyoming. She said the death initially shocked the campus and community, but now, the majority of people will return to their old views.

"In a lot of ways, the University of Wyoming will never forget this," said Manookin, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo. "In other ways they already have."

There will be plenty to talk about at the convention, including the results of last week's elections:

Bans on same-sex marriages were passed in Hawaii and Alaska. "We were very disappointed although not completely surprised," said Tracy Conaty, communications director for the task force. "We knew it would be tough."

Tammy Baldwin, a lesbian, was elected to Congress in Wisconsin. Conaty said Baldwin is the first openly gay or lesbian candidate to win a seat. Congressmen Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., revealed their sexual orientation after they had been in office, Conaty said.

Anti-discrimination ordinances were defeated in Fayetteville, Ark.; Fort Collins, Colo.; and Ogunquit, Maine. But an anti-discrimination ordinance passed in South Portland, Maine.

Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., was defeated. His campaign interested the gay community because he tried to elicit their support and gained the endorsement from the Human Rights Campaign, another gay-rights organization.

Kerry Lobel, executive director of the task force, said Pittsburgh was a natural choice for this year's convention, which also marks the 25th anniversary of the task force. "Towns like Pittsburgh are the new center of gravity for our movement," she said.

She said a growing number of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgenders were making themselves visible in America's mid-size cities. "We recently did a study of gay and lesbian voters," Lobel said. "The rate of disclosure in mid-size cities was at a higher rate than New York and San Francisco. It is no longer the coastal cities where we are seeing changes in attitudes but in the middle of the country."

Jeff Howells, managing editor of OUT, a gay and lesbian newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 in the tri-state area, said the organizers were impressed because Pittsburgh had an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation. "There are a number of politicians here who are gay-friendly," Howells said. He mentioned Cohen and Mayor Murphy, who attends fund-raisers for AIDS awareness.

A public opinion report that the task force released earlier this year found that a growing majority of Americans support gay and lesbian equality. A recent Time/CNN poll found that 52 percent of those polled accepted homosexual relationships for others but not for themselves. That figure was 35 percent in a poll done in 1978.

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