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Head gay in charge
Publicly out for just three years, State Senator Cheryl Jacques is now in charge of the nationís largest gay-rights organization
BY SUSAN RYAN-VOLLMAR

THE NEWS THAT State Senator Cheryl Jacques had been picked as the next executive director of the Human Rights Campaign prompted this thought: didnít she come out just three years ago? And this one: isnít the HRC, the nationís largest and most influential gay-rights lobbying organization, an ostensibly bipartisan organization? How will Jacques, a Democrat with 12 years of partisan battles under her belt, be received by Republicans?

But a look at the 41-year-old Needham Democratís family life and political career puts a more positive spin on her somewhat surprising ascent to the peaks of gay ó or GLBT, to use the HRCís parlance ó power. The photogenic Jacques and her equally photogenic partner, Jennifer Chrisler, have twin 18-month-old boys, Timmy and Tommy. Jacques is also a politician from Massachusetts, which is ground zero in the nationwide battle to win civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples. She has, by her own estimation, done thousands of media appearances, so Bill OíReilly isnít likely to faze her. Throw in the fact that sheís a former prosecutor ó which, in post-9/11 America, is a real prize on your résumé ó and sheís a natural to lead the 500,000-member Human Rights Campaign to, in her words, "soar to new heights."

Jacques is expected to finish out the current legislative session before moving to Washington, DC, early next year. The Phoenix recently spoke with the outgoing state senator about her vision for the HRC.

Q: Youíve only been out publicly for three years. Does it strike you as odd that youíve just been selected to lead the nationís largest gay-rights organization?

A: I think I have the ability to explain to people as the new leader of HRC the incredible power of this organization because Iíve lived the HRC message. Iím the perfect example of someone who took courage from the HRC to come out. In 2000, I went to the March on Washington [which was jointly sponsored by the HRC and the Metropolitan Community Church]. I saw things there that opened my eyes. I listened to incredible speakers like Elizabeth Birch and Corey Johnson from Massachusetts, who told his story of coming out as the captain of the high-school football team. I listened to him and thought, "Iím double his age and he has more courage than I do," and thatís what started the explosion inside me. I thought [that] if other people could do this, so could I. Prior to that, like a lot of other GLBT people, I didnít think there was another way. I was closeted. I didnít think my district would accept me for who I was. I thought I had to do what a lot of GLBT people think they have to do, which is choose their personal life or their professional life.

But when I came home from the march, the Safe Schools Program was under attack. I spearheaded the effort to protect funding for the program [which funds gay/straight alliances in high schools across the Commonwealth]. We won that fight. When we were celebrating, I was probably the only person in that room who wasnít happy with that fight because I knew I could do more. Not being able to get the HRC week out of my mind, and not being able to get the Department of Education statistics out of my mind that I used in my floor speech, that one out of every three gay teens attempt suicide ó not think about it, but attempt it ó I typed out an op-ed for the Boston Globe, and in it I mentioned that I was gay. The HRC took me from that moment to the point where I am today, where I am the president-elect and executive-director-to-be of the nationís leading civil-rights organization. And I want to be able to do that for other people.

Q: Outgoing executive director Elizabeth Birch is highly regarded for having built up the membership of HRC, fundraising, and creating a strong brand for the organization. What are your priorities going to be?

A: To help HRC soar to new heights. This is a phenomenal organization, and the sky is the limit. My number-one priority is to shape the outcome in this battle for civil rights. At the federal level, one of my top priorities is defeating the federal marriage amendment by appealing to the hearts and minds of Americans and fair-minded elected officials that enshrining in the Constitution discrimination and hate is contrary to everything the people in this country believe in and value. And weíll also be doing that on the state level where Defense of Marriage Acts are arising, including here in Massachusetts. In addition to those kinds of legislative priorities ó outreach, education. My goal in membership is that we reach the day where every single GLBT person in America is affiliated with the Human Rights Campaign and understands that thereís a safe home and a safe haven there for them. My fundraising goals are that I want to reach the day where the dreams and the visions and goals of HRC are such that we never have to say no because we donít have the resources to do it. That we can do anything because we have the resources to do it.

Q: You come to the job with strong progressive, Democratic credentials. How do you honestly feel youíre going to be received by Republicans in Congress?

A: You know, I am very confident that I will get the fair shake that I want and I expect. And again, I think that sharing stories like the fact that I teamed up with Senate minority leader Brian Lees, who is a friend and a colleague. We have disagreed on plenty and gone head to head on plenty, but he is absolutely a friend, and he was right there on the issue of civil rights [in July 2002, Lees introduced the motion to adjourn the Constitutional Convention, which prevented a vote on an anti-gay measure that would have banned civil-marriage rights for same-sex couples]. And he was not a bit shy about it. You know, Brian was fabulous. Those are the kinds of stories I want to share with Republicans in Congress and the Senate to show that I have a complete open mind about the fact that civil rights is not a partisan issue, and I welcome them to the table.

The vice-presidentís daughter is a lesbian. I hope Dick Cheney, in talking to his daughter Mary, understands that he doesnít want to be part of an effort to make her a second-class citizen in this country. Iím hoping that, and Iím hoping I can appeal to the fact that, you know, GLBT people are everywhere, in everyoneís family, and connected to every corner of this country. So itís becoming more and more difficult for any elected official to speak against a personís civil rights when it turns out to be one of their children or their brother or their sister or their neighbor.

Q: When did you tell Senate president Robert Travaglini that you were leaving?

A: We talked over the weekend, and he was wonderful ó wonderfully supportive. He was saddened by my departure but really thought this was an important next step for me and for our country to have me at the helm of this important battle because he is very, very committed to civil rights as well.

Q: Former Senate president Tom Birmingham was very courageous at the last Constitutional Convention, when he gaveled it closed before a vote could be taken on the Defense of Marriage Act. Do you see Travaglini being similarly courageous in defeating the DOMA legislation?

A: Oh, I see him as equally courageous. Senate president Travaglini has already staked his ground on this issue. Frankly, without anybody urging or pushing him, he on his own publicly said that he fully supports the concept of civil unions. And thatís an important step forward, and I want to get him to the day when he understands the importance of civil marriage and supports it. But for an elected leader in his position to on his own come out saying, "I want to see a civil-unions bill with full fairness and equality for every GLBT person in the state of Massachusetts," thatís extraordinary.

Q: Do you see Travagliniís support of civil unions as part of a deal that would see the state constitution amended to deny civil-marriage rights to same-sex couples ó which would appease conservatives ó while doing a civil-unions bill ó which would appease the growing majority of people in this state who support marriage rights for gays?

A: No ó it has nothing to do with that story that broke over the weekend [that State Representative John Rogers, who has sponsored anti-gay legislation in the past, had been meeting with a working group of legislators and gay advocates to craft a civil-unions bill in exchange for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex couples from marrying]. My understanding from hearing back from some of the members [of Rogersís group] is that they were meeting and then everything just sort of fell apart. We successfully defeated the Defense of Marriage Act, and there hasnít been word one out of that camp until just now. And you know, I think thatís a reaction to the fact that things are changing. The polls are showing that the public is getting it. The public is getting that we are a better America when we support all our families, when we donít discriminate. And therefore some of the holdout elected officials who have traditionally not been willing to move are starting to shift, and somebody who, ironically, wouldnít have considered a domestic-partnership bill just a year or two ago is now throwing out that perhaps they would consider a civil-unions bill, and thatís progress. But at the end of the day, I hope that everyoneís position is the same as mine ó that we will never trade our civil rights for token offers of support. That weíll happily have the conversation about progress, whether itís domestic partnership, whether itís civil unions, whatever it is, and that weíll continue to work for full civil rights, which is civil marriage. But we will never, ever, under my leadership, we will never trade ó you just donít trade your civil rights, period, end of discussion.

Q: Youíve had to deal with Speaker Finneran to get legislation passed in the House that youíve ushered through the Senate. Whatís it been like to deal with him?

A: Iíve had a long run with the Speaker and I, like most people, am charmed by him and find him incredibly, incredibly intelligent ó

Q: You named one of your sons Tommy.

A: Every time I meet him I say Tom was named after him, and Tom Birmingham, so that doesnít go very far. But anyway, I am impressed by Tom Finneranís leadership in the sense that I am always impressed when someone is a strong leader. Because I think we need strong leaders. That is so critical ó there are an awful lot of weak-kneed leaders, and thatís not good for anyone. So I find him a remarkable leader. My concerns with Tom Finneran and my problems with Tom Finneran come from the fact that ideologically we donít agree on much. If he were the Republican Speaker of the House, I would go into the equation saying he adopts a lot of his partyís principles, not all of them, but a lot of them, and, you know, so be it. But because heís the Democratic Speaker of the House and because he is so out of line with what I believe are Democratic principles of fairness and equality ó whether itís privacy protection for respecting a womanís right to choose, whether itís keeping the public safe through common-sense gun-safety measures, or whether it is allowing every Massachusetts resident, every GLBT resident, to have equal rights and fairness under the law ó each and every time heís been on the opposite side of those issues, and thatís my tension with Tom Finneran. Itís not that I donít respect him and admire his skills and strengths. Itís that Iím sad that, you know, he isnít using those to a better purpose, because he could.

Q: You were raised Catholic?

A: Yes.

Q: What is your take on politicians like Tom Finneran, State Representative Eugene OíFlaherty of Charlestown, and others who cite their Catholic beliefs when they block legislation that would end some of the discrimination gay and lesbian people now face?

A: I think they are dangerously close to violating the constitutional principles of a very clear separation of church and state. I donít think thereís an elected official out there, myself included, who has to compromise for one minute their personal religious principles or their spirituality in their own life. But when they take office, they raise their hand and they swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Massachusetts, which clearly say that religious leaders are not calling the shots in terms of our government-made decisions. And when they cite religious leaders as influencing their decisions, I think theyíre coming very dangerously close to violating their oath and the constitutional principles that we are sworn to uphold.

Q: Do you find any irony in Catholics like Tom Finneran and others taking guidance from the Church on family-values issues when the Church is still dealing with the clergy-sex-abuse scandal, in which the safety of children seems to have been very low on the list of the Churchís priorities?

A: You know, the Church is a fabulous institution, and the fact that there are bad apples in the Church doesnít make the Church bad. It means there are bad apples. You know, as someone who was raised Catholic, I still believe in the big-picture principles. I was taught the golden-rule principle, the turn-the-other-cheek principle ó you know, the fact that only God judges people, we donít judge one another. Those are important principles, and I do think for some people theyíve gotten lost along the way. And I think some people use God and use religious principles to denounce other people. I am so 100 percent confident that God sheds a lot of tears when he sees his name used to discriminate and hurt people, and I think a lot of people get that. I think itís why, by the way, you are seeing polls where people are specifically asked their religious affiliation, and you know, polls where people identify themselves as practicing Catholics are showing that they still, by a majority, support civil-marriage rights and equal protections for GLBT people.

Q: Whatís Governor Mitt Romneyís relationship with state senators?

A: You know, the jury is still out on Governor Romney because he is new to the role and thereís still sort of a huge distance where many of the elected officials in this state, senators, representatives, leaders of the House and Senate, really donít have a lot of contact with him or a lot of sense of where he is on things. His direct contact has been very minimal and on issues such as civil marriage and GLBT rights, I donít know that heís pinned himself down. Iím not sure that heís specifically come out against or for anything. I think heís used very broad terms that he believes in fairness and equality and not discriminating.

Q: If you were giving the governor a letter grade, how would you grade him?

A: You know, I think Iíd need him to turn in more homework to grade because Iíd need to see more. As I said, most of his ideas at this point are just concepts, and when he actually files bills and says, "Hereís my plan for improving public schools, hereís my plan for economic growth, hereís my plan for fairness for all," then Iíll be in a better position to say. And I donít fault him for not having that the moment he was sworn in. Those ideas take time to percolate and formulate, but you know, he should start putting them out soon, the termís only four years. But I am hopeful that he is listening to his advisers, listening to his party leaders like Brian Lees, in recognizing that he has the chance to be on the right side of a very important civil-rights battle in Massachusetts, and he can be a hero and ahead of his time ó because history judges very harshly those who are on the wrong side of civil-rights issues.

Susan Ryan-Vollmar can be reached at svollmar@phx.com


Click here for the Talking Politics archives Issue Date: November 7 - 13, 2003
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