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Cheryl Jacques at a crossroads

Favorite daughter Cheryl Jacques has had quite a year. In November 2003, in a surprise move, the openly gay thenĖstate senator announced that she had accepted a position to head the nationís largest GLBT political organization, the Human Rights Campaign. (See "Head Gay in Charge," News and Features, November 7, 2003.) By January, she had packed up her spouse, Jennifer, and twin two-year-old sons, left her hometown of Needham (which she had represented in the State House for nearly 12 years), and embarked on a whirlwind of activity from her new post in Washington, DC.

More than the usual whirlwind, actually, since the GLBT movement had just been handed a fat victory by Jacquesís home-state high court on November 18, 2003: the Goodridge decision, which removed the ban on same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. And no sooner was the ruling issued than it landed in the pressure cooker of presidential politics, in a close, passionately contested race in which conservative "moral values" threatened to swing the election for George W. Bush.

Just four weeks after the November 2, 2004, election, HRC announced Jacquesís departure, citing "a difference in management philosophy." Sources close to Jacques say that HRC wanted to pursue a more moderate course, one that placed less emphasis on pushing for same-sex marriage. Jacques has since issued an eloquent statement, titled "At a Crossroads," which places the quest for same-sex-marriage rights squarely in the civil-rights traditions heralded by Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr.; you can read it online at cheryljacques.org.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix caught up with Jacques to talk about anything but her departure from the HRC, which she "is not at liberty to discuss." We promised.

Q: It seems fair to say that you would place gay marriage at the front and center of the movement today.

A: You know, itís not that marriage is more important than workplace protection, passage of hate-crimes law, full funding for HIV/AIDS research and treatment. Itís not about being more important. Itís that equality is equality is equality. And whether weíre talking about treating GLBT people equally in the workplace, or treating their relationships equally under our contract law ó including tax protections, estate protection, Social Security survivor benefits, and all the things that come with the state contract of marriage ó or whether weíre talking about their right to serve in the military, itís all about equality. Itís not about marriage, itís about equality.

Q: But as with King, who made desegregation of public places the flagship issue of the civil-rights movement, the one that would bring all other issues to bear on undoing racial inequality in this country, wouldnít you say that gay marriage should be the historically analogous issue for the GLBT movement?

A: I would say that marriage has become the vocabulary of equality for GLBT people. Itís not that itís more important, but it is symbolic of full equality. And if we achieve marriage equality, the rest will flow. It is very difficult for an employer to fashion an argument that he should be allowed to treat his gay employees differently from his straight employees when they are legally recognized under the marriage laws. However, the opposite is also true. If states say, well, gay people, youíre equal, but youíre not equal for purposes of marriage, then itís rather easy for an employer to justify discrimination, to think, well, the courts donít think youíre equal, the state constitution doesnít think youíre equal, the politicians donít think youíre equal, why should I treat you equally in the workplace? Again, weíre back not to the word marriage, weíre back to the whole concept of equality.

Q: If we were to make gay marriage the flagship fight of the GLBT movement, do you think any other issues might be pushed to the sidelines?

A: Cheryl Jacques doesnít have the power to move marriage front and center. No one has that power. That discussion is being had as though we do have that power, as though we could say, okay, gay-community leaders, letís never say the word marriage again, letís take it right out of our vocabulary, letís take it off our list of desires, and then everybody out there is going to treat us better on bills like the hate-crimes bill, or the employment-nondiscrimination act, or fair treatment in the workplace. That is naive. It is naive to think that the extreme right and the George Bushes and the Karl Roves are going to stop talking about marriage for gay people, an engine they are riding ó a car they will ride until it runs out of gas, politically ó to divide this country and score political points at the ballot box. That somehow theyíre going stop using this issue as a bogeyman to demonize gay people if we all agree to stop talking about it. Thatís why I say, I didnít make it front and center, history did. It landed on our doorstep with the Goodridge decision years after, years after, the extreme right had already passed "defense of marriage" acts in 37 states. They filed the federal Defense of Marriage Act back in 1996, long before the Goodridge decision came along. They have been running on this issue long before there was any hope or prospect or opportunity for gay marriage. So the idea that we brought this backlash on ourselves? Not true! And if we were all to retreat from it, I guarantee you that Tony Perkins, with the Family Research Council, and Jerry Falwell and the rest ó theyíre not running away from this issue, theyíre embracing this issue.

Q: Yes, itís too useful to them. Like abortion has been.

A: Itís better than abortion. Theyíve all said that theyíre raising more money now, their troops are more inspired by this issue.

Q: I wonder whether over the past year any organizations or people surprised you with their support for gay rights.

A: Surprised is too strong a word. I continue to be heartened by the number of religious leaders who fully support GLBT people but whose voices are drowned out by the dominance of the Jerry Falwells, the Lou Sheldons, the Southern Baptist ministers. And as I traveled the country, I would have ministers and rabbis and bishops and priests and nuns come up to me, over and over, and say, I wish there were more that I could do, Iím horrified that religion is being used as a weapon to hurt good people. My best friend is gay, Iím gay, my sisterís gay. And one of the things I was working on that we have to continue working on is, we need that religious voice ó which is very present and out there but very disorganized and not pulled together ó to start countering the impact of that very vocal, but minority voice of the extreme religious right.

Q: Were the people you met all from liberal religious traditions? Any conservatives?

A: One woman, who is gay, came up to me and told me all about her dad from Virginia who is a Southern Baptist minister. She came out to her dad in high school, and he worked through it over the next six years while she was away at school. Today, her father will preach about how badly he handled this issue, how wrong he was to demonize gay people. He talks about his daughter and her friends, and he talks about love and what the Bible really means, and he continues to be a Southern Baptist minister who gets it now.

Q: CherylJacques.org. Is this the beginning of a new organization, Cheryl?

A: Ah, no. A ton of folks have tried to reach out and contact me, and I just put an address in my op-ed, posted on the site, so they could. I want to personally read and respond to each and every one of them. Iím touched by the number of people who have reached out.

Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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