LGBT rights step forward as ’Old Guard’ leader passes away

by Ben Briscoe

The Dallas Voice

Monday July 14, 2008

Local and national LGBT activists are saying the death of former senator and anti-gay leader Jesse Helms marks a positive moment for the community and a step forward in LGBT civil rights.

During his five terms in the Senate, Helms, who died at 86 of natural causes on July 4, consistently spoke out against any and all LGBT-friendly legislation without hesitation. Most famously, when former President Bill Clinton wanted to appoint an open lesbian to an assistant secretary position, Helms voted no on the confirmation and stated, "I'm not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine."

Helms also blocked almost any HIV prevention measure that came through the Senate. Kenyon Farrow, the former communications coordinator for Community HIV AIDS Mobilization Project was at the front line, often going toe-to-toe with Helms.

"It pretty much goes without saying that Helms as a senator probably did more harm than anyone else to any kind of comprehensive strategy to have any national policy that was adequate in doing HIV prevention in this country," Farrow said.

Helms did so by trying to keep any organization receiving federal money from talking about sex and sexuality in their education campaigns, voting against syringe exchange programs and proposing the ban on international travel for anyone with HIV.

"Because there has been for 20 years now a lack of a coordinated federal response and blocking by Helms of prevention methods that we know work, it goes a long way towards explaining why we haven't been able to make any kind of reduction in HIV rates in the most vulnerable communities in the US," Farrow said.

Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance President Patti Fink says she is never excited when someone dies, but she definitely won't miss Helms.

"His death marks the end of an era," she said. "Jesse Helms was not just anti-gay, he was also one of the most notorious racists in the modern time. That way of thinking's time is up."

Helm's death follows that of another anti-LGBT leader, Jerry Falwell, last year. Together, they could signal the end of the 'Old Guard' - a group of political and religious leaders that spoke out against LGBT rights and pushed conservative platforms.

"The less people you have that are so vocal with such hate and stigma and the perpetuation of really incorrect information, hopefully the better things will get," said Steven Pace, Director of AIDS Interfaith Network. "When you remove that, you definitely open the door to getting other people's voices and perspectives to be heard without being overshadowed."

Deputy Director of Equality Texas, Chuck Smith, agrees that tides are turning.

"I think the leadership probably correlates to the audience," he said. "If you are under thirty for the most part you don't have a problem with LGBT people because you've been around them for most of your life so the talking points of fear and the downfall of society just don't' resonate. This is in most instances a generational issue."

But Bob Miskinis works with the next generation every day as the Youth First Texas program director, and he's not so sure that homophobia is on it's way out.

"In our community we get complacent because we think everything is better in younger generations, but really they still experience a lot of the same discrimination that people did back in Jesse Helm's prime," he said.

Statistics back up Miskinis's statement, like New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Report's finding that 75 percent of people who commit LGBT hate crimes are under the age of 30.

Dan Quinn, Communications Director for Texas Freedom Network that works against the religious right, says this is because anti-LGBT leaders are still out there and going strong.

"Jesse Helms certainly was at the top of the list at the national level, but you can cast a wide net and pull in a lot of folks in Texas that could be chalked up as anti-gay leaders," he said. "In Texas unfortunately, there is still an audience for that kind of nonsense and extremism."

Below is a list of the key players in the anti-LGBT movement in Texas that were referred by activists and community leaders at the local, state and national level:

Cathie Adams - As the primary voice of Texas Eagle Forum Adams lobbies Texas legislator against LGBT favorable bills and often speaks out in the press against LGBT rights. "Her primary mission in life seems to be beating the anti-LGBT drum as much as possible," Smith said.

Warren Chisum - A state representative from Pampa, Texas, Chisum was the supporting author of the amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman. He now is the Chairman of the State House Appropriations Committee, making him the second most powerful man in the state legislature.

Wayne Christian - State representative for District 9. He has a solidly anti-LGBT voting record, and often speaks out against gay friendly legislation.

John Cornyn - Cornyn is a U.S. senator representing Texas. Back in 2004, while debating the Federal Marriage Amendment, Cornyn released an advanced copy of a speech for the Heritage Foundation in which he compared gay and lesbian people to box turtles. He planned to say but never actually did, "It does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right."

Terri Leo - In her role on the State Board of Education, Leo has consistently opposed any openness or discussion in schools that might talk about LGBT people in ay sort of favorable light.

Dwight McKissic - As the Senior Pastor of cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, McKissic is one the most respected African-American Southern Baptist ministers. In that role, he regularly speaks out against LGBT causes. He once said that God sent hurricane Katrina to destroy New Orleans because the city was tolerant of gay people.

Kelly Shackelford - He serves as the Chief Counsel for Liberty Legal Institute, a group that bills themselves as the anti-ACLU. They fight legally for the religious right and conservative issues.

Robert Talton - A Texas House of Representatives member representing Pasadena, he has one of the worst voting records on LGBT issues. He also tried to passed a gay foster-parent ban.

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