Mandy Carter has attended three previous Democratic national conventions. But her trip to Los Angeles this year is going to be an entirely new experience.
"This time, I'm going to be on the inner ring of the convention floor," says the excited North Carolina lesbian activist.
Carter will be one of the more than 4,300 delegates to the Democratic convention. She will also be one of a record number of nearly 200 openly lesbian and gay delegates at this year's political gala. In 1996, about 140 openly lesbian and gay delegates attended the Democratic convention.
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At press time, the exact number of openly lesbian and gay delegates was still unknown. The division between lesbian delegates and gay male delegates was also undetermined, but is expected to be somewhere around 35 percent women, 65 percent men, says Mark Spencer, director of gay and lesbian outreach for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C.
In contrast, of the 4,132 delegates and alternates ( split evenly with 2,066 of each ) who attended the Republican National Convention held July 31 through Aug. 3 in Philadelphia, eight delegates and 10 alternates were openly gay. None were lesbians.
Despite the pep-rally texture of modern political conventions, Carter and other delegates say they intend to do important work there.
"Just being out at an event like that is an extremely political act," says Carter.
The bed-rock principle that every out person can make a difference by shaking hands and talking with straight people who may have never met one of us may sound cliché, says Lynne Greer, a publisher from Columbus, Ohio, and one of that state's six out delegates. But it remains true. And the great thing about the people she will be schmoozing with at the Democratic convention, she says, is that they are influential in party politics back home.
"At a convention, you get the opportunity to work side by side with these people in various committees," says Greer, who was also a delegate in 1992. "And the more times you do that, the more 'in the fold' you become."
Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington, D.C.-based lesbian and gay lobby group, firmly believes that "those interpersonal moments when the other delegates have interaction with the openly gay and lesbian delegates moves the entire party along. The delegates are in the position to say, 'Look, this issue isn't abstract. It's about me.'"
While there has not been a convention showdown to determine a presidential candidate in either the Democratic or Republican parties for at least a quarter of a century, delegates argue they are more than mere cheerleaders.
"There are a lot of skirmishes and crucial decisions other than the party's candidate that delegates can have great influence over," says Nadine Smith, a Clearwater, Fla., activist who also was a 1992 delegate. Important issues such as whether or not an openly lesbian and openly gay speaker will address the convention, whether or not the presidential candidate "will actually say the words," and how the party's platform addresses particular issues of concern to lesbians and gay men are all things that "are decided behind the scenes by committees of delegates," she says.
And this year, the Democratic platform is more friendly to the lesbian and gay community than ever before, party stalwarts boast. The 1996 Democratic platform included passages on funding AIDS services and research, and supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act ( ENDA ) which would outlaw job discrimination based on sexual orientation. The new platform reaches further, advocating hate-crimes legislation that includes sexual orientation, calling for "the full inclusion of gay and lesbian families in the life of the nation," and asserting that "all patriotic Americans should be allowed to serve their country without discrimination."
"Gay and lesbian delegates absolutely played a key role in making sure the platform got strengthened rather than diluted," says Michael Colby, executive director of the National Stonewall Democratic Federation, the national organization of lesbian and gay Democrats. In addition, "I can almost guarantee Mr. Gore will mention gay and lesbian people specifically during the convention," he says. Part of the credit for that, he says, goes to the lobbying efforts of openly lesbian and gay delegates.
It's just as vital to make an impression on the party at local and state levels, other delegates add. While the national Democratic party has made an effort to reach out to lesbians and gay men, local and state party attitudes often lag woefully behind, delegates say.
"The Democratic party can be a very different creature on the state and local level than it is nationally," says Gloria Nieto, executive director of the People of Color AIDS Foundation in Sante Fe, and a first-time delegate this year. "In the past, I couldn't even get the [ former ] state party chair to say hello to me."
David White, who this year will be the first-ever openly gay or lesbian delegate from Alabama, admits "the Democratic party here does not welcome gays and lesbians with open arms. The Democratic party nationally is way ahead of the Democratic party in Alabama. A lot of politicians here will tell you they never met a gay person. Now they can't have that excuse."
And Florida's Smith says she counts among her biggest victories "the direct impact I've been able to have in pushing the Florida delegation to address gay and lesbian issues."
Some delegates hope the convention will allow them to make inroads within the lesbian and gay community itself, such as encouraging closeted delegates and politicians to move toward openness.
"I know there will be a lot more lesbian and gay delegates there than will show up at our meetings," says Florida's Smith. "It might sound microscopic, but by having a gay and lesbian group, we help create an environment for other gays and lesbians to join us."
After losing his bid to be a delegate in 1996, White, the Alabama delegate, won his seat to the convention on a general ballot. ( Some delegates are appointed, some are elected. ) "It has shown gays and lesbians in Alabama we can run as openly gay for political office," he says.
New Mexico's Nieto says she would like to see the lesbian and gay caucus address "gender parity, and not just in numbers. It's still white gay men who largely steer things in our community. So there is still some tension between men and women."
The tension is even greater between whites and people of color, Nieto, a Latina, says. Just look at the caucus itself: "It's blindingly white," she observes. To reach out to lesbians and gays of color, Nieto and Carter, who is Black, are launching an initiative called All Colors Together, or ACT for Gore.
Additionally, Carter hopes to bridge her interests as a lesbian with those she holds as an African American by attending the caucus for Black delegates as well as the caucus for lesbians and gays. "If I don't state I'm a lesbian, everyone [ in the caucus of Black delegates ] assumes I'm straight, so I have to pep up for it a little bit," Carter says. "I'm welcomed, but sometimes I feel the uneasiness. I'm still a little nervous."
The same is sometimes true as an African American in the lesbian and gay caucus, she adds.
But in all the hard work and lofty idealism, Carter doesn't want to lose sight of the fun, either.
"I've been a loyal Democrat all my life," she says. "And for nearly as long, I've looked forward to the inspiration and excitement that comes with being a convention delegate."
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