Hearts were sinking and heads were spinning outside the state capitol that overcast afternoon last February.
Equality New Mexico's lead lobbyist Linda Siegle stood just outside the east exit of the Roundhouse and nervously adjusted her glasses. With exhausted melancholy, she asked for the final vote on Senate Bill 12, "The Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act," which would have granted same-sex couples the same benefits and protections as married heterosexual partners under state law.
Before the session, Siegle had been optimistic, but not wholly confident, this would be the year the bill finally passed. The House was a sure thing, the progressive Democrat coalition in the Senate had grown and Gov. Bill Richardson indicated he was ready to sign the legislation.
None of that was enough.
"Twenty-five to 17," Santa Fe City Councilor Patti Bushee answered Siegle without making eye contact, adding that Sen. Carlos Cisneros, D-Los Alamos, had switched his vote to no at the last minute.
Siegle had spent the wee hours of the previous evening adjusting the bill with hopes that minor concessions would neutralize the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops' opposition, yet had spent the morning bracing for defeat. While supporters held out hope, Siegle was one of the few who knew, with certainty, the bill would fail.
What she didn't expect was the bill to fail by a larger margin than in years past. Hearing the news, Siegle ran her fingers over her mouth. Behind her stood Steve Loomis, a military veteran discharged for being gay, and Rachel Rosen, a lesbian who can't legally describe herself as a widow.
"The non-discrimination act, which we finally passed in 2003, took 12 years," Siegle told the press cameras and the two dozen or so people gathered. "Well, I don't know about you, but I don't want to work on this for 12 years…Remember what happened to you today because people in this building said you are not equal, you are not worthy, you don't deserve the same rights that many of them enjoy."
With many successes behind it, relationship recognition may be the New Mexico LGBT community's last great civil rights hurdle. Last February's defeat, once again, of a domestic partnership bill, is a reminder that the final stretch to full marriage equality won't be easy.
LGBT rights activists in New Mexico are also grappling with the same topsy-turvy national debate as everyone else. The gay community is caught in a dizzying one-step-forward/one-step-back shuffle as individual states and the Obama administration grant and revoke and promise and backpedal.
As Santa Fe prepares for its annual Pride festival (June 27 at the Railyard Plaza, with associated events scattered around town the entire week), many in the LGBT community wonder why New Mexico isn't keeping up with states such as Vermont, Massachusetts and even Iowa, which have passed laws or ruled in favor of marriage equality.
The fallout from the 2009 legislative session suggests gay-rights supporters can't simply blame the opposition: The community itself is fractured.
Critics are pointing fingers at the leadership of Equality New Mexico, an organization that has fought on the front lines for 15 years, but is now mired in debt and lacks an executive director. EQNM's failure during this year's session has prompted critics to question whether future political strategies—on everything from messaging to negotiations with the Catholic Church to the 2010 election cycle—need an overhaul.
"There's a lot of mistrust because so much is going on behind-the-scenes," Democratic blogger Barb Wold, a "dyed-in-the-wool" lesbian and outspoken critic of the current strategy, tells SFR. "I think the main problem is that we seem to be frozen in time. We've used the same approach over and over again…and year after year, we don't get it."
Earlier this month, EQNM called the LGBT community in for a summit at which these conflicts were aired heatedly and with a wide range of opinions. What emerged was a precarious consensus: More members of the community need to stand up and get involved, and EQNM must be prepared to let them participate.
"Everybody wants to be a piece of this," Mauro Montoya, a gay activist and former lawyer who was tapped to lead future meetings on strategy, tells SFR. "[EQNM] was treating people very arrogantly, like, 'We're the experts; you don't know what you're doing'…I think what we're going to do now is have another strategy from the bottom up. We'll keep the lobbyists, but they won't be directing this."
But some longtime activists are skeptical of these complaints. EQNM board member Todd McElroy characterizes critics as merely impatient.
"I guess in our fast-food culture, people expect to drive through and get it in a bag 15 minutes later," McElroy says. "That's just not the way it works."
The question is: What will?
MaryEllen Broderick, a Democratic Party activist and Barb Wold's partner, says she first noticed something was wrong with EQNM just after the November 2008 election, when California voters approved Proposition 8, creating a ban on gay marriage.
"Two or three days after the Prop 8 vote, I called to ask whether they were even going to issue a statement," Broderick tells SFR. "They were zoned out entirely, and I said I will never contribute to them."
In many ways, the push-and-pull culture war over gay civil rights was perfectly expressed in California's Prop 8 battle. Voters overturned gay marriage and California's Supreme Court upheld the ban but left intact tens of thousands of gay marriages that had already taken place prior to Prop 8's passage. A federal challenge is still pending.
For New Mexico, California's Prop 8 saga hit home not just psychologically but fiscally. As activist dollars flowed toward California, they dried up at home, leaving EQNM with little ability to express the outrage burning inside Broderick and other members of the community.
"The 'No on Prop 8' campaign really sucked resources out of the rest of the states," EQNM's McElroy says. "The national foundations focused their efforts in California because a victory in California would've had ramifications for the rest of us."
According to several sources who asked not to be identified by name, EQNM discovered it was in trouble in September 2008. The organization was $20,000 in debt, which was only discovered once its former executive director, Alexis Blizman, resigned to help reduce overhead. The big blow, sources say, came after Blizman spent $40,000 on operational expenses she had expected would be repaid by a grant from the Civil Marriage Collaborative, a project financially backed by the Massachusetts-based Proteus Fund. That money never materialized.
"It took the whole board and staff to mismanage that organization," Lynn Perls, an Albuquerque lawyer listed as a member of EQNM's steering committee, tells SFR. "It wasn't any one person's fault, but the people in charge do appear to have mismanaged, but that doesn't change the fact that there's 15 years of history before that."
In order to mount a serious lobbying effort during the 60-day 2009 legislative session that ran from mid-January to mid-March, EQNM set up an entirely separate fund, which was able to raise another $40,000 in a matter of months.
In April, with the failed domestic partnership bill behind it, the board struggled to restructure itself. Rachel Rosen was tapped as the new chairwoman and her first move was to order an independent audit. The results took the board by surprise: The debt was more than triple the original estimate, sources say.
"The audit found there may have been some mismanagement, but there was no malfeasance," McElroy, who is shouldering some of the workload normally handled by an executive director, says.
McElroy admits the board should have started local fundraising efforts earlier and more aggressively to close the budget gap. EQNM also could have laid off its staff earlier, McElroy says.
As of now, Rosen says, "We've stopped the bleeding and cut overhead drastically." As for the future, "We have some [grant applications] out that we will not hear back on for six months. A lot of the foundations have had to cut back considerably on funding, so, as far as new [funding] sources go, it's a very difficult time right now. They're not funding new clients."
The economy isn't the only challenge EQNM faces. The organization's management problems during the legislative session left many supporters wary. Others said they felt completely alienated, including former AIDS/HIV patients' rights attorney Mauro Montoya, who says he had offered to gather letters of support for domestic partnerships but was ultimately "shot down. "
"It kept coming up again and again, this frustration with the lack of a central organizing force for the LGBT community," Cooper Lee Bombardier, a transgender male who coordinates the New Mexico Gay Straight Alliance Network at the Santa Fe Mountain Center, says of the Listserv emails he received after the vote. "I'm not saying that to begrudge anybody, but we need to be a little more cohesive."
Rosen accepts the criticism that many felt left out of the loop.
"Because of the destaffing, we didn't have folks that were communicating well with our constituents," Rosen says. "We had to make a choice of where to put our resources. Was it more important to take time to lobby or to go over the process step-by-step with the constituents? It was a question of time, and communications suffered."
Senate Bill 12 was an 11-page document that had been prefiled by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, more than a month before the session began. It was essentially the same as the 2007 version that had passed through the House twice, granting domestic partners the same rights and responsibilities as married couples.
That was not the bill that came up for a vote.
At 3:40 pm on Feb. 26, packets of pink paper were circulated to the senators. This "floor substitute," crafted in the wee hours, eliminated all three uses of the word "spouse" and five mentions of the word "marriage" as a concession to the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. In exchange, McSorley expected the bishops to issue a letter changing their position from opposed to neutral.
For exactly one hour, the Senate argued the bill somewhat blindly; only a handful of individuals had even known of the new version's existence prior to debate. The live bloggers in the press gallery barely had time to upload the document to the web before the vote was called.
Seventeen in favor to 25 in opposition. Do not pass.
"I am too upset to be here anymore sorry," democracyfornewmexico.com blogger Barb Wold typed from her home in Albuquerque into the Santa Fe Reporter/New Mexico Independent live online discussion. "[T]hese people are cruel and don't deserve to be called Democrats any longer."
Elsewhere in Albuquerque, Broderick sat in her office watching online in shock.
"My hopes were up that we had the votes, that it was going to pass, that we were going to win," she says. "For it to go down in flames was like a knife."
Even those who had haunted the halls and the gallery all day were taken by surprise. Perls, who had fielded questions on the floor, could only describe feeling "badly." Rosen, who was counting votes in the gallery, said she was "hugely disappointed."
"I was surprised at the final tally," Councilor Bushee, who had been sitting beside Rosen, learning to Tweet, says. "I knew there had been some changes with regards to the Catholic Church…but I don't believe they would've brought it forward if they didn't have the votes."
But that's exactly what did happen. Siegle and McSorley knew the bill was going down.
"We knew that once we did not have the letter, we were done; we were toast," Siegle says. "I stayed up half the night beforehand. I thought we had a deal and then it all fell apart. I was pretty upset."
According to New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbyist Allen Sanchez, although the substitute removed the words "spouse" and "marriage," it did not omit references to Chapter 40 of the state statutes—the chapter dealing with marriage—which was unacceptable to the Catholic Church.
"I think the bishops were hopeful that people could find the protections they needed and not have to change marriage," Sanchez says. "But the bishops are firm that if it refers to either marriage or Chapter 40, it will be opposed."
As to why the bill went for a vote when the support had crumbled, Siegle says that's just what one does when running a bill.
"Part of what changes people's minds is they know that every year we will go back until we get this, and every year they're going to have to be on the record," Siegle says.
The initial strategy had been to file early and bull-rush the bill through the Senate before the opposition had a chance to organize, McSorley says. That plan, however, did not account for Sen. Timothy Jennings, D-Chavez, a conservative Democrat, holding on to his leadership role as Senate president pro tempore.
As a result, a conservative coalition was able to stall the bill in committee for six weeks, while opponents of the bill waged a war of phone, email and in-person bombardment.
Meanwhile, LGBT rights lobbyists lacked the cohesiveness of prior sessions. In previous years, Siegle ran the show with support from American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico lobbyist Diane Wood. Other lobbyists, such as former Republican legislator Joseph Thompson, represented EQNM with funds donated by the Gill Action Fund, a Colorado-based gay-rights organization. This time, however, Gill decided to hire Thompson as its own lobbyist.
"The [lobbyists] were not on the same page," McSorley says. "Behind the scenes there was a huge amount of discord. The Gill Action Fund made promises of support from the business community and from various legislators that never
Michael Huerta, a gay Democratic activist who observed the domestic partnership negotiations while advocating for realtors, says national groups, like Gill and the Human Rights Campaign, muddied the message.
"There was a lot of confusion," Huerta says. "While I value the expertise of HRC and the resources of Gill…that was my biggest surprise: People from outside of New Mexico who didn't understand New Mexico were trying to message New Mexicans on a very controversial issue."
Gill released a statement to SFR saying it supported EQNM's strategy on the domestic partnership bill, but would not comment on the other criticisms. Thompson would not answer questions without his client's permission.
"I trust Joe Thompson implicitly," Siegle says. "I work with Joe, but he was in a really awkward position."
Nevertheless, both Siegle and McSorley insist the final vote tally did not represent the actual support in the Senate. They claim a couple of legislators had said they would vote for the bill if they were sure it was going to pass and Cisneros only switched his vote because, under Senate parliamentary rules, doing so would allow him to bring the bill to the floor again if the bishops later changed their position.
Ultimately, though, it may be that the evangelical and Catholic church's mass mobilization just outmatched the LGBT lobby's efforts, Siegle says.
"We don't have the ability to generate 3,000 people coming up to the Legislature and hanging out," Siegle says. "We still got a lot of attendance, and a lot of people called and emailed, but if it's a numbers game, we never win on the numbers. We don't have the pulpits of the church to generate thousands of calls and visits."
Which is why communication is key.
Most years, EQNM follows up the legislative session by hosting a debriefing for the community. At these meetings, supporters can ask questions and help consider future strategies.
That conversation didn't happen after the 2009 legislative session.
"In not hosting those public debriefings, I think we allowed misinformation to fester," McElroy says. "It reached a boiling point, and a group of leaders in the community decided we needed to bring folks together to clear the air and to establish the way forward."
EQNM leaders revived a tradition that hadn't been observed in three years: They invited the community, on June 6, to a "Summit on LGBT Rights." More than 100 representatives from a variety of organizations turned out for what was ultimately a well-organized brainstorming and mediation session.
Yet, the moderators could not always keep the firefights from breaking out between EQNM's leadership and several frustrated activists.
While some of the critics spoke to the communication issues, others were more philosophical, reflecting the divide over one of the more contentious aspects of the gay lobbying effort: how to deal with the Catholic Church.
Lobbyists at the session had taken a diplomatic and conciliatory approach. Some believe it's time to take organized religion head-on.
"I kind of say, 'Eff the Catholic Church.' We need to come to them from a position of power," Montoya, a former altar boy who says he was molested by a priest, tells SFR. "The Catholic Church has lied to me from day one…I don't believe the church has a position of moral authority on this. Marriage is a civil issue. It's a state law and the Catholic Church has nothing to do with it."
Montoya suggests EQNM pursue a new, hardball strategy in which the LGBT community threatens to legally challenge the church's nonprofit status in court because of its political activities. At the same time, he thinks Siegle should be replaced with a straight, Catholic, Hispanic, male lobbyist.
"I do think that would change people's minds," Montoya says. "I'm Latino and I don't let the Catholic Church influence my way of thinking, but a lot of people do and I respect that. If they see someone like them championing [marriage equality], it would let them take another look at this issue."
The implication offends Siegle, who compares it to someone suggesting to African Americans in the 1960s that white guys should lead the civil rights movement.
"I think gay people have to be the leaders of their organizations and actions," Siegle says. "Every lobbyist has a style, and my style is not to alienate people. I may have disagreements with legislators, but I am a liberal and I don't burn bridges for any reason. You can't be a good lobbyist and do that."
Yet many feel like the time for discussion has passed and that it's time to stop asking for domestic partnerships and push for full marriage equality. Siegle doesn't disagree.
"It should be part of our strategy to have people picketing and being radical and extreme and saying 'marriage or nothing!'" Siegle says. "But that's not your 'inside' strategy. Your inside strategy is to work with people to get the bills passed. There are things that people on the outside can say that I can never say."
Wold also took Siegle and EQNM to task during the meeting, but has since double-backed on her attacks.
"Time has mellowed me since the meeting," Wold says. "The bottom line is I respect all these people. It's a roller-coaster ride. When I get back into my clear mind, I see it that way."
But in order to move forward, EQNM's leadership may need to learn to respect other community leaders. During the summit, EQNM board members suggested that Wold and Broderick were naive about politics, even though both were leaders in the grassroots Democratic Party movement that resulted in changing New Mexico into a true-blue state and adding gay marriage to the state party's platform.
"My feeling was that [EQNM] did this event so everybody would have a voice," Montoya, who was picked to lead the next strategy session on July 11, says. "They are agreeing to be directed by what we come up with…I think they will listen. If they don't, they will lose their credibility."
And if the bill doesn't pass during the next session (the governor would have to specifically add domestic partnerships to the agenda, which will otherwise be limited to fiscal matters in 2010's 30-day session), the LGBT community will need to brace for a long, hard election season.
"The passage of domestic partnerships is important because we have a sitting governor who supports passage of the legislation," McElroy says. "We've seen what happens when LGBT issues become the focal point of a general election…These polarizing issues don't bring out the best in voters."
The first truly fabulous float of Albuquerque's June 13 Pridefest parade could only be described as a cabanamobile: a long flatbed outfitted with a canopy of faux palm leaves and tiki masks. More than a dozen supporters wearing rainbow-printed T-shirts waved from the float to the crowds lining Central Avenue.
Ten years ago, it was unheard of for a politician to sponsor a pride float. This year, the cabanamobile belonged to Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chávez. Lt. Gov. Diane Denish, who is running for governor, wasn't far behind, waving from a convertible and trailing a flock of happy supporters (including a dachshund and a pug). Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, who would like Denish's current job, also booked himself a car in the parade.
After the 2004 presidential election, many observers concluded that anti-gay-marriage ballot measures mobilized far-right, religious, conservative voters across the nation. However, as public opinion turns in favor of gay rights, a pro-LGBT stance may be a strong asset.
"The fact of the matter is virtually every single supporter of the bill won [re-election in 2008]," McSorley says. "It was only opponents of the bill that lost."
In 2008, the only openly gay candidate for the Legislature, Victor Raigoza, lost his bid for the state Senate in the primaries. So far, no openly gay individual has announced his or her candidacy for office, but former Republican Michael Huerta says he is considering a bid in Las Cruces in 2012.
"I think we need to have a focused effort in 2010 and 2012 to elect openly gay people—from both parties—to office, with a focus on the Legislature," Huerta, who defected to the Democratic Party after coming out, says. Huerta later became Democratic state Rep. Harry Teague's campaign press secretary and a delegate to the 2008 Democratic National Convention. "We need to get legislators [who vote against LGBT rights] sitting next to a gay legislator and see that he doesn't bite, that maybe he's actually conservative on taxes," he says.
Siegle, who as a Santa Fe Community College board member is one of five openly gay elected officials in Santa Fe, agrees. Her partner, current Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics, was elected as the first openly gay member of the state Legislature in 1992.
"Before that, in the Senate, they would say the most vile, disgusting things about people who are gay, just uncontrolled stuff about pedophiles and worse," Siegle says. 'The fact that Liz was on the floor of the Senate really toned down the hate rhetoric. It didn't change people's votes, but it might've over time."
Before the LGBT community can even consider running a candidate, first it must rev itself up. On the federal level, the Obama administration has disappointed many members of the community from day one, when he chose an anti-gay pastor to lead the inauguration convocation. Since then, Obama has not yet repealed the "don't ask don't tell" ban on gays in the military and has made only the barest concessions on health care issues for gay federal employees.
To make matters worse, on the eve of Albuquerque Pridefest, the US Justice Department filed a brief defending the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which likened homosexuality to sexual deviancy (Obama has since denounced DOMA as a discriminatory law that should be repealed).
"During Pride, I didn't hear a word about the brief," Pridefest board member Danny Hernandez says. "But there were reverberations the next two days on email and Facebook…What I'm hearing is people are becoming more radicalized. Where domestic partnership was OK during the last session, now they want to hold elected officials to a higher standard, which is marriage."
Perusing the Albuquerque Pridefest archives, it becomes clear that, like any grassroots movement, the LGBT community's history has been periodically fractured by infighting and disagreements. In 1981, for example, it was a group of men defecting from the Gay Co-op because they were "frustrated with inaction." They formed Common Bond New Mexico Foundation, an organization still in operation among the dozens of other groups in the state.
Now, in 2009, a new group, Just New Mexico, has splintered from EQNM to focus solely on gay marriage.
"We are really supportive of domestic partnerships…and I wouldn't say we want one or the other," founding member Norma Vazquez de Houdek says. She and her partner, Mary, were among the "Sandoval 64," couples who were issued marriage licenses in 2004 by Sandoval County Clerk Victoria Dunlap before a court injunction shut it down.
"What we're trying to do is gain full civil rights for all people," Vazquez de Houdek says. "We're focusing on marriage and that's our ultimate goal."
And they're here to recruit you. SFR