Following recent allegations of homophobic remarks made against Bryan Tate, an openly gay Republican running for a State House seat in York, by the volunteers of Democratic candidate and LGBT-organization backed Kevin Schreiber, many questions have been raised for LGBT Pennsylvanians. Tate would have been the third openly gay representative in the state, but was defeated on May 21st by democratic candidate Schreiber. Despite Schreiber’s pro-LGBT stance, Tate has alleged that campaign members of both the representative-elect and York’s mayor, Kim Bracey, told those heading to the polls “not to vote for Tate because he’s gay.” Despite this, Equality PA, a leading statewide LGBT organization, decided to endorse Schreiber’s campaign. Schreiber’s candidacy was also endorsed by Pennsylvania’s SEIU Healthcare, one of Equality PA’s main financial sponsors.
While a candidate cannot be held entirely responsible for the actions of his campaign, the fact that this incident occurred has raised serious questions about the decision making process of Equality PA and other LGBT organizations for endorsing candidates. Every candidate in that election had virtually identical stances on LGBT rights, but only one of them was openly gay. In a state that has only two openly gay lawmakers, and a country that according to the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund has less than 100, being out has to play a role in endorsing pro-LGBT candidates. And in fact, it would seem that in the past it has.
Back in the 2012 primary election for the 182nd house district between incumbent Babette Josephs, who had served for nearly 30 years, and Brian Sims, the former president of Equality PA, Sims received direct donations from many current and former Equality PA board members and staff. He was also personally endorsed by the organization’s current President. Sims also garnered the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, of which he has been a board member since 2009.
Josephs declined to apply for the endorsement of Equality PA because of this. She wrote to the Equality PA board in an email that, “No organization can make an unbiased, fair or just endorsement when its executive director is supporting one of the contenders.” She added, “You have crossed the line and discredited your own organization’s endorsement procedure. I refuse to participate in a dishonest and inherently biased process.” Equality PA never responded to her. She focused her campaign on promoting her reputation as one of the first and strongest LGBT allies in state government history; however, the thousands of dollars that poured into Brian Sims’ coffers, largely from outside the district, bested her chance at reelection.
Is an endorsement ethical if clearly biased individuals refuse to recuse themselves from the voting process? Josephs also wrote that unless those who have financially contributed to Sims’ campaign “voluntarily withdraw from activity in the race between myself and my challenger, you will have tarnished Equality PA’s reputation beyond repair and it will be impossible to restore any integrity to its endorsement procedure.” This is the age of the super PAC. While we’ve all become aware of the legality of this behavior, it remains hardly scrupulous, and clearly serves to further the interests of certain individuals, who may or may not have an entire community’s best interests in mind.
Josephs was actually recommended by the endorsement committee of Philadelphia’s Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, before their motion was voted down. It should be noted that this decision and the LCDC’s concurrent endorsement of openly bisexual candidate for the 188th district, Fatimah Muhammad, raised a number of philosophical questions that are relevant to LGBT politics across the country. Most importantly, whether or not LGBT voters should prioritize outness.
Obviously, their decision was that outness is paramount, and up until recently, that seems to have been the case for Equality PA, as well as most other major statewide and nationwide LGBT organizations. That line of thought deserves to be questioned, though. Certainly outness counts for something; representation is pivotal to achieving justice for any oppressed minority. But should representation trump all other considerations? To assume that out LGBT people, by virtue of being out, are our best advocates for LGBT issues seems obviously faulty. That is not to say any of the candidates discussed necessarily express anti-LGBT views, but simply that a better understanding of why candidates are being supported is in order. We cannot simply assume that because a candidate is out and LGBT, or because an LGBT organization endorses them, that they will do the most good for our community.
These issues have come to the forefront for LGBT Pennsylvanians, but they are omnipresent throughout the nation. Major organizations like the Human Rights Campaign make endorsements of candidates all over the country. The reality is that many people will blindly vote for candidates that get the rubber stamp of approval from major LGBT organizations. Certain groups have simply become the face of the LGBT rights movement, for better or for worse.
What I ask is that these organizations become more transparent. I want to know not only why candidates are being endorsed, but why other candidates are not. I want to know not only what issues are being prioritized, but what issues are being ignored. But most importantly, I want to know who is really benefiting from these decisions and who is being cast aside. It helps no one if LGBT people simply create another elite social class within ourselves, and the nepotistic endorsement of candidates by organizations like Equality PA seems very likely to be doing just that.
These endorsements were not necessarily wrong. I’m sure that every organization which made them firmly believes that they made the best decisions for their interests. However, were their interests truly in line with the interests of all LGBT people? That’s hard to say, but we’ll never know until we get more information. Will it take another scandal like Tate and Josephs’ for our community to catch on and become aware of these issues? Or can we say no more to self-interested pursuits under the guise of the representation of true equality?
I am an LGBT voter, and I’m tired of this. I hope that you are, too.
Jake Tolan is the former Vice-Chair for Political Affairs of the Lambda Alliance at the University of Pennsylvania. He is from Shippensburg in Franklin County, PA.
Photos: Bryan Tate for PA, Babette.org