Lesbian politics more than marriage

Today's issues transcend personal rights

When it comes to politics, what do lesbians in the industry want? The same things many of their straight peers crave, it would appear.

“I’d say civil rights, health care, relief from poverty — the basics,” says Nina Jacobson, former prexy of Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group and now an independent producer at DreamWorks. “I’ve always seen gay and lesbian life as part of a larger civil-rights conversation. But I that think as a lesbian, you may be more attuned to such issues and not take civil rights for granted.”

Melissa Etheridge, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning rock musician and singer, echoes that view, noting: “I don’t think it makes a difference that one is a lesbian. A lesbian is a woman who is concerned for her country and fellow countrymen and women.”

And Christine Vachon, producer of the landmark gay-themed pics “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” expresses similar feelings. “It’s hard for me to think in specifically gay-oriented terms,” she says. “What motivates me more than anything is this war, and the administration’s waging a cultural war on anything deemed different … including homosexuals. And that applies just as easily to people of different colors and creeds.”

Yet not all industry lesbians choose to raise their voices or flex their power, including several key players who refused interview requests for this article specifically because they wanted to remain out of the spotlight. “Being a lesbian doesn’t make one inherently political, though I wish it did,” suggests Ilene Chaiken, creator of Showtime’s “The L Word.”

These days, the war in Iraq looms large for lesbians, trumping even gay marriage and adoption rights as a front-burner issue.

“The war overshadows a lot of other subjects,” Jacobson says, “but I don’t think you can turn your back on poverty, health care, global warming and basic human needs that are not being met, though that tends to happen in wartime.”

But if there’s consensus on ousting Republicans from office, there’s no clear agreement on which Democratic presidential candidate to support. Vachon and Jacobson, for example, aren’t yet endorsing anyone, while Chaiken is a longtime backer of Hilary Clinton, and Etheridge strongly favors Dennis Kucinich.

Basic civil liberties

Regardless of who becomes the next president, the ground has fundamentally shifted on what was until recently a do-or-die issue for lesbians and gays.

“I think gay marriage is more of a hot-button political topic than a huge priority for the people I know,” Jacobson says. “Most gay people I know are less oriented toward gay marriage than toward basic civil rights for all. It’s not a huge burning hole in most of our lives, that we can’t get married. It’s more of an inconvenience.”

The sidelining of gay marriage marks a significant halt to what had been a steady expansion of rights for lesbians and gays since the 1969 Stonewall riots. Thanks to a combination of hubris, a misreading of popular opinion and the clever appeals of gay-rights opponents, gay marriage has become a millstone for homosexuals.

“Gay marriage has been used against us,” Jacobson concedes. “At this point, I’d say it’s done us more harm than good, though it is a fight worth fighting. And I don’t begrudge people fighting the fight, but many gay people are leery because it’s brought on a lot of enmity toward us.”

Vachon, too, implicitly acknowledges the split among lesbians regarding this issue. “I resist giving anybody political marching orders,” she says. “I’ve been lectured to in the past by those who’ve told me my films aren’t gay enough or politically correct enough. So that’s not something I’m going to lecture anybody else about.”

But even without lesbians marching in lockstep, there is a sense of growing influence. “We are now more represented and more understood,” Chaiken says. “Our voice is louder and stronger, and we have more potent meaning in the political conversation than we had in the past, when we were less visible.”

Harnessing that newfound strength remains a challenge, though applying it to general civil-rights advances seems a winning strategy. “I think the gay agenda, quote-unquote, is just our constant drumming that we need to rise up as a human race and become one,” Etheridge says. “And we’re not backing down. We really did mean it when we said: We’re here; we’re queer; get used to it.’ “

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