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Sharing a Political Platform : Activism: Gay rights groups, once the domain of men and their concerns, are naming women to powerful positions. The fight against AIDS brought lesbians into the fold.

November 15, 1990|GARY LIBMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a member of the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Metropolitan Coalition in the mid-1970s, Torie Osborn was often paired with gay men to give speeches to high school or college classes.

At one such event, Osborn heard a male speaker extol gay liberation because "you could go to bars and have fun and be free from supporting wives and children."

At the time, in 1976, Osborn was helping to raise her female lover's son from a previous marriage, working for his school PTA and coaching his Little League team.

"I felt I was from another planet," said Osborn, who is now executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles. " . . . The idea that liberation was about freedom from responsibility was anathema to me."

Osborn acknowledges that the male speaker was not advocating promiscuity, but she nonetheless abandoned the coalition, moved to California and worked exclusively on lesbian and feminist projects until the mid-1980s. "I did not see a gay man for five years," she said.

She renewed her contacts with gay men in 1985 and became Southern California coordinator for the successful campaign against the Lyndon LaRouche ballot initiative, Prop. 64, in 1986. The measure would have barred from schools and from all food-handling jobs persons who tested positive for exposure to AIDS.

As she renewed these contacts, Osborn said she noticed that gay men were more sympathetic to her concerns. In 1988, she assumed her post at the Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center.

Experts say Osborn has followed the pattern of many women who joined gay and lesbian groups at the start of the modern gay liberation movement in the late 1960s. During the 1970s and the early 1980s, many lesbians said pervasive sexism and an unwillingness to address issues that concern same-sex families drove them into separate lesbian and feminist groups.

But the fights against AIDS and political attacks from the right lured women back to gay and lesbian organizations in the mid-1980s. And today, using the leadership skills they gained in the separate organizations, lesbians have assumed executive positions, dramatically increasing their power in groups once dominated by men.

"It's definitely true that lesbians are in leadership and staff positions in organizations once considered gay male groups. I would say it's become very obvious the last five years," said John D'Emilio, a University of North Carolina history professor and author of "Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities," a history of gay politics before 1970.

Walter Williams, an associate professor of anthropology at USC who specializes in societal attitudes toward sexuality, agrees: There has been "a stronger emergence of (female) leadership within the lesbian and gay movement. The separatist stage was a good thing for women to gain leadership skills and self-confidence," he said.

Said Osborn, "Sexism which existed in the gay male community has markedly decreased because lesbians have been in the forefront of the war on AIDS. If you were a gay man and you took your gay lover to Century City hospital to die, you bet your booties you were going to run into a (lesbian) nurse."

As gay men and women worked together, gay groups began advocating causes that lesbians had championed, including legal protection for the rights of partners in same-sex relationships.

"AIDS . . . made clear to gay men how fragile their relationships could be under the present legal system," said Thomas B. Stoddard, executive director of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"If two men live together and one dies of AIDS, the other may have no entitlement to property and may be excluded from the funeral and all other formalities surrounding the death," Stoddard said.

"Women, particularly lesbians, knew this at an early time. . . . Many lesbian women also lost their children as a result of their sexual orientation.

"That made lesbians especially aware of the need to do political work to make them secure, but many men came to learn the importance of political work only through personal tragedy."

Karen Clark, a Minneapolis lesbian and veteran state legislator, said that gay men "have started to recognize the central nature of some issues we have been thinking about for a long time.

"Gay men have begun to get concerned about laws that provide health insurance or retirement benefits to partners who are not legally married," she said.

The changes within the gay and lesbian communities are evident in the Advocate, the self-described largest gay and lesbian magazine in the nation with a bimonthly circulation of 81,604. The publication's Oct. 9 masthead identified it for the first time as "The National Gay and Lesbian Newsmagazine." For 560 issues since 1967 it had been labeled "The National Gay Newsmagazine," without reference to lesbians.

"This change brought tears to my eyes and cheers to my staff," Osborn said.

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