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Conference Urges More Gay Elected Officials

Times Staff Writer

Delegates to the first national Conference of Lesbian and Gay Officials called Saturday for the election of more openly gay people to office, saying they can no longer depend solely on liberal allies to champion causes such as the battle against AIDS.

Of 200 delegates attending the West Hollywood convention, less than 20 were elected to their posts. The rest were appointed or hoped to seek office in the future.

Tom Chorlton, executive director of the National Assn. of Gay and Lesbian Democratic Clubs in Washington, said gays are tired of asking politicians to represent their causes.

“It’s no longer enough just to whisper in someone’s ear,” Chorlton said. “We need someone at the table of power, and that’s what we lack in far too many instances. There is no liberal, straight, progressive politician who can articulate all of our issues.”

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Persuade Others

Kathleen Nichols, a supervisor from Dane County, Wis., said delegates need to persuade other gays to run for public office. She said her power increased dramatically when she went from being a “rock-throwing liberal” to an elected official.

“The most effective way to work with an elected official is to be an elected official,” said Nichols, who spent much of the afternoon in a small conference room that held nearly every openly gay official in the country. “There’s nothing like . . . being on the inside.”

The three-day conference is being sponsored by gay and lesbian clubs and the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles. It is hosted by the City of West Hollywood, which made international headlines last year when gays captured the majority of the City Council seats.

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Delegates at the conference, which was held at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, said the West Hollywood experience may be hard to duplicate elsewhere, because few communities have such a large homosexual population. But they said the West Hollywood elections proved that gays have the ability to successfully campaign on issues other than gay rights if they form alliances with others in the community, such as senior citizens.

California accounts for nearly 25% of the country’s openly gay elected officials, according to conference organizers. But there were gay representatives from several other states. Three gay officials from Minnesota, including a state senator, attended. There also were gay officeholders from Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Wisconsin and Florida.

The conference included sessions on campaign management, media relations, political action committees, fund-raising, polling and other topics designed to increase the political savvy of the delegates, most of whom are community leaders.

Focus on AIDS

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But there also was a strong focus on acquired immune deficiency syndrome, a deadly disease that most commonly strikes gay men.

The delegates said they hope to increase public awareness of the disease by talking about treatment and the ways the disease is spread. They also said AIDS should be a chief concern for gay officeholders.

“This is not just an AIDS conference, because it has taken us 20 years to make it here as government officials,” Chorlton said. “But the AIDS crisis makes it all the more urgent for us to speak for ourselves. . . . AIDS is the most pressing political issue we have to deal with. I don’t think anyone doubts that for a second.”

Asked if he expected gay officeholders would suffer from a public backlash prompted by concern over AIDS, Chorlton said, “People have tried to use AIDS to oppress us, but that argument has begun to unravel visibly.”

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Brian Coyle, an openly gay member of the Minneapolis City Council, predicted that “in five years you’ll probably see the number of elected and appointed gay officials double.”


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