Do we have the leadership & resources needed to win full equality?

Matt Foreman

The following interview is part of LGBTQ Nation‘s six-part Queer State of the Union, in which we speak with some of the nation’s queer leaders to find out what they see as the challenges — and solutions — for the queer community and our struggle for equal rights.

Matt Foreman has seen it all from the forefront of the struggle for equality.

The veteran politico led multiple queer organizations, including the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force), where he gave the original annual “State of the Movement” address at the Creating Change conference for queer activists.

He’s helped to steer the national conversation through vicious slurs, moments of visceral grief,  and legislative maneuvers. When the time had come to pass the baton, he joined the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, where he has focused on supporting LGBTQ+  and immigration initiatives.

As a veteran activist and administrator, he’s seen early Pride marches, the AIDS crisis, the passage of both pro- and anti-LGBTQ legislation, and the rise of transgender people as a powerful force in the movement. As much as he can, Foreman has lifted up the newer, more diverse leadership needed to keep us moving forward.

As someone who has had to do the hard and inglorious work of both soliciting donations and funding campaigns, it’s no surprise he has a decidedly pragmatic view of how the movement can move forward during a challenging time. So who better for LGBTQ Nation to ask about the current state of the queer union?

LGBTQ NATION: As the president prepares to address the nation, what are the most vexing problems facing the queer equality movement?

Matt Foreman: It was deeply disturbing how the Respect For Marriage Act shoved years of work on a nondiscrimination law that would have covered all LGBTQ people out of the way. And the Respect for Marriage Act codifies now that religious organizations and colleges may treat us differently. They are not allowed to discriminate on the basis of race, but they are allowed to discriminate in their treatment of LGBTQ people and still receive federal funding.

Work on the nondiscrimination effort over the last three years included a coalition of right-wing religious organizations that would support nondiscrimination legislation for LGBTQ people. That was the Mormon Church, the Seventh Day Adventist, the 1st Amendment Partnership, and Orthodox Union. I mean, it was people that I think genuinely don’t want to see us discriminated against but also want to protect their tax-exempt status. So they and horrific anti-gay universities got completely protected from ever losing federal funding over the treatment of gay people and couples. And what we got was, yes, an important piece of legislation, but a very narrow one only focused on queer couples.

LGBTQ NATION: Do you think if (out Sen. Tammy) Baldwin (D-WI) had put as much energy into the Equality Act as she did for the Respect for Marriage Act and working on those religious exemptions, we’d have had it right now?

MF: What I think happened was a combination of two things. One, the emotional pull of marriage, all the work that went into the marriage equality struggle, and love and commitment and all of that, coupled with Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) desperately wanting a pro-gay measure to pass so he would prevail on his primary against former Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). And I think that Senator Baldwin saw an opening and seized it. It was easier to do than engage in hardcore negotiations with Republicans about the reach of a religious exemption in a non-discrimination measure.

And, you know, when you’re negotiating a piece of legislation, the other side says, “Well, put your cards on the table.” And our side, meaning our champion, Tammy Baldwin, never put the cards on the table. If the religious exemption included as an amendment to the Respect for Marriage Act were put on the table to advance some form of the Equality Act, we would have a national nondiscrimination law.

Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) at the enrollment ceremony for the Respect For Marriage Act
Getty Images Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) at the enrollment ceremony for the Respect For Marriage Act at the U.S. Capitol Building on December 08, 2022, in Washington, DC. Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images.

LGBTQ NATION: What does fighting for queer rights mean in 2023? 

MF: I don’t think there’s a federal play, obviously, with Republicans controlling the house. And, frankly, Congress just passed a pro-gay measure that was one of the only things that got done in the lame-duck session other than the massive spending bill. It is a testament to grassroots organizing and changes in attitudes that we, such a small minority of the population, got one of the only bipartisan bills through the lame duck. I mean, the farmworkers bill, which so many Republican farmers want, the DREAM Act, which has greater public support than the Equality Act, stalled out yet again, and we got our bill through. That is a testament to our collective perceived clout and the hard work done.

“It is a testament to grassroots organizing and changes in attitudes that we, such a small minority of the population, got one of the only bipartisan bills through the lame duck.”

Matt Foreman

LGBTQ NATION: But what do we do for 2023? 

MF: What is urgently and desperately needed is a coordinated, multifaceted campaign to push back against all this horrific legislation that has come down the road and will be coming down the road this year at the state level. It’s the “Don’t Say Gay” bills, the anti-trans bills, the curriculum attacks, book bans, it’s all of that, and right now, our movement at the state level is strapped for resources. And right now, we respond episodically, work from crisis to crisis, and don’t have a significant way to provide resources — money, communications assistance, training of speakers, bringing in allies from other communities.

Everyone is kind of keeping their head in the sand. We’re being pushed back, both in law and public opinion, in a way that I haven’t seen for more than a decade, and a lot of these attacks are sticking. It’s this wave of unbelievably repressive legislation.

LGBTQ NATION: Should we invest more in state organizations than national groups?

MF: Yes. I feel that the money needs to be put on the table to engage the national and state organizations and the community centers to rally the troops and go on the offensive, even knowing that the odds are against us. That requires foundations to step up with new dollars. And it requires a coordinated plan. I mean, it’s a campaign. We have to say, okay, how can GLAAD and communications teams of various organizations work together to bolster the communications capacities of state-based groups? Not taking them over but giving them resources to push back.

How can we have a coordinated response to the next anti-trans murder, which will be next week, right? And so we get a momentary blip, a couple of headlines like “trans person’s killed,” we bemoan it, and then everyone moves on. We don’t know if the perpetrators are ever caught; we don’t go after law enforcement to do a better job of both apprehending perpetrators and protecting our community. We don’t use the tragedy to unite the community and march on city hall or the police department. It’s just there are these opportunities … I hate to say that word, but these legislative attacks and physical attacks are opportunities for us to push back and push back hard. We expect an equality group with five people on staff at most to somehow organize an entire state. And, you know, we need a national vision to push back on this stuff. So a national vision and national campaign and money going into it.

 person holds a sign with the names of murdered transgender people during the Brooklyn Liberation's Protect Trans Youth event at the Brooklyn Museum on June 13, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough in New York City.
A person holds a sign with the names of murdered transgender people during the Brooklyn Liberation’s Protect Trans Youth event at the Brooklyn Museum on June 13, 2021, in Brooklyn, New York. Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images.

LGBTQ NATION: So where do we get the money, though? Our movement is based on either foundations, corporations, or millionaires. A millionaire is never going to buy us our freedom. They’ve always got their ulterior motives. Corporations are the same. So that leaves foundations or grassroots support. But we saw after marriage that the foundations cut funding.

MF: Well, I have to say, that’s absolutely not true. And that in the wake of marriage, you know, there’s a myth that dollars that went to marriage were taken away from, you know, adoption, or safe schools or whatever. Actually, the marriage dollars lifted all boats. What I will say is that after marriage, the major funders of marriage took their foot off the gas, and money started going away.

There was a national marriage campaign. It may not have looked that way from the outside, but there was one. It was, you know, we go in communications and everything else. And once marriage was won, Freedom to Marry disbanded. There was no longer a national campaign about anything. And therefore, there was no focus on how we get around the bathroom panic issue. It took us three years to get around that one! And then it just kept cascading because the right wing constantly modifies its messaging to know where to go after us. They’re just being brilliant, even in an obviously evil way, about going after us. So, you know, grooming, for example, that drag shows are sexual. It’s all just manipulating a portion of the population in a very effective way. And we just kind of don’t know what to do at a state level because that support isn’t there.

LGBTQ NATION: How do we not know what to do? I thought we were past crap like calling us pedophiles or “groomers” years ago. Drag is mainstream now. Marriage is legal. We changed the discourse. What happened?

MF: I think part of it is those people who live in blue states. There is a sense of complacency that, you know, we’ve come a long way, and we’re pretty much almost over the finish line. And what’s happening in the rest of the country is, you know, what happens in red states. That red state stuff, the culture war stuff, is driving a national discourse. And I think that money is always an issue. And so if an organization, even if it’s a relatively well-off one, comes up with the resources to, say, provide direct assistance and communications in a red state or to send organizers to the community to stand up against these Proud Boys, protests, etc, that takes money. And most organizations’ budget is all accounted for.

How do we get more money into this work? Part of it would be tapping more foundations to invest more money. And I’ve often wondered what if we would have organizations rallied around one appeal that they all got behind and said, “We need money for a national campaign to beat back transphobia and homophobia. And, you know, our goal is to raise $15 million. And if every single of all the major national organizations and umbrella organizations did that, all in one appeal, I think that would have a lot of traction. It would show that we care about all queer people across the country.

But foundations are not going to step forward with significantly more money without there being an actionable plan. You know, it’s not just “Here’s a few million dollars; go forth and multiply.” I think the community and the organizations need to develop what we need. This is how much the current cost is, this is what we’re willing to put in. And this is what we expect to achieve in three years.

Matt Foreman
Matt Foreman

LGBTQ NATION: People donate more if there is something to show for it.

MF: There is still a good bit of regulatory work that can be done at the federal agency level. Stuff that Biden’s got going on, Obama got going his last two years in office, and then Trump dismantled. Now they’re trying to rebuild it. I think that’s an opportunity for us. There are legal opportunities to push back against some of the state-based legislation like the Don’t Say Gay laws and the censorship and First Amendment issues involved in that. And I think in blue states, there is a lot of opportunity to make pro-LGBT laws real and enforced. My pet peeve with California is that the legislature passes a slew of exciting legislation every year without $1 to enforce them.

But as I said, I think the number one priority is fighting back in the states and grinding the other side down over time by showing their true nature, which is not about protecting kids, just about hate and demonizing good people. And so because that kind of rhetoric is out there, it becomes accepted wisdom. It has an impact on the way people treat queer people. And we’re seeing this rise in the rhetoric now, which isn’t just rhetoric once it influences people to attack us, physically, financially, or emotionally. And it also hurts us, you know, because we have to absorb all that in the atmosphere.

The only way we’re gonna get around that is to take it on, fight back, and expose them for what they are.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Featured image: Matt Foreman. Photo by Roey Thorpe. Illustration by Kyle Neal for LGBTQ Nation.

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