Stephen Handwerk may deny it, but during the last few years, he has emerged as Louisiana’s most well-known and passionate advocate for LGBT rights. Handwerk is the first-ever openly gay officer of the Louisiana State Democratic Party, representing the 7th Congressional District, and he is also the National Co-Chair of the National Stonewall Democrats Political Action Committee. Handwerk has served on the Board of Directors of National Stonewall Democrats for the past six years (three terms), where worked as an active member of the DNC Relations Committee and Chairman of the Personnel Committee. Handwerk served Louisiana as a Delegate to the 2008 Democratic Presidential Convention.
For the last five years, Stephen has been on the Board of Directors of AOC (formerly known as Acadiana Open Channel); during the last two years, he served as its President. Under Handwerk’s leadership, AOC has almost tripled its budget, and this fall, it will move into a brand new, state-of-the-art facility in the Rosa Parks Transportation Center in Lafayette. He frequently appears on radio and television programs, advocating on the Democratic or Progressive issues of the day.
Stephen owns his own small consulting firm with dual specialization – AffordableConsulting.com – in Graphic Design, Video Production and Website creation – and TurnLouisianaBlue.com which specializes in political campaign consulting for progressive Democrats. He lives with his partner of ten years, Danny, and their seven-year-old chocolate lab, Mocha.
Lamar: Until 2003, it was, for all intents and purposes, illegal to be gay in Louisiana. The United States Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence vs. Texas that anti-sodomy laws in Texas and, by extension, Louisiana and other states were unconstitutional and violative of the 14th Amendment. You are probably Louisiana’s most well-known and most outspoken gay rights activist. What has changed in the Louisiana LGBTQ community since 2003? Are we a more tolerant and accepting state? Are there reasons to be optimistic?
Stephen: Lamar, thanks for this opportunity! While I certainly do not shy away from having LGBT Equality debates, there are many others in this state that are doing an amazing job. So I don’t know if I am the most well known or outspoken, but I certainly appreciate the compliment.
It is true that in Lawrence the Supreme Court did basically rule all these laws unconstitutional; however those laws are still on the books here in Louisiana. They were never repealed. Why do I mention this?
During the last legislative session, we saw Representative LaBruzzo and others ginning up and trying to pass legislation that directly violates the rulings of the high court. At any time a sheriff, chief of police, or the state police could decide to start enforcement of these laws again. This should certainly be of concern for us.
What has changed since 2003 in the LGBT Community? First, I would say that the Louisiana Constitutional Amendment was a big hit to us. This amendment affirmed that in Louisiana Marriage is ONLY between a man and a woman.
That caused a lot of LGBT folks and our allies to leave the state. These were hard-working Louisiana taxpayers who are now contributing in other states. This also caused many to go back into the closet and depressed activism for several years.
That said, we are seeing a new generation come forward with new ideas, strong convictions and more straight allies than ever before. This shift has caused LGBTQ equality to become a top concern of theirs. This new generation, signified by substantial polling over the last decade, is showing that not only are they fully committed to equality, but they are also convincing others. A National Opinion poll conducted by CNN this past April shows that “51% of Americans think marriages between gay and lesbian couples should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage.”
The biggest news of this poll was that if you are under 50 years old, then you are more likely to be in support of marriage equality, with 60% in the affirmative. This was a huge tipping point. In a state, however, where you can legally be fired from your job just for being LGBT, we have a ways to go. All of the polling data shows that, even here in Louisiana, over 70% feel this should not be the case, and well over 55% already believe that it is illegal to discriminate against LGBT employees. (And this data is over a year and a half old).
So are there reasons to be optimistic? – YES!
First, there are term limits here in this state now. These limits are forcing in “new blood” into the halls of the legislature in Baton Rouge. This, in turn, allows for more opportunities to move out the old and bring in the new. Simply by attrition this issue becomes moot in several years. The opportunity though to bring this change faster is simply by showing up and becoming active. Support groups like Louisiana Stonewall Democrats, Capitol City Alliance, SPECTRUM, PACE, and groups like the Young Democrats of Louisiana are working very hard to bring this inevitable future to us faster. This is all in an attempt to speed the process so that fewer folks have to suffer.
Lamar: I was honestly surprised and appalled that HB112, the anti-school bullying bill by Austin Badon, was defeated. In my opinion, the Louisiana Family Forum successfully rebranded the bill as the “homosexual bullying bill.” Can you explain the true purpose of HB112, who it actually affected, and why it was an important piece of legislation? And as a follow-up, what’s your opinion of the Louisiana Family Forum’s ongoing and persistent campaign against the LGBTQ community?
Stephen: This year’s HB112 attempted to do really only one thing: Set a minimum standard definition of bullying and instruct school systems to deploy policies to protect all children. We are horrified at the headlines that plagued this country last September. It seemed as if every day we heard of yet another story of a child taking their own life to free themselves from enduring any more bullying. The key issue here was the inclusion of the characteristics that bullying may take; this was where the fight was. We know from reports from all over this state that children are targets for bullying because they have been labeled as “gay” or physically or mentally disabled. This bill specifically added these two characteristics of bullying into the legislation (along with a host of others).
Because administrators, teachers, and others do not always apply the same standards for someone who is being bullied for the aforementioned indicators as with other reasons such as socio-economic or racial classes. Because of these double standards, intended or not, the inclusion of the targeted characteristics was imperative. We have heard from parents around the state, some that even testified during the hearing of the bill, that administrators have time after time belittled, dismissed or worse told parents that “if their child would just act more masculine” or “study harder,” they wouldn’t have to face this “taunting.” Additionally, some teachers have told us that when trying to enforce existing anti-bullying policies, oftentimes, they themselves are in turn chastised by their administration for “making a big deal out of nothing.”
A level playing field is what we are talking about here. We want to ensure that each and every child is protected. Right now, we know that if a child is being harassed because s/he has been labeled “gay” (whether they are or not is immaterial) that child has little if any protections. This is particularly true for children who are less likely to report the bullying to their parents because they are fearful of what their parents may think of them.
Most disappointing was a group of Democratic State Legislators, lead by Representative John Bel Edwards, who tried to strip the characteristics from the bill. They wrongly thought they were doing the right thing. These legislators were wrong on the substance for the reasons listed above, and they were wrong on the tactic, as even the stripped down bill failed to pass.
This was simply political malpractice. Now, their re-election bids are in jeopardy, because we are doing everything we can to ensure they have to answer to their constituents. I think each of these legislators must be forced to explain their actions. This begs the question: Why do they think that if you are targeted for being gay or disabled, you don’t deserve the same protections as others?
The Louisiana Family Forum, or HATE INCORPORATED (as I like to call them), and their affiliated groups throughout the country, notably the Family Resource Council, have been deemed a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center.
The Louisiana Family Forum only seems to exist to attack LGBT folks. Clearly, by their work on this bill and by their testimony offered via their surrogates, they feel that it is completely acceptable to “bully the gay away.” Make no mistake: these groups still actively support the idea that “being gay is a choice.”
Here is a fact that they admitted to this during the hearing: If sexual orientation was stripped from the bill, then they would not have opposed it.
This clearly means they support the bill with the enumerated characteristics and feel children should NOT be bullied for these reasons. However, if you are gay or have been deemed so by other children, protections should not apply. What does that say about them? What does that say about our legislators for falling for it?
Lamar: Do you think there is a generational shift on social issues, privacy rights, and individual liberties that will soon manifest itself politically here in Louisiana? Do you believe younger Louisianans are more progressive on issues like equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, including marriage equality?
Stephen: I think I jumped the gun and already started to answer this question above. Yes, I completely believe this. In fact, we are seeing from multiple national polls that leading Republicans are pushing to stay away from LGBT issues simply because they are seeing a great exodus from voters under 50 away from their party.
Take, for example, the “Marriage Amendment” here in Louisiana. If the amendment was good for anything, it showed at that point in time where the baseline’s ideology lay. In other words, how many people would go out of their way to vote against this bill. Certainly the LGBT voters would do this, and it appears that roughly 12% of straight voters sided with the LGBT community. What we are now starting to see is that number is significantly growing. These issues are quickly becoming a litmus test. “Do you support LGBT equality so much that it would prevent you from voting for someone?”
We are seeing that many of our straight allies are now taking this on as a key issue and it is moving faster than we have ever seen in any other social change. It is inspiring. However, that simply means that the opposition to equality is getting louder and they are getting desperate. The LGBT Community has a lot to be excited about, if only for attrition. It’s morbid in some regards, but very exciting in others. The single biggest thing we can do to advance our equality is VOTE and get our friends and family to vote. This is second only to getting our issues – Issues of Equality – as a central part of every election.
This is important in the elections from Governor down to City Council.
Lamar: The official conservative Republican response to many LGBT issues is that they’re opposed to defining gay and lesbian Americans as a “separate class” of people, yet, at the same time, they also seem vehemently opposed to treating gay and lesbian Americans as an equal class. How do you think they can legitimately reconcile this apparent contradiction?
Stephen: Wow, that is a deep question. I think, first, you are talking about integrity and well, that seems to be lacking in the political realm for some time now.
This is indicative of the two sides to the Republican Party. You have the fiscal conservatives who have appeared to have made a Faustian bargain with the religious conservatives: “Get us elected and we will do your bidding.”
You see, the fiscal conservatives are concerned that if the LGBT community is deemed as a “class,” then it will bring more lawsuits in the workplace and elsewhere. Also that businesses would have to respond (spend money on), though this is a very small concern for them. The religious conservatives perhaps more than anything want to vilify and attack the LGBT community to prevent any form of equality for us. That, in my estimation, is easier than looking at themselves. There is a higher divorce rate in the Bible Belt which seems to be attacking the sanctity of marriage a great deal more than I am. So, these two sides working together make up the current Republican Party.
Basically, the fiscal conservatives could care less about many of the social issues. They are Libertarian in this sense but they agreed to take on these social issues in order to get the “Values Voters” to side with them. This has been a tenuous relationship for quite some time, needing special control and special handling.
Now, we see the religious conservatives pushing back, seemingly asking, “What have you done for me lately?”. The Republicans, spines steeled from the last election, have passed a wave of legislation through the US House of Representatives in a desperate attempt to win them back. This is because they know they will not pass in the Senate and the President would never sign them. Why do I say this? It is very simple. For six of the eight years of President Bush’s term, they had complete control of the Congress. They could have done ANYTHING they wanted to. Yet they didn’t even come close to passing any of these draconian laws during that time.
So, the Religious Right is now feeling used and, in my opinion, rightfully so. The problem for them is that opinions for their side of the argument have dramatically shifted against them in the last twenty years. There was little political downside to these Fiscal Conservatives for taking a stance against the LGBT community twenty years ago. Now, there is, and it is becoming very difficult for them to navigate. Just look at the Republican Presidential Primary candidates thus far. I expect to see this fracture to only deepen in the next decade.
Lamar: How do you respond or react to people who believe that your life and your life’s cause are immoral, that you live in “sin”?
Stephen: Well I believe that this is best answered by a scene from the West Wing:
The thing here is that my partner and I both come from rather religious upbringings, he more so than I. So I am well equipped to have this conversation. I would open with the Post Dispensation Gambit and then argue the other points in Leviticus, that so many use as an albatross around our necks. Such is the case as in the very same chapter of Leviticus that they use against us. It clearly states that eating shellfish is an abomination.
So, once they give up shrimp and crawfish boils, then we can talk.
All kidding aside on this: We are a secular country. The “establishment clause” clearly says this. The writing of our founding fathers; Quakers mostly, specifically, attacked those who try to codify laws solely built on Biblical teachings. Though, now many in the religious right are trying so very hard to re-write history, the facts will never change. Pilgrims risked everything they had to flee from religious persecution, and the last thing they wanted in this “new land” was a repeat of what they had to endure under the church.
Finally, many of the organized religions are now completely accepting LGBT persons into their faith and affirming them. For the longest time, it was only the Quakers (interesting, huh?) that fully embraced their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in the 70’s, as I recall. In recent polling, a majority of Catholics in this country feel that gay and lesbian couples should be afforded the same rights and responsibilities as their straight counterparts.
Lamar: Moving onto other issues: If you were Governor, what are the first three things you would do immediately?
Stephen: The first thing I would do is I would sit down with my team, go through each and every staff position for the Governor’s office, and eliminate one out of every three of them. I would then charge each department head with doing the very same thing and would charge many of them to figure out how to merge departments to reduce the waste. I would also institute a salary cap to everyone working for the State to be NO MORE than the salary of the Governor. Louisiana has the dubious distinction of having the one of the highest number of state employees per capita in this country. Most of these employees hired by this governor are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and that simply is not acceptable. Nobody should get rich on the backs of taxpayers.
The second thing I would do is call a Special Session of the Legislature to pass legislation I would call “Louisiana First.” This would specifically focus on cleaning up our budget and restoring funding to Education and Healthcare. This would also pass on the savings in action #1 has garnered and then challenge the legislators to do the same. As part of Louisiana First, we would refocus our efforts as a state, not looking outside to attract new business and instead focusing on helping existing business grow and thrive. This would be accomplished by installing policies such as payroll tax holiday periods for all new jobs created, and we would fund this by eliminating funding that is designed to attract new businesses to our state. Existing business owners in our state deserve some focus and help. I would also be on the floor working arm-in-arm with the Legislators to pass this.
The third thing I would do is sign an Executive Order stating clearly that each and every department of this state, and by default any contractor or public body who receives funding from the state, must employ a very strict Anti-Discrimination & Harassment policy that specifically includes Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Gender Expression. I would charge the Labor Board with overseeing this and make sure that that Board is meeting regularly and is fairly considering the cases it is to hear. This would be backed up with HB 1 and SB 1 in each and every legislative session (until it is passed) being a “WORKERS RIGHTS” bill. This would include the above provisions to codify into law, and include protections for workers who want to organize in their workplace and enact tougher worker safety programs and mandates on business.
Lamar: Who are your heroes in Louisiana?
Stephen: Hero status is something difficult for me perhaps because of being let down so many times, but here are some people that I really admire:
State Senator “Butch” Gautreaux. Butch has not been one to fight for the headlines, but has kept himself focused on making Louisiana a better place for its citizens. Through focusing on the budget of the state, he has done his best to make sure we remain focused on the future and that promises we have made are promises we will keep. This can be seen in his fight this last session to resist the governors attempt to sell off just about every asset this state has.
Zack Kopplin. He is the young man who this past session lead the effort with Senator Karen Carter-Peterson to repeal the “creationism law” here in the state. I have been able to meet Zack now several times, and I am just inspired by this guy. The fight and the sense of right and wrong in him and in others in his age group. I can’t tell you how inspired I am.
Brad Pitt. He has done so much by focusing his time, fame, and effort on storm recovery from Katrina. I am just in awe of this. He also donated significantly to the fight for Marriage Equality in California. Perhaps he will begin investing in equality here in Louisiana as well? We can hope.
Representatives Patti Smith and Michael Jackson. Both of these legislators took to the floor of the State House and made passionate speeches for passing HB112 this past session. They argued that LGBT kids need the protections and why it was so important to pass the bill. They even called out their peers for NOT supporting this and their bias against gay folks. Great work!
Lamar: Relatedly, who is the greatest living Louisianan?
Stephen: I don’t think that I can answer this question. I certainly think that there are people in the running for this – such as Donna Brazile (first vice chair of the DNC and former campaign Manager for Al Gore). She would be near the top on my list. The amount of work she has done to protect voter’s rights as well as her willingness to stand up on difficult issues has always inspired me.
I also think Governor Kathleen Blanco is near the top on this as well. Remember whatever you want about this Governor; the fact is, before the storms (which will likely forever define her time in the Governor’s mansion), she worked tirelessly to improve our education system in this state. She did quite an amazing job at that. Too bad many, not all, of her reforms and improvement were knee-capped by our new Governor.
Finally, I think Lindy Boggs should be on this list as well. Congresswoman-turned-Ambassador Boggs did so much for women in this State. In fact, I don’t believe there could have been a Governor Blanco or a US Senator Mary Landrieu without there first being a Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. She remains an inspiration to many of us for all the barriers that she broke down. Many discounted her early on as she assumed the position in Congress after the death of her husband. She went on to continue winning her seat over and over again until she retired.
Lamar: Do you think Louisiana will elect or could elect an openly gay candidate for Congress or statewide office?
Stephen: YES! In the last four years, we have elected our first two openly gay officials in the state. They both happen to be on the School Board in New Orleans, and both seem to be set to be re-elected.
Polling data on this issue has drastically changed in the thirteen plus years that I have lived in this state. That is certainly inspiring. I think this person is going to have to be prepared to be bold and be ready to take on the issues. ONE MISTAKE and it will be over for him/her; so that is a LOT of pressure. The good news here is in order for there to be a first, many need to come before to prepare the ground to be fertile for his/her candidacy. I hope that is what I am doing.
The interesting thing is over eight years ago when I started putting myself “out there” doing radio, television and writing political columns, I insisted that I was the “Guy on the LEFT” or “the Democrat.” I didn’t present myself as the “GAY GUY.” That is important, I think, because I didn’t want all of my opinions to be immediately dismissed because “I was gay,” much like women’s opinions were summarily dismissed less than a century ago.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with Congressman Barney Frank. Frank was the first openly gay member of Congress to be re-elected (several times over now), and while he of course has his political shortcomings, he is and will always be an inspiration to me. We were both at meetings in Dallas about seven years ago, and we frequently were running into each other.
The previous week, he had appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert. They went the entire interview without asking Russert asking him ONE question about being gay. I told him, “You know, I think we have finally made it!”
He looked at me quizzically. I explained to him that I thought it was a huge step forward for him to be on “THE SUNDAY MORNING TALK SHOW” and not get ONE question about “THE GAY THING.”
He almost laughed (know that Barney NEVER laughs) and said, “You know, when I started doing the national media I had to get them to agree PRIOR to going on their shows, that they would be limited to TWO GAY questions.”
I think that the fact that I am gay is simply the least interesting thing about me. However, being gay is the MOST important thing for me politically. This remains true, simply because I don’t want it to be as difficult as it was when I was a child for the kids that are coming up now.
Lamar: What’s your favorite place in Louisiana?
Stephen: My home. At least on the property that my partner and I own, I know I am fully equal. My partner and I could be fired from our jobs; we could be denied access to each other at the hospital; we could be forced to pay more for health insurance; we could be targeted just for who we are by those wishing us harm. But in our house, we are equal.
We have equality, and we don’t have to worry about those other things. Though we still face discrimination and our neighbors didn’t at first know how to contend with us. it has gotten better. I think they have realized that we are just as boring as they are. We just look better doing it. HA!