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Public Officials Attend Reception at LGBT Community Center for National Coming Out Day: OutVote’s “Vote Naked” Campaign Encourages Voters to Apply for Absentee Ballots

by Kevin Flaherty

For Riverwesters used to contentious public meetings with their elected officials, this meeting felt a bit kinder and gentler. On October 10, the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgendered (“LGBT”) Community Center hosted its annual Public Officials reception in honor of National Coming Out Day. In fact, the reception felt something like a parent-teacher conference, with the politicians (six elected officials and three candidates) as parents and the LGBT Community Center’s staff alternately playing the role of teacher and student. Adding to that atmosphere, the center’s youth group, Project Q, performed an amusing skit demonstrating the importance of educating the voter on issues key to the gay community, identifying supporters, and getting-out-the-vote efforts. The skit revolved around the political organizing that played a vital role in the recent successful effort to defeat an effort to repeal gay civil rights in Miami-Dade, Florida. National Coming Out Day celebrates the October 11, 1987 March on Washington in which 500,000 gays, lesbians, and their allies marched for equal rights in our nation’s capital. Approximately 40 people were at the reception, which featured talks by Carmen Murguia of the Juana Vega Resource Center, OutVote Project Coordinator Saad Akbar Khan, and a funny, yet thoughtful speech by Peg Lautenschlager, Democratic candidate for Attorney General. Akbar Khan, who recently joined the community center as its eighth employee, spoke to the group about the importance of voting. He will spearhead the center’s non-partisan get-out-the-vote efforts through the Spring 2003 elections. Right now, OutVote is running its “Vote Naked” project where LGBT voters are encouraged to apply for absentee ballots. By voting by mail, voters can assure last-minute emergencies like bad weather will not interfere with election-day voting. Political campaigns tend to like voting-by-mail as absentee ballots completed prior to election day are considered “money in the bank” and can help focus final get-out-the-vote efforts. Akbar Khan pointed out that the state of Oregon has seen voter participation improve dramatically since it established permanent absentee ballot status (i.e., voting by mail). According to the Center for Voting and Democracy, more than 66 percent of Oregon’s registered voters cast ballots in the 1996 special election to fill Bob Packwood’s Senate seat, compared with only 21 percent in the nation’s previous special election for a Senate seat, held in Texas, where permanent absentee status was not available. Lautenschlager, a former federal prosecutor, joked that if elected Attorney General, she would not prosecute people voting naked. On a more serious note, Lautenschlager recounted how, after walking in the recent Madison AIDS Walk with U.S. Representative (and out-lesbian) Tammy Baldwin, her 21-year-old son Josh thanked her, saying “This [equal rights for the LGBT community] is the civil rights movement of my generation.” When asked if LGBT issues ever come before the school board, Milwaukee Public Schools Director Ken Johnson replied immediately, “Never.” Johnson reported that he came to the event because he thinks get-out-the-vote efforts are important. “I always want as many people to vote as possible.” Of the act of a gay person coming out, Johnson said: “If that helps liberate a person I have no problem with that.” Johnson is generally considered a pro-voucher school board director. When it was pointed out that some gays and lesbians opposed tax money paying for schools that may teach that homosexuality is evil, Johnson wondered if schools receiving public money went so far as to teach intolerance: “I don’t think anyone is checking.” Johnson believes it is up to the parent to decide which school their child will go to, and says he doesn’t like to get in the way of that decision. After some thought, though, Johnson acknowledged, “I can understand it being a concern for some.” There was scant attendance by Riverwest elected officials, with only School Board Director Johnson present. State Representative Sheldon Wasserman attended, but because of redistricting he will only represent a small portion of northeast Riverwest until the November elections. Two candidates made appearances in addition to Lautenschlager: George Christenson, executive director of NMIDC is running for State Senate; and Marie Broussard, a long-time Riverwester and former Sen. Kohl staff-person, is running for Ken Johnson’s school board seat in the spring elections. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 10 – November 2002
by Kevin Flaherty