What is the history of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force?
March 30, 2004
The history of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF), one of the
oldest extant LGBT rights organizations, reflects the shifting political
fortunes of the community as the larger political climate has cycled from
conservative to liberal and back again.
NGLTF was founded as the National Gay Task Force in New York City in October
1973 by a group of gay men including Howard Brown, Ron Gold, Nathan Rockhill,
and Bruce Voeller. The latter three had been involved with the Gay Activists
Alliance, one of the groups that sprang up in the wake of the June 1969
Over the years, the Task Force has played a role in most of the LGBT
community's important struggles. In its earliest years, the organization worked to
change the American Psychiatric Association's classification of homosexuality as
a mental disorder, successfully pressured the U.S. Civil Service Commission to
rescind its ban on gay employees, and helped introduce the first legislation
to make sexual orientation a protected classes (that bill never passed, but
the effort continues with ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act). In 1977,
Task Force co-directors Voeller and Jean O'Leary were among the first LGBT
leaders to discuss queer issues with White House staff.
Under director Virginia Apuzzo, the Task Force found another void to fill:
combating antigay violence and the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. In 1982, it started
its Anti-Violence Project - which helped local groups fight antigay hate
crimes and conducted the first national survey of homophobic violence - and
established the first national crisis hotline. The Task Force helped launch two
national AIDS advocacy coalitions and secured the first federal funding for
community-based AIDS groups, while also supporting more militant activism by groups
such as ACT UP.
In 1985, with Jeff Levi at the helm, the Task Force moved its headquarters to
Washington, D.C., and changed its name to the National Gay and Lesbian Task
Force. After the Supreme Court's 1986 _Bowers v. Hardwick_ ruling, NGLTF
launched its Privacy Project, which targeted sodomy laws nationwide. The Task Force
helped organize the October 1987 March on Washington, and its members were
among the 700 LGBT leaders arrested in a mass civil disobedience action at the
As the 1980s drew to a close, new director Urvashi Vaid focused on
strengthening local organizations. "We've got to march from Washington into action at
home," Vaid said in a speech at the 1993 March on Washington. "We have got to
match the power of the Christian supremacists, member for member, vote for vote,
dollar for dollar." The Task Force advanced its movement-building work
through its annual Creating Change conference (begun in 1988), which serves as the
premier networking and skills-building venue for progressive queer activists,
and its Policy Institute (started in 1995), the movement's "think tank."
Even as the LGBT movement exploded during a period of resurgent queer
activism and unprecedented national attention to gay issues, NGLTF floundered during
the early 1990s. Three directors came and went in as many years, the
organization's staff and budget shrank by half, and several key projects were ended.
The Task Force turned a corner under the leadership of Kerry Lobel, who was
appointed in 1996 and continued the organization's focus on local activism. In
March 1999, NGLTF helped organize Equality Begins at Home, a series of
coordinated demonstrations and lobby days in all 50 states. Lobel was also known for her
politics of inclusion; in 1997, NGLTF changed its mission statement to
include bisexual and transgender people. In April 2003, the Task Force selected Matt
Foreman, its first male director in more than a decade.
Throughout the years, NGLTF has been at the center of a variety of
controversies. The issue prompting the most debate has been whether to focus solely on
gay-specific issues (such as military exclusion and same-sex marriage) or to
embrace a multi-issue progressive agenda (including, for example, affirmative
action, reproductive rights, and welfare reform).
NGLTF's mission statement defines the organization as "part of a broader
social justice movement for freedom, justice, and equality." In that vein, in
December 2002, the Task Force joined a coalition opposing the impending U.S. war
in Iraq. This past summer, it played a visible role in the 40th anniversary
commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 March on Washington for civil
As the national political climate has grown more conservative and the LGBT
movement more mainstream, some critics charge that the Task Force is out of
touch. "The screeching, dogmatic leftoids who long dominated American gay public
discourse are not merely in retreat, they have become mostly irrelevant," wrote
gay journalist Rex Wockner in 2002. "The vast majority of gays and lesbians
these days have little in common with the dogma of NGLTF and movement wonks of
Despite such criticism, NGLTF proudly remains one of the last significant
remnants of the gay liberation movement of the post-Stonewall years. It continues
to serve, in the words of gay historian John D'Emilio, as "the queer voice of
the progressive movement and the progressive voice of the queer movement."
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.
D'Emilio, John. 2002. "Organizational Tales: Interpreting the NGLTF Story."
In The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture (Duke
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. 2003. "Three Decades of Fighting for Freedom, Justice & Equality"
Vaid, Urvashi. 1995. Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian
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