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 Stonewall riots.

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 Supreme Court.

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 rights.

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 that ilk."

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.

Further Reading
  • D'Emilio, John. 2002. "Organizational Tales: Interpreting the NGLTF Story." In The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture (Duke University Press).
  • 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 Liberation (Anchor).

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