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Gay power network signals future advances

By Carol Eisenberg

October 20, 2009 at 6:36am

Indications are that the gay rights movement is on the threshold of major gains.

That’s not because a sitting president addressed the annual fund-raising dinner of the Human Rights Campaign (Bill Clinton appeared before the civil rights group in 1997). Nor is it a function of the tens of thousands who came for the National Equality March in Washington earlier this month (a predictable ritual in the nation’s capital).

Rather, the surest signs of the movement’s arrival are the social and political networks that link large number of openly gay men and women to virtually every power center in American life, from government and politics, to business, law, media, entertainment and philanthropy.

Barney Frank
David Geffen
Steve Hildebrand
Rachel Maddow
Ellen Degeneres
Scott Rudin
Dustin Lance Black
Anthony D. Romero
V. Gene Robinson
Wanda Sykes

To that end, Muckety has compiled a list of 50 of the most influential gay movers and shakers in the country. Several, like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, political operative Steve Hildebrand and mogul David Geffen, were instrumental in helping to elect Barack Obama president.

The administration has also appointed a number of openly gay men and women to top jobs, including Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; Fred Hochberg, head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank; M. John Berry, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management; and Brian Bond, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison.

A few on our list, such as Quark founder Tim Gill and Jon L. Stryker, the heir to the Stryker fortune, have devoted their lives and sizeable wealth to advancing the cause of gay rights.

But the vast majority, from personal finance guru Suze Orman to defense lawyer Cristina Arguedas, are on the list because they are leaders in their chosen fields, secure enough to come out to the world - and supremely networked.

Here are brief profiles of the top 10 placeholders:

The top spot goes to Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, “America’s only left-handed, gay, Jewish congressman,” as a new biography describes him, who has played a starring role in national economic policy since the crash on Wall Street.

Frank is no longer simply a gay trailblazer. As the head of the House Financial Services Committee, he was instrumental in negotiating the $700 billion bailout of the banking and auto industries, as well as a measure to forestall foreclosures.

A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, Frank, 69, was the first congressman to voluntarily come out in 1987, and shortly thereafter, weathered a scandal involving a male prostitute.

Nonetheless, he has remained popular in his largely suburban, heavily Jewish Boston district, thanks to his smarts, his wit and his ability to cut deals.

“I’m used to being in the minority,” Frank said in 1996. “I’m a left-handed gay Jew. I’ve never felt, automatically, a member of any majority.”

Frank’s longtime boyfriend (he prefers that to ‘partner’ or ‘lover,’) is Sergio Pombo, an investment officer of the International Financial Corporation, the private sector arm of the World Bank.

Another powerful player on the national stage is David Geffen, 66, the richer-than-Croesus record-executive, film and theatrical producer and philanthropist, who has taken a recent interest in newspapers.

Said to be worth $6.5 billion, Geffen has given millions to medical research (including a $200 million unrestricted endowment for the UCLA Medical School), to AIDS organizations and to the arts.

After stepping down as chairman of Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks studio and from the board of Dreamworks Animation, Geffen appears to be looking for a new role.

He was an early supporter of Barack Obama and raised $1.3 million for the candidate in a star-studded Beverly Hills fund raiser last year.

He also made an unsuccessful $2 billion offer for the Los Angeles Times in 2007.

Another openly gay player on the political stage is Steve Hildebrand , former deputy national campaign director for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign who was a principal architect of Obama’s massive field operation during the primaries and the general election.

A longtime Democratic political strategist based in Sioux Falls, SD, Hildebrand had previously worked on the Senate campaigns for Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson.

The famously blunt operative is said to have declined a White House job without a moment’s hesitation. “I’m going home to South Dakota to be with my partner and my dog,” he told the Advocate.

An unexpected beneficiary of the presidential campaign was Rachel Maddow, once known only to Air America loyalists.

But over the course of the campaign, the openly gay policy wonk managed to parlay her smarts and self-assurance as an MSNBC commentator into her own show, which premiered in September.

Against all odds, Maddow has become a cable TV sensation: “I’m a big lesbian who looks like a man,” she told one interviewer. “I am not, like, Anchor Babe, and I’m never gonna be.”

But the 35-year-old Rhodes scholar who lives with her longtime partner, artist Susan Mikula, has made one concession to celebrity. They bought their first television set.

A major influence on mainstream culture is Ellen Degeneres, the Emmy-Award winning comedienne, television host and actress, whose wedding a year ago to actress Portia de Rossi almost turned gay marriage mainstream.

DeGeneres announced her engagement to de Rossi on her widely watched TV show, and subsequently challenged one of her guests, Republican presidential nominee John McCain, to justify his opposition to same-sex marriage.

“We are all the same people. All of us,” DeGeneres said. “You’re no different than I am. Our love is the same.”

McCain demurred that while he believed that marriage was between a man and a woman, he wished her “every happiness.”

“So you’ll walk me down the aisle,” DeGeneres shot back.

The candidate laughed, but did not take the bait.

Legendary producer Scott Rudin hit the jackpot last year for sheer number of Academy Award nominations.

Two of the films he produced - No Country for Old Men, adapted from the Cormac McCarthy book of the same name, and There Will Be Blood, adapted from the Upton Sinclair novel - were nominated for eight Oscars apiece, including a Best Picture nod for each of them.

No Country for Old Men won for Best Picture, with Rudin and directors Joel and Ethan Coen each awarded an Oscar.

Said to be the inspiration for the character, Buddy Ackerman in Swimming with Sharks, Rudin is famously hard-driving, some say ruthless.

“If you’re going to spend two or three years of your life working on something, you’ve got to be making the kind of movie that discusses and influences the culture and is engaged in the world you’re living in,” he once told an interviewer.

Currently at work developing screen adaptations of the novels The Corrections, Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Rudin lives in New York City with his longtime boyfriend John Barlow, a Broadway theatre publicist and founding partner of Barlow/Hartman Public Relations.

A new talent who emerged at the Academy Awards this year was Dustin Lance Black, a young writer awarded the Oscar for his screenplay for Milk, about the life and times of gay activist Harvey Milk.

In his acceptance speech, Black talked about the experience of growing up gay and Mormon, and what Milk had meant to him as a confused kid.

“… When I was thirteen years old, my beautiful mother moved me and my family from a conservative Mormon home in Texas to California, and it was there that I heard the story of Harvey Milk and it gave me hope. It gave me the hope to live my life openly as who I am, and that one day I could even fall in love and maybe even get married.”

Black was also a writer for HBO’s hit television series, Big Love, which explored the institution of marriage through the story of modern polygamist Bill Henrickson and his three wives.

He is directing his own script, What’s Wrong with Virginia, to star Jennifer Connelly, while Gus van Sant is set to direct his film adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Anthony D. Romero took charge of American Civil Liberties Union just a few days before the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks, becoming its first openly gay leader.

Under his watch, the group filed the first successful challenge against the National Security Agency’s domestic-spying program, and filed landmark litigation on the torture and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody. More recently, the ACLU has filed suit to nullify California’s gay marriage ban.

Since coming on board, Romero has more than doubled the ACLU’s national staff and tripled its budget.

Born in New York City to parents from Puerto Rico, Romero was the first in his family to graduate from high school. He is a graduate of Stanford University Law School and Princeton University. He lives with his partner, a Cuban-born psychiatrist, in Manhattan.

V. Gene Robinson, bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church in New Hampshire and the first openly gay, noncelibate priest ever elected bishop in a major Christian denomination, delivered the invocation at the kickoff event of President Obama’s inaugural.

If his last-minute selection was an effort to counterbalance the choice of evangelical pastor Rick Warren during the swearing-in, it did not dampen supporters’ enthusiasm.

Robinson’s consecration in 2003 (which he and his partner attended in bulletproof vests) has continued to be controversial.

He was not invited to the 2008 Lambeth Conference, a meeting of world leaders in the Anglican Communion that is convened once a decade by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Robinson went to London anyway, and delivered a sermon outside the conference, which was interrupted by cries of “heretic,” as well as by applause.

Wanda Sykes has gotten accustomed to strong reactions from her audiences. When the openly gay, black comedienne spoke at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner this year, she drew boos after suggesting that Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker and deriding Sean Hannity for not fulfilling his pledge to be waterboarded for the troops.

Sykes is known for her role as Barb on The New Adventures of Old Christine, and for playing herself on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm.

A year ago, she married her partner, and came out publicly the following month, at a rally opposing California’s Proposition 8. Her partner, whom she identifies only as Alex, gave birth to twins in late April.

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