Roberts Batson, Louisiana, 1986
Born June 7, 1945
Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee
New Orleans, Louisiana
Elected February 1986
Essay by Roberts Batson for Out and Elected in the USA
With Anita Bryant’s emergence as an anti-gay spokesperson serving as a catalyst, New Orleans gay activists in the late ‘70s were taking a few tentative steps into the maelstrom of electoral politics. Bryant’s June, 1977 concert in New Orleans was her first personal appearance after she successfully overturned the gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida. To everyone’s surprise, a protest rally in Jackson Square brought several thousand participants out of their armoires and into the bright light of day.
Buoyed by this response, a handful of gay organizers began to conduct voter registration drives. They also began to interview political candidates who would meet with them.
At that time, I felt strongly that we needed to become as active as possible in Louisiana politics. My view was summarized in a quote from political columnist Raymond Moley that Peg Wilson gave me. Her husband, Scott, had been the foremost political operative in Louisiana from the ‘30s until his death in the ‘60s. The framed statement had hung over his desk:
“Politics is not something to avoid or abolish or destroy. It is a condition like the atmosphere we breathe. It is something to live with, to influence if we wish and to control if we can. We must master its ways or be mastered by those who do.”
Becoming involved in politics, I believed was not an option for us; it was an imperative. We had two opportunities to inject our presence into the political process: By jumping into the trenches of party politics, and by launching our own political organization. We did both.
In 1979, we offered a candidate for the Democratic State Central Committee. Although he was not successful, a core group of activists gained valuable experience in the nuts and bolts of New Orleans politics. The race also served notice that gay people were demanding a place at the political table. The following spring, six gay delegates were seated as voting members of the 1980 Louisiana State Democratic Convention.
In August of 1980, over fifty lesbians and gay men founded the Louisiana Gay Political Action Caucus. Within a few years, concentrated gay political efforts began to pay off and New Orleans political writers were ranking LAGPAC as a first-tier political force, joining the old-line white political groups and he newer organizations that had emerged out of the black civil rights movement.
In 1986, LAGPAC leaders initiated a coalition with four other political groups to issue joint endorsement ballots of candidates for the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, the county-level party organization. Fourteen candidates from each of the five city council districts were elected; I was one of them.
The Parish Committee Members, elected by popular vote on the same ballot as city officials, receive no salary and have little authority, but had parole power. In an era when gay people were still harassed by police, this meant we could get people out of jail without posting bail.
In addition, serving on OPDEC provided opportunities to forge coalitions with non-gay political activists, gave us invaluable experience in grass roots politics, and demonstrated to others that we were willing and able to perform well as foot soldiers in political battle. Also, our new colleagues grew comfortable working with openly gay people as peers, and began to understand that alliances with us could be to their advantage. We earned our place at the table. A few years ago, I encountered a statement that further confirmed my vision of politics:
“You have to organize, organize, organize, and build, build, build, and train, train, train, so that there is a permanent, vibrant structure.”
The author of this aphorism, alarmingly, is one of our most dedicated opponents, Ralph Reed, then Executive Director of the Christian Coalition. We have no choice: We must master the ways of politics, or we shall be mastered by those who do.