Queer Democrats Decide “San Diego Democratic Club” No Longer Communicates Their Agenda
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTO: Members of the San Diego Democratic Club debate changing their name at their September 22 meeting. Jess Durfee is standing at the back, in the center, while Andrea Villa is sitting at the right.
In 1974, local attorney Robert Lynn and 19 other brave souls put their names on an application to the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee to charter the San Diego Democratic Club. Bravery was required because by signing the charter application for a club explicitly founded to fight for equal rights for Gay people — back when “Gay” was still an all-inclusive term for people with a romantic, relational and/or sexual orientation to partners of their own gender — they were identifying themselves as either Queer or Queer-friendly at a time when sex with same-gender partners was still illegal in California. The issues the club has worked on since — laws to protect Queer people from employment discrimination, ending the ban on Queers serving in the U.S. military, legal recognition of same-sex marriages — would have seemed like pipe dreams then.
Until September 22, 2011 the club kept the rather bland name “San Diego Democratic Club” even as it grew to be the largest Democratic club in the county — and one of the largest Queer-oriented Democratic clubs in the nation — and, slowly but surely, those causes that seemed like pipe dreams in 1974 became reality. With Queer sex legal nationwide, bans on job discrimination against Queer people in force in enough states to cover about half the U.S. population, the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy prohibiting Queers from serving openly in the military, and same-sex marriage equality legally recognized in New York and several other states, many club members felt it was time to adopt a new name that would be more open and out-front about the club’s real agenda.
“The proposal came forth earlier this year that the club change its name to more accurately reflect our status as an LGBT [Queer] organization,” club president Doug Case announced when he brought the name-change item forward at the September 22 meeting. “The original proposal was ‘San Diego Stonewall Democrats.’ We did an online survey and found that twice as many people were in favor of changing the name as keeping it ‘San Diego Democratic Club,’ but they weren’t sure ‘San Diego Stonewall Democrats’ was the name to change it to.” Eventually the club’s board decided to present three proposals — “San Diego Stonewall Democrats,” “San Diego LGBT Democrats” and “San Diego Democrats for Equality” — to the membership and hold two votes, first on whether to change the name at all and then, if that passed, on which name to adopt.
The case for changing the name was made forcefully by Jess Durfee, former president of the club and currently serving an unprecedented fourth term as chair of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee. “When this club was first founded, the name served a purpose,” he said. “A lot of members couldn’t afford to be out. Today we cannot afford to stay in the closet. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking people ‘get it.’” Durfee claimed that as many people think the Uptown Democratic Club, which meets in the same space (the Joyce Beers Community Center in the Uptown District mall) two days before the San Diego Democratic Club, is San Diego’s Queer Democratic club since it covers the Hillcrest and North Park areas, which have the highest concentration of Queer residents in San Diego.
“Every time there’s a new wave of folks in political activism, they don’t know” that the San Diego Democratic Club is a predominantly Queer organization, Durfee said. “I used to think that identifying myself as president of the San Diego Democratic Club would ID me as a member of the LGBT community — and women would hit on me. When we started, we were the only LGBT political club in San Diego. Today the Center has a public policy department, the Human Rights Campaign has a San Diego chapter and Equality California does big events.” Durfee also argued that a new name would help attract new members to the club, citing the fact that five current board members (including himself) are former club presidents.
Another former club president, Andrea Villa, was pressed into giving the argument against a name change after former club treasurer Mel Merrill, who had written the newsletter article against the change, was unable to attend the meeting. Villa pointed out that she makes her living in marketing, and her professional expertise convinced her that “the San Diego Democratic Club has established a very strong identity.” A name change, she said, “risks confusing our brand.” Villa also responded strongly to the idea that keeping the current name was “just backwards old-school thinking. It has nothing to do with wanting to be closeted. It has everything to do with fully inhabiting our identity.” She said that even if the club wanted to change its name, it should wait until after the 2012 election, saying that the challenges facing Democrats next year are severe enough that the club didn’t need the additional task of building a new public identity at the same time.
The club voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new name — 33 in favor and only seven opposed — which triggered the debate over what the name should be. Craig Roberts, former club president, urged that the club call itself “San Diego Stonewall Democrats” to align itself with clubs in other cities as well as the National Stonewall Democrats, the federation of Queer-oriented Democratic clubs of which Roberts was elected co-chair in March. “Of the 58 clubs we know about, 37 have ‘Stonewall’ in their names, 10 have ‘LGBT’ and the others don’t have anything” readily identifiable as Queer, Roberts said. Alex Sachs, who served as the club’s vice-president for political action until he relocated to Iowa but was visiting San Diego and attended the September 22 meeting, also argued for “San Diego Stonewall Democrats” as a way of linking the club more closely to the national federation.
Arguing for “San Diego LGBT Democrats,” David Warmoth, the club’s media and marketing director, said, “The mission of the San Diego Democratic Club is to secure all Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender people equal rights. We say it in our mission statement and we should spell it out in our name.” Responding to the argument from other club members that “San Diego LGBT Democrats” might discourage Queer-friendly straight allies from joining, Warmoth said, “I’m a member of the NAACP and I’m not Black.” [Actually, of the board which founded the NAACP in 1909, only one member was African-American.] “I’m a former member of NOW and I’m not a woman. Only Gay men and Lesbians of a certain age are afraid that if we tell who we are, no one’s gonna like us anymore.”
Greg Bolian, the club’s legislative advocate, argued for “San Diego Democrats for Equality” on the ground that “the name should reflect the mission,” he explained. “When I tell people this is an LGBT club, the first question I get is, ‘Am I welcome?’ ‘San Diego Democrats for Equality’ is inclusive and won’t be off-putting to any members.”
Vanessa Cosio, who spoke as a person under 30 in a debate in which a lot of older people were trying to decide what might appeal to young people, said she favored “San Diego Democrats for Equality.” She noted that many of the Queer community’s leading organizations — the Human Rights Campaign, the Victory Fund (which helps elect openly Queer candidates to office) and the various Equality lobbies, including Equality California — “don’t have anything Gay in their names.”
“If the purpose is to make it clear that we are a Gay club, use ‘LGBT,’” said longtime member Michelle Krug. “To me, when I hear ‘equality,’ I think it means you’re working for rights for undocumented immigrants.”
At least two people wanted to include the word “club” in the new name. One member said that “Democrats” reminded her too much of the habit of Republicans referring to “the Democrat party” instead of “the Democratic party.” Alex Sachs said that keeping the word “club” in the name “keeps us together and shows that we are a continuation of the San Diego Democratic Club.”
Though president Case was prepared to have more than one ballot — the rules for the vote were that the final name had to be approved by a majority of those voting — in the end “San Diego Democrats for Equality” won the required majority on the first vote, with 24 favoring it, 10 for “San Diego Stonewall Democrats” and eight for “San Diego LGBT Democrats.” A subsequent vote to add “club” to the new name narrowly failed, with 18 favoring “San Diego Democratic Club for Equality” to 22 for “San Diego Democrats for Equality.”