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New gay activists are older, established

Friday, May 8, 2009 | 12:45 p.m. CDT; updated 12:54 p.m. CDT, Friday, May 8, 2009

ST. LOUIS — Bill Donius never saw himself as an activist. That was reserved for folks on the fringe with garish garb and in-your-face behavior.

But when California voters decided in November to outlaw same-sex marriage just six months after the state Supreme Court made it legal, Donius was front and center at a downtown St. Louis rally decrying the action.

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There was Donius in Jefferson City to testify at a legislative hearing in February to change the state's anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation. And last month, he was lobbying in Washington and at the state Capitol.

It seems almost anywhere an issue about gays is being discussed, Donius is there.

As chairman of Pulaski Bank, Donius represents the new face of the gay movement. Its aim: to get more people with power, wealth and name recognition involved in activism.

Gay activist groups say they are seeing more people such as Donius get involved. This new wave of activists are older, more established in their communities and more secure in their jobs.

"I do think we're seeing it more and more everywhere," said Toni Broaddus, executive director of Equality Federation, a network of gay rights organizations in 45 states. "It's a real turning point in our movement."

At least a half-dozen other states are considering making such unions legal. It's this kind of action that makes it more important now than ever to get involved in activism, Donius said.

"What has been missing is my group. Those who are 50, who grew up at a different time when it was not appropriate to speak out," Donius said. "We didn't want to rock the boat. Now is the time to rock the boat. We as older, established professionals need to do our fair share as well."

That, Donius said, starts with coming out — the often painful and awkward process of telling family, friends and co-workers about their sexual orientation.

The fear of being rejected, fired or physically attacked keeps many gays and lesbians in the closet.

Missouri Appeals Court Judge Larry Mooney understands those concerns. He struggled before coming out in 1985 while an assistant prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County. His boss was George R. "Buzz" Westfall.

"Buzz was shocked and wanted a day to think about it," Mooney said. "He came back the following day and told me I would never lose my job with him over being gay." Westfall, who later became St. Louis County executive, died in 2003.

The risk Mooney took then is still in place more than two decades later. In Missouri, anyone can be legally fired or evicted simply for being gay. A bill before legislators would change that. But like similar proposals in past years, the bill appears stalled.

Still, the gay rights movement is having an impact nationally.

At the same time, coming out is becoming more common, especially among older people who grew up when there were still serious stigmas associated with being gay, Broaddus, of the Equality Federation, said. Being open about sexuality is the most effective way to gain rights, she said.

"It's become more and more important to come out so people can see that it's their neighbor, family member, community member and say, 'He is a really good guy. I don't want to take rights away from that person,'" Broaddus said. "But it's kind of a Catch-22 in states like Missouri. People have to be in a position where they are not going to lose their job."

Ken Haller, a pediatrician at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, said coming out is a key part of changing attitudes.

"If you're not coming out, it's giving them the message that you're uncomfortable with it or that there is something wrong with it something unacceptable," Haller said. "Why should they be advocates for gay rights when the people they know haven't come out to them?"

But with the increased push for gay rights comes a strong push back. The Southern Law Poverty Center, which tracks hate crimes, said the number of hate groups across the country continues to climb. And gays are still the No. 1 target.

"The upshot is that gays are two times more likely to be attacked than blacks and four times more likely to be attacked than Jews," said Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project for the Poverty Center.

Donius said facts like those bolster his case for prominent gay people to step into the spotlight to promote understanding and demand action.

The Diversity Awareness Partnership is an organization that promotes inclusion, focusing on issues of race, religion and sexual orientation. The partnership held four panel discussions on sexual orientation last year — three in the city and one in St. Louis County. Donius and Moody have both served as panelists.

"I think it's absolutely critical to have influential people who have access to business leaders and decision makers," said Reena Hajat, head of the partnership. "That is really the strategy in terms of elevating the conversation."

The partnership's focus now is to team with corporations to hold in-house discussions on sexual orientation issues. Wachovia Securities held a forum recently. Attorney Susan Block was one of the panelists.

"I try to encourage greater awareness wherever I go," said Block, a former St. Louis County family court judge. These types of discussions, she said, "give people an idea of the variety of people that are involved in our community in different ways."

Block, however, says she is cautious about giving people advice on issues as personal as coming out.

"I think it's more of giving people a positive sense that our community in many respects is way more welcome to diversity than they might think," she said.

Block said there is a fine line between building a professional life and being open about one's sexuality.

"Every professional struggles with how much of their personal life they want to share with the world so they are not selected or excluded on that basis," Block said.

While being open about who you are is important, she said, "I want to be known as a competent and compassionate attorney."

Some gays call their efforts a fight for civil rights, making comparisons to the plight of blacks. But many African-Americans wince at that, saying the two cannot be lumped together.

Haller, board president of PROMO, a statewide lobbying group for gay rights, sees the similarities, but there are clear differences, he said.

"We truly have suffered from discrimination," Haller said. "But being gay, there's a lot people can do to hide that aspect of who they are. That's what makes it different in the civil rights struggle. It's not obvious. You don't have to deal with it every day of your life because of the color of your skin."

In June 1969, when Donius was a boy, the pivotal moment of gay activism took place in New York City. Outside the Stonewall Inn in the city's West Village, gays and police clashed. Gay bars were frequently raided and patrons harassed and arrested — especially drag queens and the bartenders who served them.

The riots gained national attention and mobilized gays to come together and fight for fair treatment.

Forty years later, Donius said he sees the stinging defeat of same-sex marriage in California last year as a new opportunity to empower gays.

The fight can no longer be left up to those on the fringe, such as the drag queens of Stonewall, he said. Those people, Donius said, represent only a small part of the gay community.

Donius was no activist in 1977 when he left St. Louis for Tulane University. He left behind a conservative Catholic banking family with no intention of coming back.

Fifteen years later, he returned to St. Louis. Eventually, he made his sexual orientation clear to all.

"I was determined not to live in a dishonest, closeted fashion," he said.

Donius went to work for Pulaski Bank, the family business, eventually becoming CEO and board chairman. Creating a culture of inclusion became a priority, he said, with the company offering domestic partner benefits and adding sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policies.

Donius said that if gays and lesbians don't come out at work, a culture of offensive jokes prevails. In turn, such an atmosphere pushes those uncomfortable with their sexuality deeper into the closet, he said.

Without the majority of gays becoming involved in the movement, angry activists will continue to serve as the public image of gay people, said Donius. There is a place for those in-your-face efforts, he said. "But these are perceived as the only faces of gays and lesbians in Missouri," he added. "That's what we need to change."


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Comments

Ray Shapiro May 8, 2009 | 1:43 p.m.

("As chairman of Pulaski Bank, Donius represents the new face of the gay movement.")
The new FUBU?

(Report Comment)
Britney Davis May 8, 2009 | 2:01 p.m.

Yea I feel more people or older people should get envolved in the gay movements. I do go to some of the movements with my friends and I'm happy that most of my friends that are gay came to me and talked about it with me.Many of them talked to me before their families sometimes yes it is hard for someone to come out but many people need a good friend that will be there for them. There are many more gays now than there were when I was young but thats not a reason for people to act the way they're actin now. Gays have never done anything but want to be their selves and left alone but they have to go through so much. I just want to say I'm behind anyone whos gay.

Luv ya

(Report Comment)

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