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Minnesotan working to mobilize nation’s gay community for Obama

DENVER — Coming to St. Paul for the Republican convention? There was a pause, as if Jacob Reitan was pondering whether the question was serious. “No, don’t believe we’ll be making it to St. Paul,” Reitan finally answered.

Jake Reitan
Courtesy of Randi Reitan
Jake Reitan

DENVER — Coming to St. Paul for the Republican convention?

There was a pause, as if Jacob Reitan was pondering whether the question was serious.

“No, don’t believe we’ll be making it to St. Paul,” Reitan finally answered.

Reitan, a 26-year-old Mankato West High grad and a Harvard master’s student (theological studies) is taking time off from his studies to work for the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund as well as LGBT for He was in Denver for the Democratic National Convention to further the cause for both organizations.

It’s not a shock that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender organizations feel more comfortable with Democrats than Republicans. The LGBT caucus long has been a part of the Democrats’ political structure.

But there seems to be growing comfort among Democratic candidates that it’s OK to openly support gay issues, which would indicate that most Dems believe that Republicans no longer will be able to turn gay issues into wedge issues.

Two signs of progress
A couple of small examples: 

Thursday night, longtime gay activist Rick Stafford, a superdelegate and a member of the Democratic National Committee, was seated with his fellow Minnesota delegates on the stadium field on the extraordinary final night of the convention.

Stafford was touched on the shoulder by a member of the Secret Service.

“Come with me,” the agent said.

“I was wondering, ‘What the hell did I do?’ ” Stafford said.

Stafford was escorted to a VIP box, a few feet from Michelle Obama in front of the podium. He’s still not sure how he got there, but it was a little indication that there is real comfort in the Obama campaign with LGBT concerns.

“I won’t forget you little people,” Stafford laughingly promised at a party of Minnesota delegates following Obama’s speech.

Second example:

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the DFLer who represents the traditionally conservative 1st District in Minnesota, spoke at a LGBT function during the week.

“He knocked it out of the park,” said Reitan of the speech Walz delivered. “He comes to a gay caucus. He  boldly stepped out for us. Tim Walz should be our governor. He has a fundamental understanding of what’s right. He gets it.”

Wasn’t he taking a political risk by speaking at a LGBT function?

Walz shrugged off the question.

“I’ve spent my life on the issue of human rights and equality,” he said. “It’s a slippery slope when we say who it’s OK to discriminate against.”

He thinks most people in the 1st District get it, too.

“In the past, these issues have been brought up only in election years to hammer a wedge between people,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to work again.”

Businessman founds two groups to mobilize gays
Both organizations Reitan is working for were founded by Terry Bean, a Portland activist and businessman who was among the founders of the Human Rights Campaign in the 1980s. The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund mirrors Emily’s List, the organization that helps fund women’s political campaigns. The Victory Fund currently is helping to fund 66 local and statewide political campaigns around the country.

The LGBT for Obama site is set up to drive home to gays and lesbians across the country that Obama and John McCain are polar opposites on LGBT issues, with Obama being a supporter. In the 2004 presidential election, about 24 percent of the gay vote went to President Bush. Bean and Reitan hope to cut into that number.

Perhaps the best thing about these new gigs for Reitan is that, so far, they’ve kept him out of jail.

Reitan has been arrested 13 times for his participation in gay protests.

Of late, most of those arrests — including one in Ramsey County a couple of years ago — have had to do with protests of the military’s bizarre “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuality.

Typically, Reitan, usually accompanied by other gays, walks into a military recruiting station, says that he’s gay and tries to enlist. The military refuses to give him enlistment papers, he refuses to leave the recruiting station and civilian law enforcement is called on to arrest him for trespassing. Sometimes, he’s in jail for several hours before getting released. Typically, he also ends up paying a fine.

What if some recruiter would actually say, “Here you go, sign on the dotted line”?

“I would enlist in a heartbeat,” said Reitan. “I believe in public service. This is one of the most despicable laws in the country, and John McCain supports it.”

Just another reason Reitan won’t bother being in St. Paul this week.