Gay-Rights Lobbyist Sees More Tolerance
September 2, 2001
525 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge, LA 70821
By Randy McClain, Capitol news bureau
Chris Daigle dreamed as a teen-ager of sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court,
but in the end he was afraid to even become a lawyer.
Its not that he doubted his skill with words or his ability to spin a
winning legal argument.
In the 1970s, when Daigle went from his hometown of Thibodaux to Loyola
University in New Orleans, he didnt want the world to know he was a
He didnt even fully accept it himself until he was 22 years old.
"When I was a kid in junior high and high school, I wanted to be an
attorney, a U.S. senator or sit on the Supreme Court. But when I recognized I
was gay, I thought: I cant even be a lawyer. What if somebody found out?
Whod ever come to me as a client?" he asked.
Thirty years later, Daigle is chief lobbyist for the Louisiana Electorate
of Gays and Lesbians, a position that lets him dabble in politics and push for
equal treatment of gays. His high-profile job also shows that Daigle is
finally out of the closet personally and professionally.
"I dont think the general public has any idea as to how much fear
gay people have had to live with," said Daigle, whose personal journey
mirrors the equally tenuous path south Louisiana culture has taken toward more
acceptance of gay culture.
Daigle, 46, is a former altar boy, ex-banker, college counselor, HIV
positive, gay activist.
Now a lobbyist for the states most visible gay-rights group, Daigle once
hid his sexual orientation while working as head of real estate lending for an
out-of-state bank in the 1980s.
A decade later, he openly advertised his sexual leanings and political
views, flying gay-rights rainbow flags and displaying homosexual pamphlets in
his office at Tulane University, where he worked as a student financial aid
The literature ruffled a few feathers at first but eventually led to
creation of an Office of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Life on Tulanes campus
to aid students grappling with related health or emotional issues. Daigle
heads that office, the only one of its kind in Louisiana.
"Living in secret is denying yourself a full life and denying a lot of
straight people the opportunity to get to know somebody gay and realize its
not the boogeyman," said Daigle.
He lobbied the Legislature this summer to repeal the states anti-sodomy
law and to pass a sweeping gay-rights employment protection bill.
Both measures failed, but Daigle and other homosexual activists have
praised the Legislature for at least giving both topics a fair debate a
stunning achievement, they say.
Language to repeal the states sodomy law, which labels people criminals
if they engage in anal or oral sex, passed the state Senate. But a similar
bill died in the House.
A bill to prohibit employment discrimination against gays lost in the state
Senate by six votes.
Still facing prejudice
Daigle, who has lobbied the Legislature since 1995, called the developments
"phenomenal" and a sign that at least a few more legislators are
willing to treat gays as human beings and valued constituents rather than
"The days of lawmakers taking to the chamber floor and just
regurgitating hateful, sensationalized, homophobic language are gone.
"This year, all those things were being said on the sidelines by
religious fundamentalists, but you had legislators going to the floor and
denouncing it," Daigle said.
Sen. Don Cravins, D-Lafayette, and Sen. Ken Hollis, R-Metairie, both argued
passionately for the employment-rights bill. Hollis tearfully recounted how he
came to accept his own gay sons lifestyle.
"I cried when I heard Sen. Hollis speak," Daigle said. "I
was so moved. I think he was a happy man after he did that. And so many people
acknowledged his courage."
Daigle said the state still has a long way to go to treat homosexuals as
"Just because the harsh language is less, it doesnt mean prejudice
has gone away. What were dealing with now is a polite form of
prejudice," he said.
Daigle chuckled at the idea of discussing gay rights in a newspaper column
labeled "Straight Talk," but he said homosexuals are accustomed to
labels and this one might make sense anyway.
"Maybe I like the title because these are things straight people need
to hear about and think about," he said. "Its about people being
able to live their lives openly and honestly."
Parents supported him
Born in Thibodaux to a Catholic family, Daigle had his first gay encounters
as a teen-ager. But he didnt completely admit his homosexuality until
confronted by his parents at the age of 22.
"Ill never forget the language my parents used. These were
blue-collar, bayou people. They asked: From what we understand youve
been hanging out with, associating with avowed homosexuals. Are you a
"I told them I wasnt sure. That was the easy answer. But they
opened the door for me and I eventually came to grips with who I was. My
parents support and love has been consistent."
Today, Daigle helps other young men and women grapple with similar
psychological issues. He has run Tulanes Office of Gay, Lesbian and
Bisexual Life for six years, offering counseling to students and diversity
training on sexual lifestyles to faculty and staff.
"Coming out is a long process," Daigle said. "Before you can
come out to somebody else, you have to come out to yourself, admit that youre
a homosexual, put a word on it, a label on it."
Living a secret life
After earning a political science degree from Loyola, Daigle moved to Maine
with a male lover and moved up the corporate ladder in a major bank, rising to
a vice presidents job.
Corporate culture at the time required him to hide his homosexuality to get
ahead, he said.
"I was a bank vice president in the 1980s, in charge of real estate
lending and later head of personal banking. My true identify had to be kept a
secret. I had to act like that part of my life didnt exist."
Daigle said progress has been made over the past decade.
"More businesses have taken the lead in nondiscriminatory workplace
policies," he said.
"More than half the Fortune 500 has adopted nondiscrimination
policies. They see it as a way to embrace diversity. Some companies even give
benefits to domestic partners of the same sex. Government has been slower to
follow suit," he said, pointing to the Louisiana Legislatures
reluctance to pass an employment-rights law for gays.
After being diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1989, Daigle left his job in Maine
and moved back to New Orleans to be closer to his parents in case his health
Luckily, it hasnt.
But Daigle did suffer through two years of depression.
"Those two years were the most painful time in my entire life. My
partner at the time would come home and Id just be crying. Hed ask what
happened today, and Id say: I dont know.
"I was mourning, grieving my own mortality. I was grappling with
carrying a disease inside.
"I was incapable of working, planning my life or maintaining healthy
relationships. Thank God, I was able to shake it."
One positive development, Daigle said, is that he vowed never to hide his
true sexual identity again from anybody.
"It was an opportunity to check in with myself. If life was going to
be short, how did I want to spend the rest of it? The No. 1 thing that came
out of it was that I wanted to be true to myself.
"I made the decision: No more corporate life, no more climbing the
corporate ladder, no more hiding to please other people."
Coming out is easier now
Revealing the truth has come easier to gay people in the past decade. But
personal progress for gays has not been matched by political gains, Daigle
One sign of the political challenges ahead is the fact that so few gay
politicians are willing to "come out of the closet," he said.
There are gay men and women in political life in Louisiana "from the
governors office" on down, Daigle said, but none of them has publicly
acknowledged their homosexuality.
Daigle said electing an openly gay politician to the Legislature or other
public office would be a step forward for gay activists.
There are two kinds of politicians in the closet, he said.
"The ones who live with so much fear of being discovered that they
vote for anti-gay laws to draw suspicion away from themselves.
"And there are the ones who dont want to be a gay-rights champion.
They wont take the banner and they wont come out as gay. But theyll
still vote with you."
Would the Louisiana Electorate of Gays and Lesbians ever spill the beans
and "out" a hostile politician as gay without his or her permission?
"I cant imagine us ever outing someone unless it was under the most
extreme circumstances where it was somebody who not only voted against us
but actually crusaded against us. There I could see us possibly reconsidering
our gesture of respect for a persons right to privacy."
Progress and pride
One sign of political progress is the greater willingness of some
politicians to campaign for the gay vote, Daigle said.
"A few years ago politicians would meet with us, but say: Dont
tell anybody, or just tell your people. Weve moved from that to actually
interviewing and endorsing candidates."
But not all candidates want a homosexual groups blessing heading into an
Gary Beard, who recently won election to the Legislature from House
District 69 in East Baton Rouge and Livingston parishes, and loser David
Boneno both refused to interview with the Louisiana Electorate of Gays and
Lesbians, Daigle said.
The group ended up supporting no candidate in that race.
Daigle said many lawmakers accept his presence more today than in 1995 when
he started lobbying.
"I have access, and every time I talk with a legislator I am going to
teach them something along the way.
"When I first started, there were whispers and finger-pointing: Theres
the gay lobbyist. I dont get that anymore. Its been a
relationship-building thing, a chance to gain credibility."
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