Last edited: February 14, 2005


Gay-Rights Lobbyist Sees More Tolerance

The Advocate, September 2, 2001
525 Lafayette St., Baton Rouge, LA 70821
Fax: 504-388-0371

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.

It’s 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 didn’t want the world to know he was a homosexual.

He didn’t 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 can’t even be a lawyer. What if somebody found out? Who’d 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 don’t 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 state’s 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 counselor.

The literature ruffled a few feathers at first but eventually led to creation of an Office of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Life on Tulane’s 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 it’s not the boogeyman," said Daigle.

He lobbied the Legislature this summer to repeal the state’s 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 state’s 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 monsters.

"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 son’s 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 equals.

"Just because the harsh language is less, it doesn’t mean prejudice has gone away. What we’re 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. "It’s 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 didn’t completely admit his homosexuality until confronted by his parents at the age of 22.

"I’ll never forget the language my parents used. These were blue-collar, bayou people. They asked: ‘From what we understand you’ve been hanging out with, associating with avowed homosexuals. Are you a homosexual?’

"I told them I wasn’t 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 Tulane’s 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 you’re 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 president’s 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 didn’t 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 Legislature’s reluctance to pass an employment-rights law for gays.

Depression strikes

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 deteriorated.

Luckily, it hasn’t.

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 I’d just be crying. He’d ask what happened today, and I’d say: ‘I don’t 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 said.

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 governor’s 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 don’t want to be a gay-rights champion. They won’t take the banner and they won’t come out as gay. But they’ll 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 can’t 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 person’s 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: ‘Don’t tell anybody, or just tell your people.’ We’ve moved from that to actually interviewing and endorsing candidates."

But not all candidates want a homosexual group’s blessing heading into an election.

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: ‘There’s the gay lobbyist.’ I don’t get that anymore. It’s been a relationship-building thing, a chance to gain credibility."

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