After several decades working as a behind-the-scenes strategist, Fred Karger finally took the stage on July 18. That day, about 200 people gathered in front of the Manchester Grand Hyatt to protest hotel owner Doug Manchester's support of Proposition 8, California's same-sex marriage ban. Karger urged the crowd not to “park, eat, shop, stay at, or get married” at the hotel.
Though the hotel had distanced itself from Manchester's stance, Karger's work carried on. The gay rights movement faced a defeat when Proposition 8 passed 52% to 47% on November 4. Yet Karger points out that in 2000, California passed a same-sex marriage ban with a 23-point margin that has now been whittled to five points.
“I've never been more encouraged with a loss,” he said. “This election is probably the greatest single action in the gay and lesbian civil rights movements. History will record that this was the major turning point in our struggle for equality because it has lit a fire under the community and our allies like never before.”
Becoming a public face against Proposition 8 was a departure from Karger's days as EVP of the Dolphin Group, a California-based public affairs firm. While there, he worked on several GOP campaigns, including running an RNC effort to re-elect President Ronald Reagan in 1984.
“For most of my career, I wasn't publicly out,” Karger recalls. “When I'd go to gay pride events, I'd always have one eye on the cameras and one eye on the event. I never wanted to get photographed because I was scared to death – working in Republican politics – that I would be found out.”
Even so, Karger continued to be a private advocate of gay and lesbian rights within the party. “I think it's important for the gay and lesbian community to be active in both parties,” he noted.
But Karger has recently marked the transition from a public affairs strategist who hovered behind the scenes to coming to the forefront of the gay rights movement. He's been quoted – and pictured – speaking about the issue in various media, including the Los Angeles Times.
“Five or six years ago, I would have just disappeared if something like that happened,” he noted. “But there are still so many people that are so scared.”
Eric Siddall, a former board member for Equality California, said Karger's strategy for fighting Proposition 8 was met with some resistance, but has now been widely adopted.
“He understood this was a political campaign,” Siddall explained. “He understood that you have to go on the attack. He understood what was at stake. I think you see a lot of his foresight in the demonstrations [that are being held now].”
On the political scene, Karger still considers himself a “Schwarzenegger Republican,” though “it's tough when you see all the endorsements [for Yes on Proposition 8]. It was all Republican legislators... but I've always fought for moderates.”
Karger now works on Save the Boom, a campaign to save the first gay bar in the West. He also believes that Proposition 8 was only a momentary defeat for the movement.
“If the Supreme Court does not reverse Proposition 8 next year,” he predicts, “I'm confident we will be back with our constitutional amendment [in 2010 or 2011].”
Founder, Save the Boom
March 1977-Dec. 2003
EVP, The Dolphin Group