Shore LGBT group was savoring gains. 'Then Mr. Trump happened'

Randall Segal (left), Craig van Baal and Vince Grimm of Gables pose for a photo at the Cape May Welcome on Friday March 17, 2017. . . .

Not long ago, Randall Segal recalls, “some of us were wondering what the new purpose of GABLES should be.”

After all, marriage equality had become the law of the land. America seemed to have grown far more accepting of LGBT people than those who came out in the '70s could have imagined.

And like a rainbow-hued beach umbrella, GABLES had become part of Cape May County’s economic and social fabric, partnering with local human service providers and publishing a well-regarded tourism guide.

“Then,” Segal notes, “Mr. Trump happened.”

Which has led GABLES – founded in 1995 after a local weekly newspaper published antigay letters to the editor – to rediscover its roots.

“We need to stand up and be more visible,” says Craig van Baal, who, like Segal, is among the stalwarts of the 200-member organization.

“If we start to hide out of fear,” the 66-year-old Dennis Township resident adds, “we will lose every single gain we have made.”

I became familiar with GABLES a year ago, when I wrote a column about “Scarf It Up,” the knitting-for-charity program it helped launch in 2012. Most of the knitters are heterosexual women; the alliance is one of many GABLES has nurtured with organizations and causes in the larger community, to which it has donated more than $100,000 over the years.

GABLES also prides itself on being nonpartisan, building a good relationship with some conservative South Jersey politicians, such as U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R., Atlantic).

“I have listened to their concerns, as I would to any other constituency group,” LoBiondo tells me. “Their opinion matters. Human dignity matters. We haven’t been in 100 percent agreement, but on the majority of the issues, we have lined up well.”

Says van Baal, a retired social worker: “We’d rather discuss issues than shout about them.” 

LoBiondo, he notes, had signed on to antidiscrimination legislation and has a similar policy for his office.

After Donald Trump’s election, however, GABLES’  generally cheery stream of emails about fund-raisers and holiday bashes also began carrying more urgent messages.

“PLEASE read … what the Trump White House wants to do to YOUR hard earned civil rights,”  said a Feb. 2 dispatch about the new administration’s so-called Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom.

Perhaps more accurately described as an initiative to authorize faith-based discrimination against LGBT citizens like me, the trial balloon served as a reminder that Vice President Pence had championed and signed into law a similar measure as Indiana’s governor.

It also alarmed longtime GABLES executive director and Lower Township resident Vince Grimm, who remembers the days when LGBT people were pretty much universally marginalized, stigmatized, or worse.

Grimm, 79, vividly recalls  a placard that suddenly appeared inside a Cape May bar in the late 1960s. “It was a huge sign,” he  says. “No more fags.”

Younger gays “don’t know what life was like, what a lot of folks like us came through,” the retired businessman and Army veteran says. “I’m afraid it could revert back to that.”

So Grimm is heartened by Segal and other younger members “who are talking about changing and updating GABLES, and putting more alerts about issues affecting the gay community on the website, and making us more visible, like we were years ago. I think that’s going to be a good thing.”

Mind you, GABLES has always been about much more than art auctions and brunch parties. After the 2016 massacre at the gay nightclub in Orlando, the group held a “healing circle” at Cape May Point State Park that drew 50 people and raised money in memory of the Florida victims.

And Grimm, van Baal, and other GABLES members also worked tirelessly, along with other LGBT organizations, to lobby Trenton for legal recognition of committed same-sex relationships, culminating in the New Jersey Superior Court’s 2013 ruling for marriage equality.

“It will be hard for [opponents of LGBT rights]  to take back what we’ve gotten. But if we don’t stand up and stay visible, it will be easier for them to try,” says Segal, a restaurant and catering manager who grew up in Cherry Hill and lives in Lower Township.

At 50, and as one of the founders of GABLES, Segal too can remember the bad old days, when some attendees at the organization’s first meeting were terrified about being publicly identified. No wonder: A local “family values” zealot recently had branded homosexuality as pedophilia in the local paper.

“Over the years we’ve been able to speak rationally to people on the other side,” says Segal. “We need to continue to talk and be rational. But right now it seems that things are being unwound that we would never have thought would be unwound.

“We need to stay on our guard.”

Noting that an LGBT march on Washington is planned for June 11, “we’re working on getting a group together” to participate, adds Segal.

“We need to be seen -- wearing our hats, and carrying our flags.”