Ex-Political Pundit Embraces Gay Rights Activism
By Jennifer Erickson
Laguna Beach resident Fred Karger’s fight against the 2008 California ballot initiative to make same-sex marriage illegal has transformed him into a nationally known gay advocate as well as a target of a daunting lawsuit.
Yet, Karger, 59, had not even come out publicly until 2006 when beginning a local campaign to “Save the Boom,” the legendary gay Laguna Beach nightclub that closed in 2007.
Having worked as a political consultant in Los Angeles for 27 years, Karger’s activism was public, but his sexual orientation was very private. “I was scared to death of being found out,” said Karger of his years of secrecy. “Looking back, it’s hard to even imagine what I went through, the fear of being discovered for so many years…”
Karger’s involvement in politics began at the tender age of 10, attending a press conference with his grandmother in the suburbs of Chicago where he grew up. “I just always loved it,” he said, adding that he used to ride his bike to the local campaign headquarters of various politicians.
But political activism was a volunteer activity for Karger, who moved to Los Angeles after graduating from college in 1973. He didn’t consider it a career option and instead worked as an actor for three years. When his work became politics, Karger’s acting took on a more personal dimension.
After volunteering for the campaign of a state senator, Karger was hired by a political consulting firm run by Bill Roberts, who became his mentor. Their first major client was a state senator from Long Beach, George Deukmejian, then running for attorney general. The firm helped Deukmejian’s subsequent race for governor.
Karger worked for Roberts until his untimely death in 1988. By then, Karger was a partner in the firm, which would shift to corporate clients from politicians over the next decade.
Until his retirement to Laguna Beach in 2004, Karger successfully played the role of a straight man. “My acting background probably helped me put on a good act for a long time,” he said, admitting to an 11-year relationship with another man that neither his employer nor family knew about.
In Laguna, the tables turned. Instead of hiding his orientation to save his job, Karger’s self-appointed job is now to “save” gay rights.
“This is a very powerful story, because it is a story that is replicated all over the country and the world, the story of a man growing up who is gay and unable to deal with it for lots of reasons,” said Bob Gentry, Laguna’s first openly gay mayor, whom Karger considers his hero.
That Karger’s activism dovetailed so seamlessly with his coming out should be no surprise, Gentry said, since newfound freedom is empowering.
Saving the Boom saved Karger. He lamented the closing of gay bars in Santa Barbara, and was afraid that Laguna’s fate might be the same. He looked to Gentry for advice. “He gave me a pep talk and said ‘Don’t be afraid, you’re doing the right thing. Be proud of what you’re doing.’”
The Boom effort won him recognition in the gay community and proved the perfect segue into a far bigger battle.
Karger’s years of experience in politics attuned him to the need to question the role of big donors in the anti gay marriage Prop. 8 campaign. He looked at similar battles in other states and found that no one was challenging major donor opponents there either. Karger decided to take up the gauntlet, though it made some uneasy.
Since establishing Californians Against Hate in July 2008, Karger has strived for full disclosure of the people and organizations financing the campaign against gay marriage rights. “I wanted to make it socially unacceptable for people to give massive amounts of money to take away the rights of a minority,” said Karger. And despite voter approval of Proposition 8, he believes that has been accomplished, though not without personal cost to him.
Californians Against Hate filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission against the Mormon Church in November 2008 for failing to report numerous non-monetary contributions to ProtectMarriage. com, a coalition formed to support Prop 8. The enforcement division of the FPPC subsequently opened an investigation of the allegations made in the complaint.
When gay marriage opponents began supporting an initiative last year in Maine to overturn same-sex weddings, Karger called for another investigation, writing Maine’s Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices and its attorney general, detailing alleged election law violations by Stand for Marriage Maine.
Karger’s activism in September led to his entanglement in a federal lawsuit. He was served a subpoena by the National Organization for Marriage, organized to oppose same-sex marriage in state legislatures, in its suit against top California state officials over public records.
Karger anticipated what he believes is retaliation. The subpoena compels him to produce a daunting amount of records for Californians Against Hate since January 2008. He retained Stevens, O’Connell and Jacobs to represent him.
Gentry believes that Karger’s fight for transparency is fundamental to suppressing oppression of gay and lesbian people. Gentry is convinced that Karger’s opponents are trying to silence him since “they do not want our voice because our voice is a voice of honesty and transparency. Their voice is a voice of innuendo, prejudice and bigotry.”
It turns out, the subpoena held a silver lining, literally and figuratively. Last month, under both the emotional and financial strain, Karger set up a legal defense fund, “FiveforFred.com,” requesting five-dollar donations from supporters in an email plea. He discovered just how many people are already behind him.
He’s received more than $18,000 from people all over the country, much of it in five-dollar contributions. “The fact that I’ve gotten this huge amount of support is so meaningful and gratifying. Quite frankly it makes all the difference,” he said, and will help pay for the latest invoices from his attorneys.
According to Gentry, Karger “is becoming a hero to thousands of people who hear about him, because he gives them the strength to be themselves.”