Matt Foreman of New York, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, likened the blow to a death, with soul searching in order.
"Our movement needs to regroup and buckle down," said Sue Hyde of Cambridge, Massachusetts, director of the "Creating Change" conference that runs Thursday through Sunday.
Last week's presidential election saw 11 more states pass constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Missouri and five other states already had passed similar measures.
It's tough when "the vast majority of citizens in your state not only do not understand you but take hostile steps to change the constitution to take away rights we never even had," Foreman said. "There's no way you can put lipstick on that pig."
Still, organizers are taking the long view, knowing that gay people have moved beyond past discriminatory practices. They were purged from the U.S. military after World War II, blacklisted as subversives by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and subjected to police raids of their gathering places before fighting back in New York City during what became known as the Stonewall Riot of June 27, 1969.
On Nov. 2, 40 gay candidates were elected to local, state and federal offices, according to the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political action committee.
Foreman said the gay rights movement cannot retreat from working for social and legal rights, though the battle is "extremely uphill."
He and other organizers at this week's conference said they may not be able to change political leaders, and they see no point in talking to what they call "Anti-Gay Inc." — to them, a right-wing, anti-gay leadership whose mission is "to demonize us."
"We have to engage our neighbors and co-workers in a deep conversation about our humanity, and the need to be able to take care of our families," Hyde said.
About 2,000 people are expected to attend the conference, which is sponsored by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the oldest national group advocating for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
Hyde said organizers believe the state measures passed by voters will be interpreted very broadly to prohibit recognition of gay and lesbian relationships and families, and conference organizers anticipate the Bush administration will push for a U.S. constitutional ban on gay marriage.
Organizers say they are deeply troubled that the lives and families of gay people were portrayed as a threat to society in the state campaigns for a gay marriage ban. Hyde fears that passage of the measures now means it's possible for openly gay people in some communities to be physically hurt by those who fear or hate them.
Roey Thorpe, executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, shared a personal story that she believes illustrates the prejudice that a gay person cannot love as truly or as deeply as a heterosexual.
The Portland, Oregon, woman said an employee who was grieving over the death of her husband asked Thorpe, "Do your people feel sad when your person dies?"
"It tells it all," Thorpe said. "I said, 'you saw me as a little less human and for me to realize it breaks my heart.'"
By Cheryl Wittenauer