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When Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied, "I think it would be a very good idea." The same can be said of the media-fed myth that Republicans are ready to reconcile with gays. It would be great if only it were true.
"Where's the compassion?" asks a report published today by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. While acknowledging that no presidential candidate fully embraces the gay rights agenda, the report states the obvious: both Bill Bradley and Al Gore are "far more supportive" than their Republican counterparts. Though these Democratic rivals oppose gay marriage, Gore is the first major presidential candidate in history to favor domestic-partner benefits. (Bradley is still thinking about it.) And both men support ENDA, the bill that would grant gays federal protection against job discrimination. By contrast, no Republican candidate backs any gay rights legislation. The report notes that Republican front-runner George W. Bush "opposes the most basic anti-discrimination protections, and supports continued criminalization of homosexual activity."
Even as gay people are still arrested in Texas under the state's sodomy law, (Lambda Legal Defense is currently handling such a case), Bush endorses these statutes as "a symbolic gesture of traditional values." He flatly opposes including sexual orientation in anti-discrimination laws because, as a spokesperson explained, he is against "special rights" for homosexuals. Bush is also against gay marriage and adoptions, refusing to say whether children being raised by gay parents should be removed from their homes. And when it comes to the most moderate gay initiative adding sexual orientation to hate crimes laws Bush says no. When the Texas house passed such a bill earlier this year, Bush's allies killed it in committee.
But this good old boy didn't get where he is without a gift for sweet talk, and when it comes to the gay community, he's covered his tracks with honey. Bush has let it be known that he would not be averse to hiring gays. That and similar statements by GOP candidates Elizabeth Dole and John McCain inspired a gushing response from The New York Times, where a recent editorial detected a "sea change" in the GOP. Rich Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, was even more ecstatic, insisting that Bush's position on gay hiring "has laid the philosophical groundwork for supporting federal nondiscrimination policies and legislation."
That would be news to Bush. When he became governor of Texas in 1994, he made it clear that he would never hire a gay person who had "a political agenda that I am uncomfortable with." To wit: "an agenda pushed by the gay and lesbian lobby." In other words, a Log Cabin activist who favors gay rights would be ineligible for a place in the Bush administration. Asked whether he would hire someone who was out but not politically active, Bush replied, "I don't know what that means." How many openly gay people has he hired? Mindy Tucker, press secretary for the Bush campaign, says that neither she nor the governor knows, since "that's a question he never asks."
Last month, the Log Cabin Republicans held their most auspicious convention in New York. The delegates were all aflutter over Bush's coy come-on, but it's definitely a one-sided romance. Bush has never even met with the Log Cabin Republicans, as far as Tucker knows. In fact, according to columnist Robert Novak, Bush "won praise from prominent social conservatives when he supported the Texas Republican Party's denial of a booth" for the Log Cabin club at the state GOP convention. Though Bush admonished a party official for comparing gay Republicans to pedophiles, Novak writes that "behind the scenes, Bush made clear that he approved of the decision not to permit a booth." This was a tried and true strategy, as Novak notes: "taking a hard line without firing the first verbal assault is precisely what is recommended by religious conservative leaders."
Even as Bush gives gays a wink and a nod, the GOP's leadership is still mired in the tradition that recently allowed Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott to compare homosexuality to kleptomania. In 1992, Republican orators competed to see who could fire up the party's convention with a homophobic tirade.
But one influential conservative has always had qualms about this approach. Ralph Reed, who helped make Pat Robertson a force in the GOP, never agreed with the reverend's hellfire attitude toward gays. Even before he left the Christian Coalition in 1997 to start his own consulting firm, Reed advocated a shift in tactics. "Calling gays 'perverts' or announcing that AIDS is 'God's judgment' on the gay community are. . . inconsistent with our Christian call to mercy," Reed wrote in his 1996 book, Active Faith. "I would hope that in the future both sides will resist attacking individuals and stick to policy differences."
But those differences go to the heart of gay rights. "Government should tolerate but not encourage homosexual conduct," Reed writes. What he means by encouragement is any legislation to protect gays from discrimination. "This is a radical demand," claims Reed.
As the presidential campaign heats up, Reed is in a strong position to apply his "call to mercy" to the art of politics. He has advised no fewer than four Republican candidates (his firm will not identify them), but he is currently backing Bush. In a recent column for the National Review, Reed called Bush "the most electable conservative presidential candidate in a generation," and declared that a Bush victory would be "a conservative triumph, not a moderate one." In other words: read my platform, not my lips. Bush's staunch opposition to gay rights, tempered by recent comments like this one to a gay Republican "I promise I will always treat you with respect" faithfully follow Reed's formula.