The Trojan Elephant

Gay Republicans Are Looking For Love In All the Wrong Places

Why this shift in tone? Follow the money. In 1992, gays and lesbians raised over $3.5 million for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. What's more, queers come out to vote. Last year, according to the Task Force report, 4.2 percent of voters identified themselves as gay (down from 5 percent in 1996— but what group wasn't?). That makes the gay vote bigger than the Jewish vote (which numbered 3.5 percent in '96) and comparable to the Latino vote (which clocked in at 4.5 percent). As turnout declines, these small segments of the electorate become increasingly important. And Republicans were astonished to discover that, in the 1998 election, a whopping 33 percent of the gay vote went to GOP candidates. Imagine what might happen if the Republicans actually smiled on these sinners.

This explains the stunning decision last week by the Reverend Jerry Falwell to have dinner with 200 gay people during a weekend of faith-based activities led by the openly gay reverend Mel White. Even more miraculous, Falwell says he will tone down his antigay rhetoric. But as with Bush, there is no indication that the reverend— who has raised millions from the faithful by targeting homosexuals— has changed his mind in regard to gay rights. Just his tune.

Same with the two Republicans who, like Bush, have avoided signing a homophobic pledge being circulated among the candidates by groups that promote "reparative therapy" for gays. (Among the signers: Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, and Gary Bauer.) Unlike her husband, who returned a contribution from the Log Cabin clubs during the 1996 campaign, Elizabeth Dole welcomes gay cash. And John McCain has said he can imagine a gay president (perhaps there have already been several). But both candidates have decidedly mixed records on gay rights.

illustration: David Hollenbach

Dole has made a point of defending the Boy Scouts in its insistence on excluding gays, and she won't endorse ENDA, the federal antidiscrimination bill, claiming it would grant "special privileges" to gays. I'll take your money, Dole seems to be saying, but I won't take your side. McCain did vote for a bill allowing the government to compile statistics on hate crimes against homosexuals. But he, too, opposes ENDA, and strongly objects to gays in the military. McCain backed Jesse Helms's attack on funding HIV programs at gay community health centers and supported an amendment to bar funding for AIDS programs that might "promote or encourage homosexuality." Yet, despite his remarkably meager record of support for gay causes, McCain won a straw poll of Log Cabin Republicans last month. That's called looking for love in all the wrong places.

After all, how would McCain, Dole, or Bush deal with the advances in gay rights that have occurred during the Clinton administration? Would they extend the executive order prohibiting antigay discrimination in the 1.8 million Federal Civilian Workforce? Would they preserve the directive to the Justice Department to prosecute those who discriminate against people with AIDS? Would they continue the policy of granting political asylum to persecuted lesbians and gays? The answers can be deduced from the Republican record. But there's also the goal, often expressed by Bush and others in the GOP, of funneling millions of dollars in social-service funding to programs run by churches. Would these religious institutions be required to offer their services to lesbians and gays? Believe that and you just might buy the idea of a Republican "sea change."

Perhaps the real mystery is not why the media are so het up about this alleged embrace— it's a damned good story— but why gay Republicans are so willing to settle for sympathy over substance. The answer has everything to do with status.

Gay conservatives are a recent arrival in the movement, if only because most of them were unwilling to come out until the way was paved by radicals. Their numbers may be growing, but their political clout is low, and a Republican victory might give them a nibble of power. Then, too, there are few black, poor, or female members of this group. Log Cabin conventions have the nearly all-male aura of a tea dance with suits. This crowd has little need of assistance from the government, and would not suffer much if antigay churches ran social programs. What they do need is the respect their affluence would otherwise command. A smile from The Man is worth much more to them than civil rights.

This is hardly the mandate of the gay movement, which is supposed to represent not just affluent white males but women, blacks, and the poor. After all, it's precisely these people who stand in the greatest danger of losing their jobs to a bigoted boss or being caught up in a police sweep. What would happen if this mandate gave way to an agenda that privileges social acceptance over social change? The movement would begin to resemble the model gayocon Andrew Sullivan described, when he wrote that gays should push for the right to marry, then have a party and call their struggle off. In his book, Ralph Reed has kind words for Sullivan's vision— after all, it's consistent with the "sea change" Reed forsees: gays give up their need for justice and security in exchange for common courtesy.

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