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With stars in their eyes, 200 Log Cabin Republicans gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington last month. There, they heard an associate White House counsel, an associate director of the White House domestic policy council, and the openly gay AIDS czar, Joseph O'Neill (a supporter of abstinence education). Was this "a policy briefing with senior administration officials," as The New York Times described it, or was this merely one of the administration's periodic gay-courtship rites? Depends on whether you judge intention by words or deeds.
Abetted by an all-too-credulous press, the Republicans have presented themselves as a big-tent party striving to balance tolerance for gays with commitment to the Christian right. But there's a difference between meeting with a gay group, as GOP strategist Marc Racicot did recently, and acting in its interest. Under the Republicans, gays get the glad hand while phobes get the power.
The most vivid proof is Bush's willingness to nominate men with anti-gay records to lifetime terms on the federal bench. Rick Santorum's wrath is nothing compared with the impact of these and other right-wing appointments. Bush's judicial agenda could pose the greatest threat to gay rights in a generation.
"We are at the Justice Department," bragged Mark Mead, the Log Cabin clubs' director of public affairs, after the 2002 election. That place at the table has resulted in meetings with John Ashcroft. But it hasn't stopped Ashcroft from banning the annual gay pride celebration by DOJ employees. (That decision is a first for any federal agency.) Nor has it stopped the attorney general from recommending anti-gay judges for promotion, and these choices go from Ashcroft's mouth to Bush's ear.
Consider Jay S. Bybee, who now sits on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. As an attorney, Bybee argued for a Defense Department program that screened for "all known or suspected" homosexuals seeking top-secret clearance. People who perform "acts of sexual misconduct or perversion," Bybee told the court, are guilty of "moral turpitude, poor judgment, or lack of regard for the laws of society."
Timothy Tymkovich, who now sits on the 10th Circuit Court, wrote a law-journal article criticizing the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Colorado's Amendment 2, which forbade any locality from enacting gay-rights laws. During the confirmation debate, Senator Patrick Leahy said the article "went well beyond professional legal advocacy" and seems "replete with heavy anti-homosexual rhetoric."
The same administration can shmooze homocons and nominate Bill Pryor to the 11th Circuit. As Alabama's attorney general, Pryor filed a brief in the current Supreme Court sodomy case warning that voiding these statutes opens the door to "activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, bestiality, child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia." Missionary Position Rick couldn't have said it better.
Only a few of Bush's 126 judicial nominees have homophobic smoking guns, but that doesn't mean they look kindly on the growing number of gay legal claims. The decidedly centrist Human Rights Campaign objected in vain to Jeffrey Sutton's appointment to the Sixth Circuit bench. According to HRC, Sutton has profound misgivings about the Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people with AIDS, and he's argued against the need for federal hate-crime laws. None of that has stood in his way.
Stacking higher courts with right-wingers could have a devastating impact on gay-rights claims. As Arthur Leonard wrote in Gay City News, the Supreme Court hears "only a handful of major gay cases over the course of a decade, while courts of appeals are deciding dozens of cases affecting gay litigants every month." What's more, a Supreme Court vacancy may occur as soon as this summer. If Bush's record is any gauge, he won't disqualify a judge with a hostile record on gay rights.
Yes, there are gay-friendly Republicans. It's worth noting that Senator John Warner has held up the promotion of Major General Robert T. Clark, who was in charge of the army base where Pfc. Barry Winchell was gay-baited and then murdered. But none of these allies plays a central role in the administration. The minor gay appointments Bush has made and the few pro-gay things he's done (such as extending federal benefits to the same-sex partners of police and firefighters who die on duty) do not alter the dictum issued by press secretary Ari Fleischer after the Santorum flap. The president, Fleischer remarked, believes that "homosexual groups, gay groups, should not have special rights." That means no legislation against discrimination.
For all its interest in Santorum, the press hasn't explored his ample anti-gay record. It shows that his beef goes far beyond homosex. Santorum played a central role in moving Bush's charitable-choice proposal. When asked about the provision allowing religious groups to discriminate against gay people while taking federal funds, Santorum said, "I will make that stand." Eventually he backed down, but only because the provision would have doomed the bill.
Every time the administration blows an air-kiss to a gay group, the religious right erupts, as it did after the Racicot meeting. Then some prominent Republican drops an anti-gay zinger. Santorum's bombshell may well have been a calculated attempt to deflect criticism from the right. But when you factor in Dick Armey's reference to his colleague from Massachusetts as "Barney Fag" and Trent Lott's comparison of homosexuals to kleptomaniacs, the pattern of contempt is clear.
Despite this dissing, the Republicans can tempt gay voters with an implicit promise: If you prove useful, we won't roll back your civil rights. Yet, by lending support to a party dominated by the religious right, gay voters help to assure that such a rollback will take place. It may not happen in Congress, but it will certainly occur in the courts. The next time a state passes a law voiding gay civil rights, it might not be overturned. But Bush will go on shaking hands with queer compadres.
Most gay voters know the difference between a smile and progress. That's why they are the third most loyal Democratic constituency, after blacks and Jews. Seventy-five percent of them voted for Al Gore in 2000. Still, Bush got about a million gay votes, and the Republicans hope to top this number by quietly courting gays in crucial states like Florida (where the GOP recently ran an openly gay candidate for the statehouse). The outing of Florida Republican Mark Foley, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, makes the party of Santorum seem even more simpatico.
Gays comprise 9 percent of voters in large cities. You'd think the Democrats would fight to retain this potent base. But there are signals of a new discretion on their part. Though Democrats have spoken out against Bush's anti-gay nominees, their protest has yet to reach the filibuster level. Then there's Hillary Clinton, who lay back on Santorum and has refused to say whether she would support General Clark's promotion. Her caution echoes a recent piece in the Democratic Leadership Council publication Blueprint arguing that the party must rectify its failure to attract swing voters, "especially middle-class white men." Read straight middle-class white men.
How ironic it would be if the Democrats make Bush look gay-friendly even as he carries out a backlash against gay rights. Stranger things have happened in American politics. In fact, they happen all the time.