The Trojan Elephant
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.
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.
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.
That may be a fair deal for folks with plenty of cash and no cachet, but for the rest of the gay community, it's a rough trade.
After Rudolph Giuliani addressed the Log Cabin Republicans' convention last month, a press release from the clubs hailed the mayor for his "sweeping" domestic-partner ordinance. Here is a classic case of turning peanuts into pearls.
A truly sweeping law would be like the one in San Francisco that requires firms doing business with the city to offer their workers domestic-partner benefits. But the New York statute merely applies to city workers, allowing private employers to do as they like. Giuliani has blocked a stronger ordinance, and he only backed the current one as a quid pro quo for the Empire State Pride Agenda's decision to remain neutral during the last mayoral campaign.
How pro-gay is Giuliani? Depends on what kind of queer you are. If you brunch with the big boys, he's on your side up to a point but if you're a person of color or a person with AIDS, chances are your quality of life has declined during Giuliani Time. The mayor presides over a police force that has been the subject of numerous complaints from the Anti-Violence Project regarding gay people (especially blacks and Latinos) harassed by cops for hanging out. Hundreds of activists have been jailed in demonstrations like last year's Matthew Shepard political funeral, when police violently broke up a march through Midtown. At last year's Pride parade, hecklers were arrested after the mayor burst unbidden into a black gay contingent. Then there was the demo at last month's Log Cabin convention, when police stood by while hotel guards beat protesters and dragged them out of the building.
Giuliani has significantly cut funding for AIDS programs, trying (unsuccessfully) to kill the Department of AIDS Services and eliminating city money for the nonprofit agency Housing Works, which had protested the cuts. His allies on the Board of Education have stifled the Rainbow Curriculum and hampered the distribution of condoms in the schools. He gay-baited former schools chancellor Ray Cortines, calling him "precious," and even had a Treasury agent attached to the U.S. Attorney's office investigate Ed Koch's sex life, when Giuliani was preparing to run against Koch in 1989.
Giuliani is a master of covering his tracks. But in this case, he's being aided by gay conservatives. No politician ever had a better beard.
Research: Jason Schwartzberg
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.