When the New York State Senate meets in special session on December 17, we will see whether George Pataki’s promise to the gay community is fulfilled. There’s some doubt that the bill known as SONDA, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation, will actually become law. As reported in Gay City News, conservatives may propose an amendment barring same-sex marriage, while progressives try to add language protecting the transgendered. Any revision in the senate bill would kill it for this session, since the state assembly won’t be around to sign on. No wonder some pros predict that SONDA will suffer its usual fate: caught between two houses while the governor washes his hands.
Still, the gay lobbying group Empire State Pride Agenda, which endorsed Pataki, is convinced that his commitment is as good as gold. If SONDA passes, it will seal Pataki’s reputation as a gay-friendly Republican. Didn’t he extend benefits to same-sex partners of 9-11 victims? Didn’t he preside over the repeal of the state’s sodomy law? Yes, indeed. But why strew roses before a governor who has insisted for the past eight years that he was powerless to move SONDA? Under his benign neglect, New York is the only state in the Northeast except for Maine,without a gay rights law. As for the sodomy statute, it was all but voided by the state courts 22 years ago. What courage it took to wipe this nonlaw off the books.
Yet lesbian syndicated columnist Deb Price insists that Pataki has done more for queers “than all the state’s previous governors combined.” Such is the myth of the gay-friendly GOP. They buy you a beer, call it champagne, and expect to get laid.
The thinking at Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest gay political group, is that if we don’t dis Republicans they won’t dismiss us. Meanwhile, the consensus in the gay press is that it pays to have friends in both parties. It certainly does—if your crew actually comes through for you.
What has Bush done for us? Quite a bit, according to the Log Cabin Republicans. During the 2000 primaries, this gay group endorsed John McCain (no doubt influenced by the role Bush played in barring them from the Texas GOP convention). But that was then and this is now. “President Bush’s inclusive leadership has put a new face on the Republican Party,” boasts LCR’s executive director, Rich Tafel. That’s true, if you measure change by patronage and ceremony.
Massachusetts governor-elect Mitt Romney nudged a gay candidate for lieutenant governor off his slate, but he did hire a Log Cabin official as a senior campaign aide. Georgia governor-elect Sonny Perdue made no promises about gay rights, but he did meet with LCR. Log Cabinites have had face time with cabinet members, and—behold—Tafel was invited to watch the president’s first speech to Congress from the floor of the House. In exchange for these air kisses, the Log Cabin clubs poured $250,000 into the 2002 election. Imagine what they would have done if Donald Rumsfeld had given Tafel a hug.
Like the proverbial straight man looking to be serviced, Bush’s policy toward the gay community is to give as little as he can to get as much as he wants. We now have a gay ambassador to Romania, and for the first time in history his lover is allowed to reside in the embassy. Never mind that ordinary homos and their partners can be evicted in many states. Bush appointed four gays to his AIDS advisory council. Never mind that the administration is threatening to audit gay organizations that aren’t sufficiently dedicated to abstinence.
There’s more. Rumsfeld hired a gay man to serve as a transition officer at the Pentagon—though that hasn’t stopped the discharge of gay service members, including several skilled linguists recently. The Justice Department held a Gay Pride event last year—though you can hold your breath about John Ashcroft’s judicial nominees. The president signed a bill allowing the District of Columbia to offer domestic-partner benefits—though you can forget about a federal anti-discrimination bill that would protect gay people wherever they live.
Am I leaving something important out? Yes. Bush has not endorsed the proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions. He’s willing to let marriage activists run the gamut state by state. That policy can best be described as laissez les fairies, and it’s hardly a breakthrough. Ronald Reagan took the same passive stance, and so did Bush Senior. The only difference is that W. calls it friendship. He’s the trick who stays till morning because he expects a big breakfast.
What a meal Bush will get if the gay community takes his silence for support. Gays represent about 5 percent of voters (a figure slightly higher than Jews), and they are clustered in elector-rich swing states. What’s more, they give heavily to political campaigns. The Republicans have much to gain if they can chip away at this community’s Democratic loyalties. In the last election, 71 percent of gay voters across the country chose Democrats for the House and Senate, according to a Zogby poll. Only 19 percent picked Republicans.
As the president flirts, we may be distracted from what is happening in states controlled by the GOP. Consider Texas, where the legislature has fallen into Republican hands. The first thing the new majority plans to do is reintroduce an anti-gay marriage law that’s been bottled up by the Democrats. Then there’s the Republican Congress. Over the past 10 years, the number of Democrats given a 100 percent rating by HRC (hardly the gay left) rose from 27 to 72 percent. But the number of Republicans with a zero rating rose from 46 to 61 percent. And those figures were compiled before the election, when most Republican incumbents who lost were moderates.
It’s possible that the White House will rein in anti-gay congressional initiatives, and maybe even pass a gay-inclusive hate crimes act. But most queers know that the best they can expect from Republicans is the consolidation of gains made possible by Democrats. When a lesbian Republican got elected district attorney of San Diego, it was a national story: Dyke Bites Dog. But the people of Providence, Rhode Island, went even further by electing a gay man mayor. David Cicilline is a Democrat, natch.
This is not to say there’s no such thing as a gay-friendly Republican. But the party’s core beliefs are clearly stated in its homophobic platform. The carefully staged dialogue between gays and the GOP is largely a conversation between elites. The Republican brass is mainly interested in attracting gay dollars. The well-heeled gay right is mainly interested in covering its assets. These homocons feel no need for laws against discrimination, which is why they are willing to see a smile from on high as reciprocation. But what about the rest of us? We haven’t come this far to give our hearts away for a cheap date.
When someone buys you a beer, don’t mistake it for champagne. Take what a trick has to offer, but don’t call it love.
Richard Goldstein will be appearing on BBC’s “Nightwaves” program on 11/27.