Gay Republicans – an oxymoron?
Published Thursday, 10-Nov-2005 in issue 933
In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole returned a $1,000 political contribution check to the Log Cabin Republicans, issuing a statement that said, in part, the gay Republican organization’s support of legal recognition of same-sex marriage “is a special-rights platform that Senator Dole simply does not support.” And this was the gay conservative organization’s first foray into national politics after establishing their own centralized nationwide organization.
In the next general election in 2000, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush refused to meet with leaders of the Log Cabin organization, and instead chose to meet with a dozen gay and lesbian Republicans, including former Congressmember Steve Gunderson, who had criticized Dole for returning the check. In exit polls, 4 million voters self-identified as gay or lesbian. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of those individuals voted for Bush.
In 2004, President Bush’s victory is credited to strategically placing the issue of same-sex marriage on several key state ballots (Missouri, New Mexico and Ohio, to name a few), thus drawing out a conservative base. Bush also supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman. In what was a first for the national Log Cabin Republicans, the organization chose to withhold its endorsement of President Bush, the Republican candidate.
Just recently on “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, the Reverend Jerry Falwell said of Marc Cherry, the creator of “Desperate Housewives” (who self-identifies as a gay Republican), “If he’s gay and Republican, then the first thing he should do is join the Democratic Party.”
And if you think that sounds hostile, wait until you’re sitting at a dinner party surrounded by gay friends and announce that you’re a Republican.
Or, at least, so argues Garrick Wilhelm, president of the San Diego chapter of Log Cabin Republicans and the California State Board technology director.
“When I was coming out, I naïvely thought I would be accepted and feel free to be myself,” says Wilhelm. “But in the gay community, I have to be just as – or more – careful about making the decision to disclose that I am a Republican than I do in the straight community disclosing that I am a gay man. There is a tremendous hostility toward gay Republicans in the gay community.”
This dual rejection encountered – as a homosexual in the Republican Party and as a Republican in the gay community – is what Angela D. Dillard, a professor of history and politics at the Gallatin School at New York University, calls “double marginalization” in her book Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America. Dillard offers, as she says, “a comparative analysis of conservatism which today cuts across the boundaries of sex, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.” The purpose of the book, argues Dillard, is to challenge the very notion of the conservative party belonging only to middle- and upper-class heterosexual white men.
Dillard’s book takes a broad look at members of minority groups who associate with conservatives, most notably Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, Linda Chavez and Phyllis Schlafly. Dillard allows each of these individuals to tell their own story of how they reconcile their minority status with their conservative politics. For example, she argues that many African-American conservatives have rallied against inner-city poverty. While Dillard is more successful in her argument when it comes to race and gender, there are some interesting anecdotes regarding gay conservatives, including a chapter on “Strange Bedfellows: Gender, Sexuality and ‘Family Values’” in which Dillard explores the double marginalization that many homosexual conservatives feel.
The fact is, according to Jeremy Hawthorn, a local gay Republican, that you can see these scenarios above in just about any minority group of the American population. The notion, says Hawthorn, that Republicans are heterosexual white men in middle- to upper-social class positions is simply outdated.
“The reality is that there is a growing number of African-American, Latino, female and homosexual contingents within the conservative movement,” Hawthorn says. “They are all there for different reasons, but our presence is redefining the Republican Party.”
A more recent book by Paul Robinson, professor of history at Stanford University called Queer Wars: The New Gay Right and Its Critics, focuses specifically on homosexual conservatives and their recent rise in popularity.
In an interview with Jennifer Jacobson of “Verbatim,” an online publication, Robinson explains, “It’s a reflection of the extent to which gays have succeeded in sort of getting themselves on the map and getting themselves regarded as ordinary citizens. In the early years, when there was so much oppression and opposition, you had to be on the left if you were concerned with this issue. But it’s no longer the case. It’s exactly the same thing that’s happened with the black conservatives or women conservatives. The movements for civil rights and for women’s liberation succeeded to such an extent that now we can have conservatives of those persuasions.”
In his book, Robinson explains that the “emergence of gay conservatism as a political and intellectual force is arguably the most important new development in the gay world … new conservatives have exercised an influence on the gay movement far in excess of the number of their actual converts.”
Hawthorn, who majored in history in his undergraduate work, took a number of queer studies courses. The one thing he found most unsettling was the misleading general belief that GLBT advocates have always been far-left leaning.
“The history of homosexual conservatism isn’t nearly as new as Robinson would argue. In fact, it goes back at least to the 1950s,” explains Hawthorn. “The Mattachine Society rejected the idea of gays and lesbians having to be ‘radical’ to bring about change. Instead, they argued that homosexuals were a legitimate sub-group of the American population. The society worked to win acceptance, not change mainstream values. The emphasis was on assimilation and legal change.”
In fact, explains Hawthorn, the Mattachine Society insisted on dress codes at demonstrations, where men wore suits and women wore dresses. Naturally, this offended the senses of a large number of GLBT activists. However, argues Hawthorn, “It is a lot harder to dismiss someone who looks just like you, than someone who spent the day making himself up to be in a parade.”
That is not to say, however, that conservatives like Hawthorn position against personal expression.
“There is no question that effeminate men and masculine women, that promiscuous individuals and radical demonstrators are the most frequent images that come to mind in mainstream America’s minds,” says Hawthorn. “And those individuals are entitled to their expression, and that expression fits well within my conservative belief system of individual rights protection. Where I differ, however, is will those people convince leading lawmakers to change in a way that is meaningful for them?”
Likely the most visible contingent of homosexual conservatives is an organization called Log Cabin Republicans.
By way of history, in 1978, there was a ballot measure in California called the Briggs Initiative, which, in essence, would have prevented gays and lesbians from being public school teachers. A group calling itself Log Cabin considered this a rallying point for conservatives since it was the first attempt to restrict gay and lesbian rights through a statewide ballot measure.
Thanks in part to former governor and later President Ronald Reagan, the ballot was defeated. But an organization was formed that today has a national office and nearly 70 chapters in 37 states. The name “Log Cabin” is a reference to America’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a log cabin. Log Cabin notes Lincoln’s fight for equality of all men is part of the founding principles of the organization.
However, despite the large number of chapters, Log Cabin Republicans represent a very small percentage of gay conservatives.
“I certainly identify as a conservative, and have voted Republican in every election since I was old enough to go the polls,” says Valerie Stimen, an openly lesbian corporate manager. “However, in no way do I associate with Log Cabin. While I have nothing against them personally, I find that it is always dangerous when a small percentage of a total population speaks on behalf of that population.”
“[I]n the gay community, I have to be just as – or more – careful about making the decision to disclose that I am a Republican than I do in the straight community disclosing that I am a gay man. There is a tremendous hostility toward gay Republicans in the gay community.”
Stimen does agree with Log Cabin’s primary mission: “We believe in low taxes, limited government, strong defense, free markets, personal responsibility and individual liberty. Log Cabin represents an important part of the American family – taxpaying, hardworking people who proudly believe in this nation’s greatness.”
So, being between the proverbial rock and a hard place – where one feels marginalized on one hand because gay friends believe you have betrayed the GLBT movement, and on the other hand marginalized in certain circles of one’s own political party – why bother?
For Timothy Vineg, a registered Republican and openly gay entrepreneur, the answer is simple: It’s the issues. Take crime, for example, says Vineg, “If we had more cops on the street, there would be less crime. And if the punishment for committing crimes, especially hate crimes, which was passed by a Republican-held Congress, were swifter and surer, there would be fewer of them.”
Other issues have been aided – if not driven – by Republicans, explains Wilhelm. Wilhelm points to the Republican judge in California who favored same-sex marriage, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court’s 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that repealed sodomy laws, and civil rights in the 1960s.
“People don’t always see – or acknowledge – the good work done by Republicans,” Wilhelm says. “In fact, most of my friends refuse to recognize that a lot of good policy that supports personal freedom has been accomplished by Republicans. Instead, they focus on all the work Democrats do. For example, the military’s ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy passed under [then-President Bill] Clinton? Democrats say they’re our friends, and then they bite us in the ass. But there we are, still calling them our friends.”
Hawthorn agrees. When things looked bleak for AIDS funding, the Log Cabin Republicans was the first gay organization to testify before the 104th Congress for funding for the Ryan White Care Act. According to Hawthorn, the Massachusetts Safe Schools Program, which was designed to protect GLBT youth, and was a first in the country, was pushed by gay conservatives in then-Governor William Weld’s administration.
Health care is another divisive issue in politics. For Wilhelm, who is a self-described moderate Republican, he favors a form of universal health care similar to that in Singapore.
“I favor a system that requires individuals to pay into a medical savings account fund,” avers Wilhelm. “You would then have a debit card, basically, from which to obtain health care. The fact is that 30 percent of all health care costs is in the insurance processing claim procedure. If you eliminate that, you end up with cheaper health care and a back-up safety net for those who don’t have the ability to provide for themselves. But I think those who can pay, should.”
Essentially, argues Stimen, opposing gun control, favoring school vouchers and strict security at home have nothing to do with one’s sexual identity.
It is important to gay conservatives, says Vineg, that people understand that they are not selling out to the Christian Right for their fiscally conservative belief systems. And for many conservatives, like Wilhelm, many gay conservatives could not bring themselves to vote for Bush in the last election. Beyond the obvious issue of the constitutional amendment, many question Bush’s fiscal restraint.
“Most conservatives will support tax cuts,” explains Vineg, “but we also expect cuts in government spending. The president can blame spending on whatever War on Terror or natural disaster he likes, but the truth of the matter is that this president has increased per household government spending to a level that has not been seen since World War II.”
There are few issues in today’s political arena that are more hotly contested than abortion. The Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians (PLAGAL) is based in Alexandria, Va. PLAGAL began in 1990 as local groups in Washington, D.C. and Minneapolis. Initially called “Gays Against Abortion,” the name was later changed to reflect a membership of both gay men and lesbians. The charter for PLAGAL is to promote a respect for life within the gay community and encourage gay and lesbian participation in the pro-life cause.
Cecilia Brown is the President of PLAGAL. Brown, who had an abortion herself at 18, understands the concept of double marginalization. On January 22, 2002, the organizers of March for Life in Washington, D.C. had her arrested for marching as an openly lesbian right-to-lifer. The organizers, because of religious beliefs, did not welcome PLAGAL. On the other end, her activism in the GLBT community is limited because of her adamant stand on abortion.
“If you are human this issue affects you,” says Brown. “All humans have friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances or themselves that may be faced with a crisis pregnancy. I, myself, have had two crisis pregnancies when I was trying to be someone I am not – heterosexual. I had an abortion and have regretted that deeply. It has taken me a long time to heal. I also have a wonderful daughter that I cannot imagine living without. The GLBT community has bisexuals, both men and women, who may find themselves in crisis, lesbians who have been raped, teenage members of the GLBT community who may be experimenting with their sexuality and become pregnant or become fathers.”
Chad Terry, an openly gay Republican, who moved to San Diego this summer from Georgetown, Ky., takes a very pro-life stand.
“I believe in the tenants of the Catholic Church,” says Terry. “And, among others, that means the right to life for any child conceived.”
Another tenant of the Catholic Church is the sacrament of marriage, as defined as a union between a man and a woman. And here is where gay conservatives find less common ground. But the lack of common ground can come from some very surprising places.
Is it possible to support equality for GLBT individuals and at the same time adhere to conservative principles? Are they mutually exclusive? Or, more specifically, are they hypocritical?
Terry, who is self-admittedly more socially conservative than most of his gay Republican friends, argues against same-sex marriage.
“If it is a matter of legality,” says Terry. “I don’t think you can force a church to recognize something that is against the very tenants of their foundation. Marriage, as it is implied today, is between a man and a woman. You simply cannot force a religious institution to acknowledge something that is in direct conflict with one of their major sacraments.”
Where it gets hazy, though, says Terry, is civil marriage.
“I don’t necessarily disagree with [civil marriage],” says Terry, “as long as the sacrament of marriage is not pulled down. I think if you want to do something civilly and legally, I am 100 percent in favor of that.”
“Being for gay marriage and being conservative are absolutely not incompatible,” maintains Jerry Buckley, a registered Republican and openly gay man. “Do not mistake my life-long commitment to limited government and being tough on crime, personal privacy and property rights, and economic prudence as somehow incompatible with my stance on gay marriage. In fact, gay marriage is the key to achieving each of these items for the [GLBT] community.”
For Buckley, a domestic partnership is an easy out when it comes to taking personal responsibility.
“There’s so little investment you have to have to qualify for DPs [Domestic Partnerships],” explains Buckley. “In most cases, you have to share a common residence and be financially interdependent. I mean, in that case, college roommates could apply. And suddenly, you get health insurance, bereavement leave and inheritance rights.”
What domestic partnerships lack, says Buckley, is the responsibility element. A good conservative, argues Buckley, would recognize that the value of civil marriage is that it provides stability: emotional, economic, and, in many cases, familial.
“If every couple I knew who wanted to get married could, I suspect that society at large would benefit,” says Buckley. “Why? Because, speaking as a conservative, we would be giving these individuals the public acknowledgement that they deserve. It’s the same public acknowledgement that holds them accountable to one another in society’s eyes.”
Wilhelm has a different perspective. “I fully believe in marriage equality,” says Wilhelm. “But probably for different reasons than most people. For me, it is about the 16-year-old boy who suddenly realizes he is gay, and the next thing he realizes is that he will never get married. Often young kids are thrown out of their houses, and we know the church doesn’t always welcome gays and lesbians. So, what is there to be accountable to for that 16-year-old boy? No family, no church, no spouse. Who is he living his life for at that point?”
And this, says Vineg, is a very conservative ideal. “Personal responsibility is critical to a well-functioning society. As long as you have relationships that can come and go at will, with little or no responsibility regarding children, health care or spousal support, you cannot maintain a responsible society.”
And the constitutional amendment to define marriage?
Patrick Guerriero, executive director for Log Cabin, called the constitutional amendment to define marriage a “call to arms for gay conservatives.” Guerriero went on to say, “The feeling is, if you want a cultural war, you’ll get it. We don’t want history to record that we stood silent when our president and our party tried to write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution.”
Changing the Constitution is not something most pure conservatives favor, gay or straight.
“The U.S. Constitution is not a living breathing document at whim to social change,” says Stimen. “It is a document that set the course for a nation and a society. We should not be changing it at will.”
Hawthorn points to the Prohibition, when alcohol was outlawed, as an example of a constitutional amendment process gone awry.
“The constitution is not a document to limit liberties,” says Hawthorn. “The only time we were able to modify for the purposes of limiting liberties rather than extending them – for Prohibition – it was repealed. I suspect we would see the same process today if by some chance a constitutional amendment to define marriage to a man and a woman was successful.”
As GLBT rights advance in society, it is no surprise to Vineg, Terry or Hawthorn that differences arise within the conservative movement. Social change movements, in general, often begin with a fierce unity, resulting from a shared exclusion, silencing and oppression. As the movement progresses and society comes to accept the previously marginalized group, members of the movement begin to express their individual views on a wider range of social issues.
For GLBT rights, that means that the original rallying point – freedom of sexual identity – bore an identity-based solidarity movement. As tolerance for GLBT individuals has increased over the years, says Vineg, GLBT individuals feel more comfortable taking on mainstream political issues like welfare, homeland security and fiscal responsibility.
“Let’s face it: 30 years ago, I don’t think I ever could have described myself as a fiscally conservative, socially moderate lesbian,” says Vineg. “But I think we’re at the point in the [gay rights] movement where we should be able to sit and discuss varying views on issues that are not centered on my sexuality; issues like immigration, Medicare and prescription drugs.”
Terry agrees. “I guess that the one thing I always try to convey is that I have never allowed myself to have my sexuality dictate the way people think about me. Nor do I allow my sexuality to dictate my politics. I have always been active in party politics [in Kentucky], and my sexuality has never been an issue.”
That is not to say that gay conservatives take their current rights for granted.
And for many gay conservatives, including Log Cabin’s Guerriero, the strategy is to come out of the closet.
In an op-ed piece from Guerriero in October, he urged that the time is now for gay conservatives to come out:
“This critical moment in the history of the LGBT movement’s fight for equality demands that a new generation of Americans come out of the closet – gay conservatives. Now is the time for closeted gay conservatives to find the courage and personal strength to stand up and be counted. Now is the time we can really make a difference. If every gay conservative came out of the closet today, the journey to full equality would be over in years instead of decades. It would soon become ineffective to use gay and lesbian families as wedge issues in campaigns. The cynical efforts to amend our federal and state constitutions would eventually stop. The hypocrisy of anti-gay political tactics being used by way too many Republicans and some Democrats would be finally exposed.
One of the biggest un-kept secrets in Washington, DC is that closeted gay Republicans are everywhere – the White House, Republican Party organizations, the halls of Congress, the most influential law offices, and the most powerful lobbying firms in our nation’s capitol. Some of those who remain closeted have chosen to be either passive bystanders or, in some cases, active critics of our movement while comfortably partaking in the fringe benefits of our community work – all the while sipping the finest martinis in our trendiest gay bars….
That helping hand needs to come from gay conservatives. We hold the key to changing the hearts and minds of fellow Republicans, conservative Democrats and people of faith. In the not too distant future, the history books will record who had the courage to come out of the closet and lead us to victory when it mattered most. Only with the help of gay conservatives can our movement achieve victory over the radical right. Only with the help of gay conservatives can we prevent the radical right from hijacking the Republican Party. Only with the help of gay conservatives can we defeat the voices of fear and intolerance that are feverishly working to deny any and all civil recognition for gay families. The history books will note not only those who had the courage to stand up, but sadly, also, those who remain silent. The time is now.”
“Coming out does two things vital for our community,” argues Wilhelm. “First, it gives young people role models. They see successful politicians such as Jim Kolbe and Barney Frank – people in pretty high stature of society and government – and say, ‘Hey, they’ve reached that level and so can I.’ The second thing it does is it impacts everyone around that gay person. Clearly, the single most critical factor for acceptance is familiarity. When your closest advisor, your trusted confidante through election after election, announces she’s a lesbian, it’s a little harder to push anti-lesbian policy.”
Hawthorn completely concurs. The only issue he sees, though, is the hostility on the other side of that double-edge sword.
“I cannot tell you how much hostility I encounter when I am at dinner and I mention that I am a gay Republican,” says Hawthorn. This hostility is not unique to Hawthorn.
“In 2004, President Bush’s victory is credited to strategically placing the issue of same-sex marriage on several key state ballots …, thus drawing out a conservative base. Bush also supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman. In what was a first for the national Log Cabin Republicans, the organization chose to withhold its endorsement of President Bush, the Republican candidate.”
In fact, every gay conservative interviewed for this piece echoed Hawthorn’s experience. And yet, they maintain their conservative ideals in the face of this hostility from within their community. Why?
“The reason I’m a Republican,” says Wilhelm, “is because I believe I can make a difference. Because I am affiliated with the Republican Party, I have access to Republican elected officials. I can explain to them how they need to come to our issues. As a gay Democrat, I could not go to Republican functions and access these individuals. But as a Republican, I can work within the party to change hearts and minds.”
And whether it is Falwell telling Buckley he should be a Democrat, or his friends calling him “Aunt Mary,” a less-than-welcomed reference to “Uncle Tom,” Buckley stands his ground. So do Vineg, Hawthorn, Terry, Guerriero, Stimen, Brown and Wilhelm.
“If I had to choose between joining a crowd or making a difference, I would choose to make a difference,” says Wilhelm.