How Republicans are rehabilitating their image by coming out for gay rights.
By Adam Polaski
Lady Gaga ditched the meat dress and took to the podium when she led a rally in Portland, Maine on Sept. 20 against the U.S. government’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, which bans openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the military. Gaga, clad in an atypically conservative suit jacket, tie and thick-framed glasses, spoke out about the unconstitutionality of the policy, attempting to convince several key U.S. senators to vote for repeal.
The rally came 11 days after Virginia A. Phillips, a Federal district judge in California, ruled that DADT was unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated due process and free speech rights.
But Gaga wasn’t the one who brought the judicial lawsuit against the U.S. government asserting that DADT was unconstitutional. Neither were any of the young liberals in the crowd. Hell, not a single Democrat was nominally associated with bringing the conversation regarding repeal of DADT to the forefront of the national courts.
Instead, the plaintiff in the lawsuit was the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), a political group devoted to making positive change related to gay rights within the Republican Party. The Washington, D.C.-based organization began the lawsuit in 2004, and after years of political back-and-forth about plaintiffs, went to trial in July 2010 and on Sept. 9 received a favorable verdict.
The defense bill was less lucky, failing to achieve cloture, meaning there was no immediate action on the bill.
Regardless of the legislative failure, 10 years ago, no one would have expected to see a Republican organization taking legal action on behalf of gay and lesbian Americans; key members of the party, which has targeted religious people as a core group of voters in modern history, have been traditionally antagonistic toward LGBT causes.
But the rise of LCR to national prominence comes when an unprecedented number of Republicans are coming out in support of gay rights. Meghan McCain and Dick Cheney, for instance, have famously shown support for equality. And just last month, Ken Mehlman, George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, came out publicly and is now fighting for gay causes, perhaps as repentance for actively supporting a number of anti-gay measures during the campaign.
Some of the most impassioned pleas for the party to consider gay rights have come from Steve Schmidt, manager for the McCain campaign in 2008. At an LCR convention in April 2009, he said, “I believe Republicans should re-examine the extent to which we are being defined by positions on issues that I don’t believe are among our core values and that put us at odds with what I expect will become over time, if not a consensus view, then the view of a substantial majority of voters.”
Casey Pick, Programs Officer at LCR, agrees that the party must stop using issues like gay marriage as campaign platforms, especially with 2010 mid-term elections approaching. She says, “For years, LCR has advocated that the Republican Party needs to get back to the core issues that unite us: Individual liberty, personal responsibility, a strong national defense, fiscal responsibility.” She argues that the party must refocus on what LCR believes truly matters to voters, saying, “The economy is the core issue. It really is all about jobs, all about cutting spending. Social issues are a distraction.”
Another group asserting that “gay Republican” is not an oxymoron is GOProud, a political action committee representing gay conservatives and allies on strictly federal issues.
According to Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director and co-founder of the organization, GOProud is “seeking to redefine [gay issues]. Every single issue we work on is a gay issue because every single issue affecting America affects gay people. Every thing we do is to help improve the lives of all Americans, but especially gay and lesbian Americans. … We’re not letting the Gay Left define what’s important to us.”
For example, LaSalvia says, GOProud fought for the perpetuation of free market health care reform, saying, “The discussion over health care reform was a gay issue because Republican solutions that involved the free market—allowing people to choose the plan that fits them best—would have been better for gay couples and offered more choices for gay families.”
GOProud was founded in 2009 after the results of the 2008 presidential election indicated that between 1.2 and 1.3 million voters who identified as gay—27% of the total “gay vote”—voted for John McCain. Today, GOProud boasts a membership that exceeds 5,000.
The organization has been under increasing scrutiny as it gains notoriety. Adam Bink, a writer at OpenLeft.com, says, “The problem with GOProud is that they use traditional Republican economic issues and stick the word gay or lesbian in there to make it a gay or lesbian issue. The worst part is they do so while dismissing LGBT prioirites like ENDA and trying to defeat openly gay candidates in favor of ‘I have nothing against gay people but oppose special rights’ candidates like Mary Bono Mack and Sean Bielat. It just rings completely false. They’re not actually taking steps to advance LGBT equality.”
Gay conservative groups, including LCR, are often attacked by the media for contradicting their own messages by both publicly supporting anti-gay politicians and opposing fierce LGBT advocates. For example, the LCR recently praised John Cornyn, R-TX, who received a score of 0 out of 100 by the Human Rights Campaign regarding his stance on gay rights. They’re simultaneously leading the charge to remove Barney Frank, D-MA, one of the most ground-breaking LGBT figures in Congress, from his position. Some of the criticism, especially against LCR, may be unwarranted; after all, there’s a difference between an organization like GOProud, which misleadingly uses gay rights to push an entirely unrelated conservative agenda, and one like LCR that’s taking actual action to work toward gay rights.
Regardless of the lobbying interests of these specific groups, both instigate a key question: Can the GOP be successful if it continues pushing for sustained inequality for sexual minorities?
For Pick and LCR, Republicans should support gay rights, if for no other reason, to earn votes. She says, “It is part of what will make us more appealing to independents, more appealing to the next generation of voters. It is how you craft a stronger majority: You appeal to more voters.” But if Republicans start changing their tune on gay rights, would they be doing so to actually correct institutionalized inequality based on sexuality, or would it be little more than a political ploy for garnering more votes? That’s a question that can’t be answered until a Republican taking a pro-gay stance is elected.
It appears as though the GOP as a whole won’t play a leadership role in the equality movement anytime soon. After all, even the pro-marriage equality Schmidt explained in the aforementioned address, “Social conservatives remain an indispensable part of the Republican coalition…I don’t honestly expect our party will reverse in the very near term its opposition to same-sex marriage.”
Bink explains that, for now at least, pro-LGBT conservatives are a “nascent” group and have shown little positive movement regarding gay rights, so it’s difficult to trumpet gay Republicans as Equality’s Next Big Thing. He says, “Individual members of the Republican Party support gay rights nominally, meaning that they know gay people—their friends, their neighbors. But they don’t put up when it’s time to show up. The difference is that progressives, and Democrats especially, show up when the time comes.”
When it comes down to it, LGBT issues, like most social and economic issues, are tapped into, distorted and manipulated every year by conservatives and liberals alike in order to put the most appealing face forward, attract followers and win elections. After all, Bil Browning, editor-in-chief of LGBT blog The Bilerico Project, reminds us: “Republicans vs. Democrats goes back a lot farther than anything LGBT–before we were even part of the picture as far as politics goes. It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of what they do is just strictly political game.”
Check out the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Sidebar.
Adam Polaski is a junior journalism major who’s totally cool with gay elephants but really prefers gay donkeys. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.