This year's presidential election may be the first in which gay and lesbian voters play a decisive role. That could be bad news for George W. Bush, who last April held a widely publicized meeting with a dozen gay Republican backers, amid hints that he'd like to corral homosexuals into his compassionate-conservative corner. "I welcome gay Americans who support me," said Bush. But just how many of them will there be? Bush's tenure in gay-unfriendly Texas has saddled him with a record repellent to many gay voters. His party is still the home of a powerful antigay constituency.
And polls show, not surprisingly, that upwards of three-quarters of gays and lesbians are planning to vote for Vice President Gore. Next to African Americans, that makes them one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs. Democrats have welcomed them as full-fledged members of the party's core constituency and as significant financial backers.
Even as recently as the 1990s, homosexuality was a classic wedge issue that politicians used to mobilize conservative Christian voters against candidates with pro-gay, or even insufficiently antigay, stands. Supporters of gay rights spoke meekly, if at all, while conservative Republicans (and not a few Democrats) lustily proclaimed their antihomosexual beliefs. In 1988, fearing that the wedge would be used against him, Michael S. Dukakis declined an offer from gay activists to raise $1 million for his presidential campaign. In 1992 thunderous attacks on gay rights activism marked the GOP's convention in Houston. And in 1996, Republicans, led by the thrice-married Georgia Congressman Bob Barr, cowed President Clinton into signing the insulting and gratuitous Defense of Marriage Act meant to ban gay marriage.
But this year, there are signs of an inversion. During the presidential primaries, Gore and Bill Bradley one-upped each other in search of gay votes, while the leading Republican contenders, Bush and Senator John McCain, tried to change the subject. Gay-baiting among Republicans was confined to social-conservative fringe candidates like Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, and to scurrilous but surreptitious attacks on McCain as the "fag candidate" during the brutal South Carolina primary. "It's a reversal of the wedge," says Barney Frank, an openly gay Massachusetts Democratic congressman. With increased tolerance of homosexuality and support for many gay civil rights measures, he argues, homophobia no longer makes political sense. Or as David Elliot, spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, puts it, "We've gone from being the ugly duckling to the ones that everyone wants to take to the prom."
While gay voters remain little noticed by most political consultants and pollsters, they have emerged as a powerful and growing political force. With most gays still closeted, most of that force remains invisible to straight America. Yet in 1996, and again in 1998, nearly 5 percent of the electorate identified themselves as gay or lesbian, according to Voters News Service exit polls. With the actual percentage likely somewhat higher, that means the gay vote is roughly the size of the much more visible Hispanic vote. And it is concentrated in urban areas in swing states like Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania--in addition to more expected locales like California and New York. According to a study by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, at least 900,000 gay voters will go to the polls in those five swing states this year. "I don't think the election is going to be decided by the gay vote," Fred Steeper, Bush's pollster, told The New York Times in April. "It's not going to be that close." But since then, the polls have tightened. And if Bush hopes to salvage some of the gay vote, the anti-gay rights record he amassed in Texas will make that a difficult task.
Texas: It's a Whole Other Country
"Texas," says Steve Labinski, president of that state's Log Cabin Republicans, "is a little, well, different." Few politicians have survived there by defending gay rights. The Texas Republican Party, dominated by social conservatives, is overtly hostile even to conservative gay Republicans. "Its platform mentions homosexuality nine times," says Labinski, "and not in flattering terms."
Though Bush has distanced himself from the far-right Texas GOP, declining even to attend its annual convention this spring, he's never broken with the political orthodoxy on gay-related issues that prevails among Texas conservatives. Last year, when the Texas legislature took up a bill to ban gay adoptions, Bush tacitly supported it--even though one of its provisions could have allowed state authorities to go into people's homes and take away children who'd already been adopted. "I'm against gay adoptions," Bush told The Dallas Morning News. "I believe children ought to be adopted in families with a woman and a man who are married." Though the bill eventually failed, Bush had made his views known.
Last year, too, when the Texas state legislature considered a hate crimes bill that would have included gays among the protected groups (and provided specialized training for police, funds for hate crimes prosecutions, and civil penalties allowing victims of hate crimes to sue their attackers), Bush intervened strongly to prevent its passage. The bill had gained momentum in the aftermath of the well-publicized dragging death of James Byrd, a black man. It passed Texas's house of representatives by a 84-63 vote, with the backing of nine Republicans. Similar legislation had passed the state senate in 1995 and 1997, so its success seemed assured. But according to Diane Hardy-Garcia, executive director of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas, Bush met quietly with state senate Republicans and urged them in the strongest terms to kill the bill, stressing its inclusion of sexual orientation. "We had several Republicans teetering on the edge of voting with us. We begged and pleaded with him," she says. "The Byrd family met with him." But in the end, the governor refused. "Senators told us, 'I cannot be with you because the governor has asked me not to, and he's going to be president.'" Several state senators who had previously voted for hate crimes legislation changed their votes, and the bill died.
Like Gore, Bush is against gay marriage, but unlike the vice president, he opposes domestic partner benefits and the ground-breaking civil union statute in Vermont. Nor did Bush condemn, as Gore did, California's Proposition 22, the anti-gay marriage initiative that voters approved last March. And of course Bush opposes the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA), the number-one priority of many gay rights activists. Perhaps most repellent to gays, however, is Bush's support for Texas's sodomy law. Texas is one of only a handful of states that still specifically criminalizes sexual relations between same-sex partners (Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma are the others). When Bush was running for governor for the first time in 1994, he aggressively defended the sodomy law, calling it a "symbolic gesture of traditional values."
All that was prologue when Bush entered the presidential fray as a candidate last summer. Balancing the politics of inclusion--a hallmark of his self-styled compassionate conservatism--with the need to tack right during the primaries proved especially difficult on the issue of gay rights. From the very start of the campaign, Bush's staff had on-again, off-again contact with the Log Cabin Republicans, a small but influential group of openly gay Republicans with 11,000 members and 50 chapters across the country. Some key people close to Bush were openly gay, including Dee Mosbacher, daughter of a former secretary of commerce, and Charles Francis, a close Bush family friend whose brother, James Francis, Jr., was a key fundraising official for the campaign.
But as primary season approached, Bush began cementing his ties to the Christian right, a voting bloc that would later prove a key ally. After a closed-door meeting with the governor last October, several social conservatives said Bush had assured them he would never "knowingly" appoint a gay person to his administration, a remark widely amplified in the media, especially the gay press. As the conservative columnist Cal Thomas reported, Bush promised he would never hire a "practicing homosexual."
The Bush campaign's refusal to deny or clarify that message effectively scuttled the discussions with Log Cabin. When Log Cabin officials and other gay activists sought to pin Bush down on the appointments issue, matters came to a head. "What is your real agenda here?" asked Karl Rove, Bush's political guru and gatekeeper, in a conference call with gay Republicans. Says one insider, blaming Rove for a calculated cold shoulder, "Everything fell apart after that." A few weeks later, Bush was asked whether he would meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, and the governor said no. Such a meeting, Bush told NBC's Tim Russert, would "create a, you know, huge political nightmare for people." Stung by this rebuke, Log Cabin embraced McCain and proceeded to organize a $40,000 fundraiser for the Arizona senator.
But in April, with the nomination in hand, Bush set about fence-mending with various nontraditional constituencies, including gays. Guided by Charles Francis and Carl Schmid, a Washington, D.C., oil and gas consultant and gay Republican activist, Bush finally sat down with a roomful of gay allies. Declaring that he was a "better man" for having had the meeting, Bush also re-established dialogue with the Log Cabin group. By reaching out to the gay Republicans, Bush won grudging praise from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest gay rights group, with 300,000 members and a $20-million-a-year annual budget.
Kevin Ivers, a spokesman for Log Cabin, now speaks glowingly about the significance of Bush's public encounter with gay leaders. "There has been a breakthrough," he says. "The party has changed." Echoing Frank's comments about the reversal of the wedge, Ivers notes that the Republican Party is a different organization from the one that called for a homophobic culture war in 1992. "It's gone from a position where it was smart to gay bash, even viciously, to where it is reaching out," he says.
But if the party has changed, its positions have not. And there is little reason to think that Bush will come out in support of ENDA, gays in the military, hate crimes laws, or any other priority of the gay rights movement. Schmid admits that it's unlikely there will be any further relaxation of GOP opposition to what conservatives like to call the "gay agenda." "I don't think [Bush] is going to make any policy decisions before the election," says Schmid. "He's trying to hold the Republican Party coalition together." Maria Cino, a Bush political operative, held at least one issues-oriented meeting with Log Cabin in June, where, according to Ivers, a lengthy list of action items was discussed. But Ivers, too, seemed less than optimistic that there would be substantive changes in either the party platform or the governor's positions. "Of course, they're going to be cautious," he says.
And the social conservatives, though quiet, have hardly gone away. A coalition of Christian-right organizations, including the Family Research Council, the American Family Association, and Concerned Women for America, rapped Bush after his meeting with the gays. "Homosexual activists are trying to use the Republican Party, much like the Democratic Party, as a vehicle to achieve their strategic objective of harnessing government and corporate power to impose acceptance of homosexual behavior," said a letter to Bush from 12 antigay groups in April. But Reverend Louis Sheldon, leader of the Traditional Values Coalition and prominent antigay activist, cites assurances from Bush that nothing will change. "I've talked to the Bush people. I talk to them regularly," he says. "The Bush people are solid. He certainly did not tell them in that meeting any single word that they wanted to hear."
You Go, Gore!
If the Bush campaign has tried to muddy and obscure its position on gays, Al Gore's efforts to woo gay voters have been very much in the open. Every Monday an ad hoc committee of openly gay Democratic politicos (whimsically dubbed "Team You Go, Gore!") meets to discuss voter education, fundraising, and get-out-the-vote strategies. The group includes Jeff Trammell, a public relations executive in Washington, D.C., who is Gore's liaison to the gay community; Mark Spengler, the Democratic National Committee's gay liaison; representatives of the HRC and the National Stonewall Democratic Federation; and others. The group is concentrating its work on about 15 states, including the belt from New Jersey to Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, Georgia, and Florida.
Trammell, a Gore ally since his Senate campaign in 1984, has organized dozens of events at which Gore and his wife Tipper have appeared, including lucrative fundraisers in places like Washington ($150,000), Chicago ($50,000), Portland, Oregon ($100,000), Atlanta ($30,000), and Nashville ($15,000). Tipper Gore, who played drums at HRC's Equality Rocks benefit concert during the gay Millennium March on Washington, D.C., in April, has been particularly active. A gay Salute to Tipper fundraiser raised $200,000 last year.
Trammell has also established a network of groups, each made up of roughly 50 gay activists, located in scores of cities across the country. Recently the campaign launched Gay and Lesbian Americans for Gore, which is prominently featured on Gore's campaign Web site. The DNC and Trammell have also spent the primary season trying to encourage gays to become delegates to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles in August. "We're expecting something like 225 openly gay delegates," says Trammell, half again as many as in 1996.
HRC, which endorsed Gore, is mobilizing its members, supporters, and a $1 million political action committee for Gore and HRC's allies in Congress, overwhelmingly Democrats. Elizabeth Birch, HRC's executive director, says the PAC will be involved in as many as 225 congressional races, which itself is a sign of how times have changed. "Ten years ago, there were lots of Democrats who didn't want gay money," she says. Adds Winnie Stachelberg, HRC's political director: "Initially people supported us because it was the right thing to do. Increasingly, it's become apparent that the gay and lesbian vote can swing an election."
It's also becoming clear that the gay community is an extremely lucrative source of campaign money for Democrats. In April 40 gay business people paid up to $100,000 each to have dinner with Gore at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., raising $1 million for the DNC. And that was just one of several million-dollar events organized by gays since last year. David Mixner, a prominent Los Angeles activist and longtime friend of President Clinton's, organized a fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year that raised $900,000, and he expects that the Los Angeles community will raise at least $3 million to $4 million for Democrats this year. "Probably 10 percent of the money that Democrats will raise this year will come from gays," says Andrew Tobias, a millionaire author and software publisher who is also the DNC's treasurer. "We've been given a place at the table," he says, referring to the White House's openness to gays. "Now let's be sure we pay for the meal."
Despite all the progress gays have made in winning political access, it's still true that during the 1990s not a single federal law was enacted in defense of gay rights, and that progress in the states has been limited at best. Despite recent gains, America's deeply ingrained antipathy toward homosexuality will take a long time to break down. "In 15 years," says Barney Frank, "we may have this thing broken." But, ever the partisan Democrat, Frank says that gay rights is now one of the major differences between the two parties and no longer a losing issue. In 1996, he points out, 61 members of the House of Representatives had the courage to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act. Eleven of those faced tough re-election battles. And how many paid for their votes with their seats? Not a one. ¤