Hill Doors Opening for Log Cabin Republicans

Betsy Rothstein, The Hill, Page One

May 5, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Rich Tafel, the president of the Log Cabin Republicans, knows what it's like to meet with members of Congress who have probably never met an open homosexual in their lives. Perhaps it's the way they freeze when he walks into the room. Or the awkward silence that arises when it's time for the conversation to begin. Or, maybe it was more clearly spelled out when one Republican member closed a meeting by asking, "You would never want to be a Boy Scout Leader, right?"

These days, Tafel explained, the tide amongst Republicans on Capitol Hill toward gays is changing – and has been for quite sometime. He said moderate Republicans, who once would not allow him or his colleagues into their offices, are now welcoming them in. "Oh yeah, it's improving," said Tafel. "When we arrived here, moderates were nervous about meeting with us. So we're light years beyond that. Even more important than votes, Log Cabin has become a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for swing districts."

Last Week, Rep. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a staunch social conservative and co-chair of the House Family Caucus, made his first speech before the organization. He discussed AIDS funding priorities in the 106th Congress.

Still, other conservatives are wary. "A lot of these stereotypes are so deep," said Tafel, an ordained Baptist minister who admitted his homosexuality at 23 when he was a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School.

"Yeah, I like you, but I certainly wouldn't want you to be my son's teacher," he said mimicking an attitude he has heard often. "You sort of rock back in your chair, take a deep breath, and respond." As leader of the largest grassroots gay Republican organization, Tafel may be the most "out" man in the party. So to Tafel, meetings like these are old hat. He's heard everything. And he's still not hiding.

Last week he arrived on Capitol Hill for the annual Washington conference of the board of directors and top donors of the Log Cabin Republicans. The schedule included a GOP congressional briefing, a luncheon, a banquet, and a heated debate.

Other GOP speakers before the group included Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) and Reps. Brian Bilbray (Calif.), Mary Bono (Calif.), Connie Morella (Md.), Jim Leach (Iowa), Sue Kelly (NY), Tom Campell (Calif.), Steve Kuykendall (Calif.), Judy Biggert (Ill.), Jim Greenwood (Pa.), and Sherwood Boehlert (NY).

In 1978, the first chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans formed in Los Angeles. In 1990, nine clubs nationwide formed a federation. In 1993, a Washington Office opened full time, and the organization created a federal political action committee that raises $100,000 per election cycle for GOP candidates.

Tafel said a change of attitude occurs when a lawmaker learns that a member of his or her staff is gay – a scenario he hears all too often. Unfortunately, he explained, Washington is one of the most closeted cities in the nation. "If you go into any office on the Hill, the staff is disproportionately gay – and they're living in constant fear that they'll be outed," he said.

One member of Congress the group greatly depends on is Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), the first openly gay Republican in Congress. Kolbe, who last week held a private reception for the Log Cabin Republicans in his East Capitol home, was forced out of the closet last year by The Advocate magazine.

When the Hefley Amendment, which would have banned laws protecting gays from discrimination in the federal workplace, reached the House floor last year, Kolbe not only managed the floor debate, he led the opposition. He held strategy sessions in his office, inviting gay organizations nationwide to help him. The amendment ultimately failed.

Still, Kolbe is uncomfortable in the spotlight, and his staff is fiercely protective of his interaction with the media. "I think he resents being pigeon-holed," reasoned Tafel. "I think he fears the only thing they're interested in is that he's gay."

Nonetheless, at a Log Cabin Luncheon on Friday in the Capitol, Kolbe spoke briefly about his involvement with the organization. "Clearly this group here today is an example of how far Republicans have gone with this," said Kolbe. "We need to be inclusive and not exclusive."

Clearly uncomfortable being interviewed on this subject, Kolbe doesn't have much to say when it comes to his conservative colleagues. "I get along with them fine," he said. "We disagree on some issues, but some of them are very good friends."

In the coming months, Kolbe said he hopes Congress will deal with discrimination of gays in the workplace. However, he said, "I'm not a one- issue person."

Even with the recent strides, Log Cabin Republicans have faced problems. Last year, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss) compared homosexuality to kleptomania. In 1996, the group sent presidential hopeful Bob Dole (R-Kan.) a donation, which he accepted, then rejected. And meetings on Capitol Hill do not always guarantee an enthusiastic reception, Tafel said. "People have said, 'Am I going to be quoted? Am I going to be in a press release? This is off the record, right?'"

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the first openly gay member of Congress, said the party still hasn't changed. "Unfortunately, the Republicans are not usually good on the gay stuff," said Frank. "I think they [Log Cabin Republicans] make the mistake of making Republicans pro-gay before they are. Two things are happening: The country as a whole is getting more fair, but the Republican party is getting more right-wing."

Over the years, the Log Cabin Republicans have suffered a great deal of bashing from the largely Democratic gay community. "The Republican Party has been completely demonized," said Tafel. "We are generally characterized as supporting [Senate Majority Leader] Trent Lott [R-Miss.]."

When it comes to the religious right, Log Cabin Republicans are not fooling themselves. They have met with every Senate office except that of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and former Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R. N.C.). But they have never met with Lott, or other Republican Reps. Like Bob Barr (Ga.), Majority Leader Dick Armey, or Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas).

"I don't expect to agree with the religious right on the gay issues," Tafel said. "But I know if we start building common ground, I'll start relieving their fears."