Gay Republican Cleaves to the Party Despite a Bush Snub

Robin Toner, The New York Times

November 29, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(WASHINGTON, DC) – As an outspokenly gay Republican, Richard Tafel is accustomed to critiques from the left and the right. He recently wrote a book, "Party Crasher: A Gay Republican Challenges Politics as Usual," that essentially tries to defend his place on the political map – or, as he puts it somewhat more grandly, to answer the question "How did a nice guy like me find myself in the crossfire of American politics?"

Tafel, who is executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group, writes that he was once compared to an abused wife who goes back to her husband, again and again.

But Tafel sees his steadfast Republicanism as a matter of stubborn principle, not pathology. He grew up as one of six children in Bucks County, Pa., with a set of Republican beliefs. "It didn't make sense that I should jettison everything that I was – my family, my faith, my political principles – because I was gay," he says.

Still, it was one of those weeks for Tafel. A week ago, the Republican front-runner in the presidential race, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, appeared on the NBC News program "Meet the Press" and was asked, in a wide-ranging interview, whether he would meet with the Log Cabin Republicans. Bush answered, "Oh, probably not," explaining that "it creates a huge political scene." Tafel was on his way to church when his cell phone started ringing with reports of what Bush had said.

A few days later, in his office near DuPont Circle, Tafel still seemed slightly surprised by the whole affair, which struck him as strangely "passe."

"I just thought, what a dumb mistake," he said. "Ten years ago his father met with gays in the White House. Pat Buchanan announced he's welcoming gays to support his campaign in the Reform Party. Jerry Falwell met with gays down in Lynchburg, Va. It's just not a big deal."

"We are way beyond meetings," Tafel insisted.

It is, however, the kind of episode that makes Democrats ask: Why do gay Republicans stay?

"Gay Republicans are in the Republican Party primarily because they agree with most of the Republican agenda – less government, free markets, a strong defense, a tradition of individual rights that has been in debate this whole decade," Tafel said.

"I think the gay Republican says, I would rather change the Republican Party to make it more inclusive, which will benefit every gay person in the long run, than flee to the Democratic Party, get placed under the umbrella of identity politics and then be put in a position, strategically as a community, where we get written off by the Republicans and taken for granted by the Democrats."

In other words, Tafel, 37, takes the long view. Already, he says, Republicans are competing for gay voters in many states. Moreover, he argues, "It's not like we're asking them to do something courageous that's going to lose for them." Republicans do better in elections when they are perceived to be tolerant, he said.

And what do gay Republicans want from their party? "Our goal is for this to be a neutralized issue," he said. Yes, he added, his members are concerned about issues like adoption and gay marriage, but he said: "The short-term goal is to neutralize the rhetoric and the fear. And when George W. Bush says he can't meet, you know, there's only one group in the Republican Party that he can't meet with, we have a long way to go."

How did Tafel end up here, living on his party's uneasy fault line between economic and social conservatism? He intended to become a minister; he was raised in the American Baptist Church, and his grandfather and a great-uncle were ministers in the Swedenborgian church, a small Protestant denomination whose theology reflects the work of the 18th-century philosopher and scientist Emmanuel Swedenborg.

Tafel majored in philosophy at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, and then went to Harvard Divinity School. He acknowledged that he was gay after he moved to Cambridge. "The word wasn't even mentioned where I grew up," he said. He received his Master of Divinity degree and became an ordained minister, but was pulled ever deeper into politics, eventually working in the administration of Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts, the moderate Republican.

The 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, and in particular Pat Buchanan's declaration that a "cultural war" was breaking out in America, made Tafel determined to stay and fight in the Republican Party. For the last six years he has been executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, which has its roots in California and is named for Abraham Lincoln.

In the short term, Tafel said, the Bush flap will build support among gay Republicans for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Bush's rival, who has met with the group. "Our people are much more excited about raising money for McCain," Tafel said, adding that his goal is to raise $50,000 for him by the end of the year.

A Log Cabin strategy meeting is planned for this week, and in the meantime, Tafel was making the rounds of the talk shows, arguing that Bush's move was not only wrong, but bad politics.

In the end, Tafel said last week, "Our battle in the Republican Party is to make it what it should be – a party of Lincoln, a party of inclusion." He acknowledged that it was not a job for the thin-skinned, but, as he put it in his book, "I didn't get involved in politics to be liked."