Republicans and the Gay Vote

Editorial, The New York Times

August 12, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Gay men and lesbians may be born homosexual, but they aren't born Democrats. They have often voted that way, however, because the national Republican Party has been so hostile. Now, in the ebb of the great cultural wars mounted by conservatives for the last two decades, that seems to be changing. The most prominent Republican candidates for President in the next election, as Katharine Seelye reported yesterday in The Times, are taking positions that are "subtly but fundamentally more inviting" to gay and lesbian voters than at any time before.

Some, boiled down, are not all that subtle. Gov. George W. Bush Jr. has said he would have no qualms hiring homosexuals. Elizabeth Dole has declared that she would not turn away money from a gay Republican group, as her husband did in the 1996 campaign. The plain-spoken Senator John McCain said he could envision a gay President someday. But even the more subtle changes in the candidate field are remarkable. When asked how he would react if one of his children were homosexual, former Vice President Dan Quayle, the standard-bearer of the religious right, said he would be supportive "whatever they are." The pugnacious Patrick Buchanan, who declared "a cultural war" aimed squarely at homosexuals from the podium of the Republican National Convention in 1992, has not made the subject an issue this year.

That represents a sea change. It was the Republican Party that first turned anti-homosexual attitudes into a political weapon. It was among Republicans in the Senate in the McCarthy era that the witch hunt for homosexuals in Government and the military began. It was President Eisenhower who signed the executive order making homosexuality grounds for rejection or dismissal from Federal employment, a directive that J. Edgar Hoover's F.B.I., local police and local Republicans and Democrats alike turned into a decades-long hunt. It was the television preachers of the religious right, reacting against the gay rights movement in the 1970's, who began to set the social agenda for the modern Republican Party 20 years ago.

The height of their influence came with Pat Buchanan's and Pat Robertson's speeches at the Republican Convention in 1992, but that spring Bill Clinton reached out to homosexuals in a single appearance at a gay fund-raiser in Hollywood. No nominee had done that before, and the opposing party views produced a national gay vote for the first time in the 1992 Presidential election. It went Democratic, and in states like Georgia, which Mr. Clinton won by only 16,000 votes, it may have been decisive.

Republican oratory has been growing more moderate ever since. In Congress, where Republicans like the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, have solid fundamentalist voter bases back home, mean-spirited talk about homosexuals has continued. But Ralph Reed, president of the Christian Coalition until last year, never made homosexuals a national campaign issue after 1992.

There are still 15 months for this new tolerance to be tested. But for now it is refreshing to listen to the voice of an important preacher in the Republican Party, Rich Tafel, an ordained American Baptist minister and the head of the national gay Log Cabin Republicans. For years, he and other gay Republicans have been feeling unwanted. Now, he says, "the tone has totally changed."

That may not be music to the ears of Democrats like Vice President Al Gore, who has spent years being friendly to homosexuals. But after half a century of jeers and police whistles, it is a hopeful sound indeed.