Gays Gaining Ground As a Political Force

The leading Republican presidential candidates are making subtle, but significant, overtures to gay and lesbian voters.

Daniela Altimari, Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT
September 26, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Gay legislators are winning in states as diverse as Utah, Kansas and Connecticut.

And in scores of small and mid-size communities across the nation, openly gay politicians are setting their sights on the mayor's office, the school board or the town council.

Taken together, these developments point to the growing clout of gays in all corners of the political landscape. Once relegated to the liberal margins of American politics, gays and lesbians now are courted by candidates from both parties, a shift some attribute to a greater public tolerance coupled with the gay community's willingness to live outside the closet.

The battle for gay voters is also a scramble for dollars: Gay groups and individuals tend to have money and to be generous donors.

"The story of the '90s has been the awakening of the gay vote," said Kevin Ivers, director of public affairs for the Log Cabin Republicans, which represents gay members of the party. "There was a time when we were taken for granted by one party and written off by the other. Now, there's a consensus that we better be taken seriously."

Gays have become a political force, said Jilda M. Aliotta, chairwoman of the politics and government department at the University of Hartford.

"In some districts, a particular ethnic group might turn the balance in an election," Aliotta said. "As they organize, gay voters are increasingly filling that role, and politicians are responding."

Gay leaders say they hope to emulate the political gains made by women and African Americans. "We are one of the last groups to really claim our full and equal place in society," said Carolyn Gabel, a longtime Connecticut gay rights activist.

In New Haven, at the suggestion of Mayor John DeStefano Jr., gay activists recently conducted their first voter registration drive. "We want to make sure our voices are heard," said John D. Allen, the founder of the city's Gay and Lesbian Community Center. "It's important for minority communities to have a sense of ownership in the election."

Polls compiled by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force indicate that about 5 percent of the electorate identifies itself as gay or lesbian. That's larger than the Latino voting block, which is estimated at 4.5 percent, or the Jewish vote, at 3.4 percent.

Those same polls show that roughly one-third of gay voters choose Republicans. That might explain why three Republican frontrunners -- Gov. George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain and Elizabeth Dole -- have sought to soften the party's stance toward gays and lesbians. Although they stopped far short of endorsing same-sex marriages, each presidential candidate said he or she has no qualms about appointing gay ambassadors.

The candidates' position on gay ambassadors is contrary to the Senate's GOP leadership. For nearly two years, top Senate Republicans blocked the nomination of James Hormel for ambassador to Luxembourg because he is openly gay and has supported gay causes. President Clinton ultimately bypassed the Senate by appointing Hormel while Congress was in recess.

Democratic presidential candidates also are actively wrestling for the gay and lesbian vote and the financial windfall it brings. Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore both favor legal protection for domestic partners and support a bill that would ban job discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

To be sure, reaching out to gays can still be risky, and openly gay and lesbian candidates face significant obstacles. The number of gay elected officials remains minuscule -- there are about 180 openly gay office-holders nationwide out of a field of more than 500,000.

Still, the gains have been measurable, said Brian Bond, executive director of the Victory Fund, which has raised and distributed more than $2 million to gay and lesbian candidates since 1991.

"What we're building here is a farm team," Bond said, citing prominent gay politicians such as Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., the nation's first avowed lesbian elected to Congress, and those with a lower profile, such as Plattsburgh, N.Y., Councilman Daniel Stewart.

"They're building records," Bond said. "As windows of opportunity open, we will have capable candidates that can move up into the majors."

One of those candidates, Bond says, is Joseph Steffan. A Democrat running for town council in West Hartford, Steffan rose to national prominence when he was discharged from the U.S. Naval Academy after disclosing that he is gay.

Steffan is running for a seat on a council torn by the issue of whether gay couples qualify for the family discount at the town-owned pool. The state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities recently ruled that the town had violated the law by not providing the discount to gay couples.

But Steffan said the pool flap wasn't the only reason he decided to run.

"It's evidence of the distinction between the character of the Democratic and Republican leadership [on the council]," he said. "The Democrats have an inclusiveness on social issues. [The pool issue] was one piece of a larger puzzle."

The election of openly gay Hartford state Rep. Evelyn Mantilla marked a milestone for the Hartford region's gay community. Some observers thought Mantilla would lose support last year after publicly proposing to her female partner. Instead, she was overwhelmingly re-elected.

"When you have able candidates, such as Evelyn, you can fight homophobia and win," Gabel said. "It's important for her to be out, but the issue of her sexual orientation is not primary."

Indeed, gay candidates often have to work hard to dispel the idea that they are seeking to advance a "gay agenda," Bond said. In fact, gay people have diverse political views, although certain issues, such as permitting homosexuals to adopt children, resonate strongly with both gay voters and candidates.

"It's extremely important that the straight community understands we have much more in common than different," Bond said. Gay people, he said, want low taxes, safe streets and prompt trash collection just like their heterosexual neighbors.