Bush, Gore Reflect Attitudes in a Country Still Divided Over Homosexuality

Steven Thomma, Knight-Ridder Newspapers
January 14, 2000 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(KRT, WASHINGTON) – George W. Bush and Al Gore have a problem with gays. Nothing personal; just politics.

Both leading presidential candidates have expressed tolerance of gay men and lesbians, Bush signaling he would appoint people to high office regardless of their sexual orientation and Gore vowing to let gay men serve openly in the military for the first time.

But both also have hedged their support.

Bush, the Republican governor of Texas, steadfastly refuses to meet with gay Republicans. Gore, the Democratic vice president, dropped a promise to use a pro-gay litmus test for prospective members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Waffling politicians? Perhaps. But they also reflect attitudes in a country increasingly tolerant on many fronts yet still deeply divided over homosexuality.

In that environment, politicians feel freer to express their own tolerance and their desire to extend it to the government. But they also fear that pushing too far too fast will anger voters who have not yet made up their minds.

"The electorate is split. A lot of people aren't sure what they think. And the politicians are trying to reflect what the electorate is thinking," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. "There's no real leadership; it's more followship."

In one recent poll, 49 percent of Americans said society should accept homosexuality, the first time in 10 years of surveys that a plurality has expressed its tolerance. But 44 percent believe homosexuality should be discouraged.

Six out of 10 Americans now believe homosexuals should be allowed to teach without fear of being fired for their sexual orientation. A little more than a decade ago, a majority believed school boards should have the power to fire homosexuals.

"For candidates of both parties, it's a fine line to walk. It's an issue that tends to split the public," said Greg Fleming, a pollster with the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

John Wheeler, a retired naval officer who lives in Lee, N.H., represents one facet of Americans' evolving sentiment.

He once flatly opposed letting gays serve in the military, now endorses the policy allowing them to serve as long as they keep their lifestyle private, and predicts they will be able to live openly in the military eventually.

"Over a period of time it will work itself out as people get used to it, much like integration," he said.

But until then, he said, it remains "an extremely difficult and sensitive issue, for which there are no right answers."

At the same time that Americans are becoming more accepting of gays, gays and lesbians have become an increasingly active political force and a voting bloc courted by both parties.

Gays represented 5 percent of the vote in the 1996 presidential election, the same size voting bloc as the much-courted Hispanics and larger than the influential Jewish vote, according to Election Day surveys by the Voter News Service.

"In many races, we are going to be the swing vote," said Kevin Ivers, a spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay group.

Most gays vote Democratic, but enough vote Republican that their votes cannot be taken for granted. In 1996, they split almost 3-1 for President Clinton over Republican Bob Dole, and about 2-1 for Democrats over Republicans in House races.

Their influence is evident in both parties.

Again a week ago, Bush said he would not rule out homosexuals for high office. "Somebody's sexual orientation is their personal business as far as I'm concerned," he said.

He and his chief rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, both endorse the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy allowing gays to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexual orientation private.

That's a long way from just eight years ago, when anti-gay rhetoric echoed in Houston's Astrodome at the Republican National Convention and the party ridiculed Clinton's promise to end the ban on gays in the military.

Those who remain strong and outspoken in their opposition to homosexuality largely have been marginalized in the party. One, presidential candidate Alan Keyes, last week lamented the change.

"I keep asking myself where all the conservatives have gone," Keyes said in a debate in New Hampshire. "If we accept the radical homosexual agenda, be it in the military or in marriage or in other areas of our lives, we are utterly destroying the concepts of family and sexual responsibility without which the traditional family cannot survive."

There may not be enough religious conservatives to propel Keyes or fellow social conservative Gary Bauer to the GOP nomination, but there are enough to scare Bush about provoking anti-gay backlash.

Despite his rhetoric, Bush refuses to meet with the Log Cabin Republicans, saying it would create a "huge political scene" and feed divisions among people.

The move conjures memories of the 1996 campaign, when Dole aides returned a contribution from the group out of fear it would signal endorsement of the gay agenda. Dole said later that he regretted the move and the way it made him appear intolerant.

There are divisions in the Democratic Party as well, albeit farther to the left. Clinton campaigned in 1992 with a promise to end the ban on gays in the military. When he moved to do that once he was president, he met a torrent of criticism from the military and resistance from the public. The result was the compromise plan that allows gays to serve as long as they keep their sexual lives secret.

Behind closed doors, Gore argued as early as 1995 that the policy was not working as intended to protect gays from being harassed or expelled from the armed services, according to Rick Stafford, a former member of the President's Commission on AIDS and former chairman of the Democratic Party in Minnesota.

"Privately, he's good on all the issues for the gay community," Stafford said. "Privately, he says the good things."

Gore's advisers know they have to win the general election campaign, and they wonder how gays' issues will play to the larger national audience.

Indeed, it wasn't until Gore faced a surprisingly strong challenge for the Democratic nomination from former Sen. Bill Bradley that he shifted his emphasis to the party base. And it wasn't until then that he followed Bradley in calling for an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the beginning of a new policy that would allow gays to serve openly in the military.

In his zeal, Gore tried to one-up Bradley. He said he would only appoint people to the Pentagon who shared his view, in effect promising to use a litmus test of political and moral beliefs. But that was too much. Gore pulled back, saying he would require commanders only to obey a new pro-gay policy, not to like it.

Gore also stops short of recognizing gay marriage. Like other Democrats, including Bradley and both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gore wants to guarantee legal and financial benefits to gay and lesbian partnerships, but he says a marriage is a religious and cultural institution reserved for a man and a woman.

That stand angers many gays. After Hillary Clinton came out against gay marriage earlier this week, the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, said the stance would encourage a "separate but equal" doctrine.

"Opinion is changing," said Stafford. "But we're not all the way there yet."

Ron Hutcheson contributed from New Hampshire.