Bringing Gays into the GOP Tent

Lead Editorial, The Chicago Tribune

August 16, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

George Ryan's gubernatorial campaign last year, a humdrum but ultimately successful affair, nonetheless had an interesting aspect that GOP presidential candidates ought to consider: His skillful courting of the gay vote, an important, well-heeled voting bloc that Republicans nationally have all but surrendered to the Democrats for more than 20 years.

Ryan's appeal to gay voters no doubt got a boost from Glenn Poshard's blunders on the issues, and from off-the-wall remarks by some campaign staffers, including the suggestion that doctors should have the right to refuse to treat gay people.

But give credit to Ryan not only for taking advantage of his opponent's fumbles, but also for quietly appointing gays to key posts in his campaign and developing a network of supporters in the gay community. Payoff came on election day, when Ryan carried six lakefront wards with large blocs of gay voters, who had either embraced him – or fled from the Democratic candidate.

Afterward Ryan appointed gays to his transition team and to a few high posts in state government, and very publicly lobbied the legislature for passage of a gay-rights bill that it has been considering for nearly 25 years. The bill didn't pass, but no one could accuse Ryan of not trying. And on July 18, Ryan sent a warm welcoming letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, a national organization of gays just setting up shop in Illinois.

In national exit polls last year, 5 percent of the voters identified themselves as gay – or about as large a voting bloc as Hispanics. And most surprising – particularly after two decades of anti-gay crusades by the GOP's religious right – one-third of those said they had voted Republican.

According to a New York Times article last week, the three leading GOP presidential candidates – George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and John McCain – while not exactly embracing them, at least have toned down their rhetoric against gays.

It's not quite the "sea change" that the Times trumpeted, but a welcome and belated move by the GOP that ought to be encouraged.

Indeed, the principles of limited government, privacy and individual rights – going to back to the time of Abraham Lincoln – are core Republican beliefs that easily ought to accommodate the aspirations of gays to lead their own lives without fear of exclusion, harassment or discrimination.

More than 20 years of harangues and "culture wars" by the Christian Coalition and other exclusionary factions not only have stifled those GOP traditions, but also effectively pushed two constituencies – gays and those other Americans who are turned off by intolerance and exclusion – into the arms of the Democrats.

That benefits no one, particularly a Republican Party trying to recapture the White House.