Political attacks on gays heat up

by Jill Lawrence, USA Today

July 17, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Republicans say it's all coincidence; some gay-rights advocates are convinced there's a master plan at work. But no one is arguing the bottom line: The political debate over homosexuality is intensifying as the fall elections approach.

First came a string of prominent conservatives airing their views on homosexuality. They called it as sin and compared gay people to alcoholics, kleptomaniacs and sex addicts. One Texas party official lumped gays with pedophiles, cross-dressers and the Ku Klux Klan.

Then 15 religious conservative groups bought full-page ads that ran this week in three national newspapers, defending those who had spoken out and urging homosexuals to abandon their 'lifestyle.'

In Congress, there are moves afoot to gut a new Clinton administration order banning discrimination against gays in federal employment. Attempts are also being made to withhold federal funds from cities that require private sub-contractors to offer health benefits to same-sex partners.

Conservatives continue to block the confirmation of James Hormel, a gay Democrat, as ambassador to Luxembourg.

"This is an unprecedented wave of anti-gay attacks," says Winnie Stachelberg, political director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights lobbying group. "I think the strategy is going to backfire."

Democrats are hoping the GOP's embrace of religious-right concerns will alienate moderates. Some Republicans from the same thing.

"People may not approve of the gay lifestyle but they don't like mean-spirited bashing of any minority group," says Rich Tafel, executive director of the gay Log Cabin Republicans group.

Many of those speaking out are expressing long-held views without particular regard to the effect on elections. But conservative political strategists are divided over the potental fallout.

"We need to make it clear that the Republican Party is trying to strengthen the traditional two-parent family, not trying to tear other people down," says Ralph Reed, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Religious conservatives have been pressing Republican congressional leaders for months to move on a social agenda including abortion and homosexuality, issues they see as moral imperatives and political assets.

Republican leaders have been sensitive on the latter point, especially with the GOP lagging in polls. Democrats could recapture control of the House with a net gain of just 11 seats in November.

"Five months ago, the conservative base of the Republican Party was completely turned off. It was looking like a disaster for the House," says Gary Bauer, a former Reagan aide who heads the Family Research Council lobbying group.

Bauer says the tide turned after complaints by conservatives prompted party leaders to take tougher stands on a variety of issues, including homosexuality. An 11-point advantage for Democrats in January dropped to 4-points in the latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of registered voters.

Some religious conservatives say they are exercising their free speech and reacting to liberal offensives, such as President Clinton's May 28 executive order barring discrimination against gay people in federal jobs. They are also reacting to what they consider abuse of public figures, such as Green Bay Packers star Reggie White or Senate Majority leader Trent Lott, who have spoken of homosexuality as sin.

Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition says conservatives are homing in on homosexuality after carrying the day on most of the other contentious issues of recent years. "This is the cutting-edge issue of American liberalism," Tate said.

But if the issue pumps up social conservatives, it also divides the GOP as a whole. One fracas this week centered on Colorado Rep. Joel Hefley's attempt to ban funding for Clinton's job-protection order for gay federal employees.

GOP leaders, sensing a public relations disaster, talked Hefley into waiting until next week. Moderates were bolting at an alarming rate, and there was another complication: The bill Hefley planned to amend was being managed by Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-AZ, the only openly gay Republican in Congress. The battle is expected to resume next week, along with the high-profile ad wars. The 15 groups spent over $200,000 this week on the full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today.