News

Log Cabin Leader Keeps Watch on GOP

Deb Price, The Detroit News

October 25, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Rich Tafel, an ordained American Baptist minister, faithfully tries to shepherd a flock that he believes has wandered far astray from justice – the Republican Party. As executive director of the gay Log Cabin Republicans, Tafel continually pushes his party to get back on a righteous path by treating gay Americans fairly.

"I do look at my work right now as, in a sense, a ministry and a very challenging one because I believe in a very active faith where you've got to be in the trenches," says Tafel, the Log Cabin's spiritual rudder.

The devoutly Republican Tafel is best known as the most public face of Log Cabin, as the gay man who in 1995 scolded GOP presidential front-runner Bob Dole for returning a Log Cabin contribution. Tafel makes no show of his religious credentials. He doesn't cite his degree from Harvard Divinity School when quoting Scripture to Jerry Falwell.

Yet faith undergirds Tafel's actions, he says. He leads a weekly Bible study class at his home. He spends his Saturdays cutting the grass at a tiny Washington, D.C., Protestant church, part of the Swedenborgian denomination to which his parents and minister grandfather belonged. He regularly attends services there and recently preached on angels.

"I have a strong belief in guardian angels," explains Tafel, 37, author of Party Crasher. "I believe my life is guided."

Tafel isn't looking for an overnight miracle. He and Log Cabin are seeking progress, not perfection, in the Republican Party's attitudes toward gay Americans. And, despite still being ostracized by the most narrow-minded elements of both their party and the gay community, they are seeing progress. The two most credible Republican presidential candidates – George W. Bush and John McCain – are steering away from hard-edged anti-gay rhetoric that has cost their party dearly in past elections.

The immediate challenge for the Log Cabin is not to yield to the temptation to read too much into a tone change. Tafel is keenly aware of the need for the Log Cabin to remain vigilant, guard its integrity and keep its distance at this stage of the campaign. He is convinced that Log Cabin's gains thus far are largely due to its integrity.

Especially with gay marriage, domestic partner protections and hate crimes legislation becoming high-profile campaign issues, Log Cabin must not compromise its ability to be a stern critic of any candidate who tries to score points at the expense of gay Americans.

If the Republicans do recapture the White House, Democratic-leaning gay groups will likely lose their newfound places at the table. Log Cabin would be the only gay group with any real chance of being seated – a reality that makes it all the more important that it not reduce itself from a truth squad to a cheerleading squad.

The Republican Party is still in the midst of what Tafel calls a 'civil war' over gay rights. Gay Americans' most relentless foes usually claim to have morality on their side. But Tafel wants his party to understand that "the gay movement, by its very nature, is a moral movement. It's people who have decided that honesty is important, who say, ŽI might lose my job, my family might not speak to me, but I've got to be honest about who I am."

Ensuring the rights of honest, open, gay people to serve in the military and to adopt children are top Log Cabin priorities, Tafel says. He wants to talk to GOP contenders about a host of gay issues. And he expects his group will decide at its August conference, immediately after the GOP convention, whether to endorse the party's nominee.

Regardless of who wins the nomination or the White House, Tafel expects to remain an outsider. His calling is to challenge injustice wherever he sees it. To him, that's an article of faith.