Out and Running

Arizona's GOP: Is the tent big enough to include a gay candidate? This man thinks it is.

By Allen Kalchik, Editor, HeatStroke (Phoenix, Arizona)
April 23, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

Steve May is a Republican. He is proud of it and he doesn't care who knows it. The legislative candidate is also in a committed relationship with another man, a relationship that has been accepted by his traditional and loving Mormon family.

Yep, Steve May is openly gay-and he doesn't care who knows that, either. Not anymore.

He is seeking one of the two open house seats in Arizona's District 26 in the fall election, and he's pretty sure he can win. If he loses, he believes it will be because of his stand on the issues and not because there are two pairs of men's shoes under his bed.

No stranger to Arizona politics, May, a native Phoenician, ran for state senate in District 25 two years ago against Democratic incumbent Chris Cummiskey.

May's sexuality became a negative issue for some Republicans when he came out in the midst of his 1996 campaign. Then county GOP chair-woman Bernice Roberts was among those who spoke out publicly against what she called his "homosexual agenda". Roberts even blocked $1,300 in contributions from reaching the young hopeful's coffers.

At the same time, May's lifelong Republicanism became a scratchy issue for liberal voters in 25. Many in the heavily gay central Phoenix district asked themselves why they should vote for someone belonging to what has long been considered "the enemy party" just because he's gay.

With members of his own party working against him and many gay voters feeling subverted, May – then just 24 – lost his race to Cummiskey, a straight man whose favorable record on gay issues was already well established.

After that rejection, May quickly moved back to the east Phoenix district in which he was raised, the same district where he first became active in the Republican party as a teenager. He's a card-carrying member of the GOP and still a relatively conservative political ideology.

He's still openly gay, and ready once again to make a bid for public office. If anything has changed, it's that May is more sure of himself today and more resilient to the ongoing criticism he gets from both left-leaning gays and right-swinging conservatives.

"I'm a Republican. I don't think that when I come out as a gay man, I have to change my political registration or philosophy," May said in a recent, hour-long interview with HeatStroke.

May exudes preppie polish and a kind of toothy, wholesome professionalism. He seems older than his 26 years. He listens carefully, speaks calmly and laughs easily. He should be in politics, and he knows it.

"In my last campaign I faced considerable opposition from the social, conservative wing of the party – the far-right wing at the local and county levels," he said. "But at the state level, the Republican party supported me financially more than any other legislative candidate in the state."

He said the problem is not with the fact that he's gay and Republican. Rather, that there are people in the Republican party who have corrupted its basic ideology and that the Republican vs. Democratic dispute has turned into a social/cultural war that never should have been.

He believes that the support his campaign was shown at the state level - much of which came after his sexual orientation was made public-helps illustrate that the Republican party is not an antigay party.

"It's unfair to make the allegation that Republicans aren't supportive of all citizens. I think they are. That's part of the battle that I'm in and I think I'm on the right side of the battle." May is a board member of tog Cabin Republicans, a national gay political organization with an active chapter in the Valley. "I'm the regional director for several states here in the West and this is a battle that we're winning," he said.

"While most Americans have difficulties understanding homosexuality, they believe that homosexuals should be treated fairly under the law. And 'most Republicans believe they should be treated fairly under the law, too."

May said he is not going to be a banner-carrier for the gay community and that no one should expect him to be if he's elected.

His just-printed campaign literature expresses concern for Arizona schools, for the state's economic environment in a period of amazing growth, taxes and public safety. He outlines a platform that appears safe enough-by any standard-to get him elected by his party's mainstream voters.

The "May '98" brochure also features a prominent picture of the handsome young guy in an Army officer's uniform. Its verbiage makes no mention of human rights or anti-gay job discrimination, nor does it mention the candidate's family or marital status. "Don't ask," May's flawless, military smile seems to be saying, "and I won't tell."

But May said that he is always honest about his committed relationship with a man and that he often mentions it when campaigning.

"I was so outed and so exposed during the last election. [My sexuality] was on the front page of the newspaper, I was on the radio, it received quite a bit of publicity. Very few people involved in the election don't know that I'm gay, and so I don't have to come out to everybody. People know," May said.

"When I speak to groups I bring up – one way or another-the fact that I am gay. And it usually comes up through the course of normal conversation. So I don't have to go to great lengths not to talk about my family Because my family – my partner – is a part of my life, a part of my work. And so when it's appropriate to discuss him, I do.

"I spoke with the firefighters to get their endorsement – by the way, they endorsed me – and I talked about my partner as it was appropriate. I'm not trying to force the issue down anybody's throat. But I'm also not trying to hide it."

Gay voters who took offense at the roundabout way that May first came out publicly (in a September, 1996 Arizona Republic article that described a gay senate candidate's tense situation within the GOP while "protecting" his anonymity) may well be encouraged by the more open attitude he professes today.

May's support from the gay community has certainly grown since his last race, if the sponsor list for an upc6ming campaign fund-raiser offers any indication. The roster includes several prominent, Democratic gay and lesbian activists – including the former chair of the Democratic Party from District 26 – the same district in which May is running.

"A lot of these people are personal friends of mine", May said when asked about financial support for his campaign coming from some pretty hard-core gay Democrats. "I think that friendship crosses party lines."

The event is slated for May 7th at a private home in Phoenix and will be hosted by the Log Cabin Republicans of Central Arizona in conjunction with the Arizona Human Rights Fund, a non-partisan gay and lesbian political organization based in the Valley.

May said early projections indicate that the joint LCR/CAz-AHRF fund-raiser could cough up more than $12,000 for his campaign, making it the most successful gay-hosted event ever held for a single legislative candidate in state history. He said a successful turnout that evening will give politicos in both parties a good look at the financial power that comes with earning the gay community's endorsement.

Following May's 1996 senate defeat, the Arizona Republic's political columnist bemoaned his treatment by conservatives in the GOP. Keven Willey reported that May's platform. favored limited government, low taxation, minimal government regulation and an expanded free-market system.

He was endorsed by the Republic in the district 25 primary but the paper favored Democrat Cummiskey in the general election, as did AHRF.

For the 1998 race in District 26, May is one of ten candidates that have announced their intention to run for two house seats. His chances look good - he's the only candidate who's run for office before, and the new legislators will more than likely be chosen in the primary in this heavily Republican district.

May sees no viable Democratic opponents in view and therefore expects AHRF's endorsement this time, though he continues to stress that he is a political activist rather than a gay activist.

"The gay community shouldn't be misled into thinking that I'm going to be some kind of full-time gay rights activist in the legislature, because I will not be," he explained. "I'm planning to work on issues of growth, education – specifically the funding of education in public schools - and also public safety. That's the banner that I'm carrying."

May said that on the flip side, "Everybody in the Republican caucus knows that I am gay and they are going to have to deal with that. And when legislation is offered that is antigay there's no way that I'm going to sit idly by and allow that to go through the process."

But he has no "gay agenda" and has gone on record opposing same-sex marriages (he said he believes in protections for longtime same-sex relationships but that the way to establish those protections is not to change the institution of marriage) and also has opposed a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation (he told the Republic in '96 that discrimination should be banned on merit and merit alone).

May has since taken a more proactive stance toward seeing some sort of Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) passed.

"I've actually lobbied on that issue both at the federal and local levels. They (many elected officials) mistakenly think that the constitution already allows us protection. Our job is to convince legislators that employment law in America is such that anything that is not specifically written as prohibited is permitted."

May said that until we specifically list sexual orientation as a class we (gay people) can be fired on that basis. He referred to a landmark case in which a gay man in Arizona was allowed to be fired for his sexuality.

"The precedent is Blane V. GoIden Sate Container. I talked to [Senator] John McCain about that issue and he said, 'What? That can't be true.' And said, 'It is. That is the truth.'

"And so I'm hoping to set up a meeting with McCain and the appellate judge that ruled in this case and some other people from the Human Rights Fund in Tucson next month. We need to work to educate people."

May's membership in a party that currently has the majority in what many consider to be a very conservative state could be of help when such issues arise – If he gets elected and the other Republican legislators can get over the fact that he is gay. And he believes they can.

"Take Brenda Burns for example, President of the Senate. I love her dearly and have tremendous respect and admiration for her. She and I get along terrifically on a personal level. She supported me in my last campaign; I'm looking for her support in this campaign. And she never knew me before she knew that I was gay."

Yet May pointed out that Burns doesn't support ENDA legislation or putting a "homosexual orientation" clause in an anti-discrimination statute. "I think she's uncomfortable with that. But she at least realizes at this point that discrimination, against gay people is wrong and that discrimination against gay people exists," he said.

"Her difficulty is that she doesn't quite know how to fix it in a way where she would be comfortable with it." At least, May said, we've gotten her and other people to that point. A couple of years ago, many people (in the party) didn't think gay people were being discriminated against.

"A lot of them probably thought it was okay to discriminate on that basis. And I know that for a fact because they did it to me just two years ago," he added.

There certainly are groups within the Republican party, May said, that have "intentionally and maliciously attacked the gay community and attempted to cut the gay community out of dialogue."

He said that's not true for the majority of Republicans and it's also not true for the establishment group within the Arizona Republican party.

"So I think that someone like me being inside of the Republican majority caucus can make a huge impact in the way that gays and lesbians are treated by the law in Arizona and in the way that gays and lesbians are perceived by non-gays and lesbians. And-maybe most importantly-in the way that our gay and lesbian youth perceive themselves."

May knows there are more progressive gay activists in Arizona who would like to see an openly liberal gay candidate enter the race, someone willing to carry the banner for gay rights issues without offering apologies, excuses or compromises.

"That person will never get elected," he said. "There are thousands of issues that a legislator has to deal with... the responsibility of a legislator is to represent the district that elected that person1 to be concerned with the community that he or she represents and the state of Arizona. It's not the responsibility of Ken Cheuvront or Steve May or anybody else to worry just about the gay community all by itself.

"You don't get banner carriers like that in office. Not even in San Francisco," he added.

May was raised in what he calls a traditional Mormon household. He's one of five children. He attended Arcadia high school, then majored in Psychology and Politics, Philosophy & Economics at Claremont McKenna College, earning his BA. He then served as a first lieutenant in the Army before moving back to Phoenix to help expand his family's herbal import business in the mid-90s.

He came out to his parents when he was 18 and was about to embark on his Mormon mission. "I had a choice whether to sacrifice my integrity and deny the feelings that I had inside, what I knew to be true, and tell it to my parents and my church. Or go on a mission proselytizing to other people something I didn't believe in." He chose to come out. "My parents had a hard time with it then and they still do."

He said his parents were both surprised and hurt by the backlash against him personally after he came out publicly two years ago, but have dealt with it well and accepted his male partner as part of the family.

May said he doesn't have to worry about whether the campaign against him will get nasty. "It's going to get nasty, you can count on it." He believes we've gotten to a point in society where there is quite a backlash against negative political campaigning and said that any antigay "hit pieces" targeted at him will only reflect badly on those responsible.

He said there are plenty of people in his own party who will continue to focus once again on his sexuality and will insist that an openly gay man can't win a Republican primary, but they are wrong.

"The way we overcome that is by running a smart campaign and raising a lot of money early... if I can get enough mainstream, registered Republicans who will vote for me based on my three issues of growth, education, and public safety-then I can win.

"My issue is not gay rights. That' not a part of this campaign. And yet I'm never going to forget that I'm a gay man. I'm never going to forget my life's experiences, and I'm never going to forget our community's experiences. I don't check my gay coat at the door as soon as I walk into the legislature.

"Remember that I'm a Republican, I've always been a Republican and I've been active in the party since I was 14. I'm not a gay Democrat pretending to be a Republican so people will vote for me. People are going to vote for me based on the issues."