The Other Republican Revolution

With Urban Gay Men and Lesbians Increasingly Voting Republican, Are We Selling Out? Or Growing Up?

by Jonathan Capehart, Out Magazine
July 1998 edition Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

When I walked into the voting booth at the Lesbian & Gay Community Services Center in New York City last November, I, and thousands of other gay men and lesbians, did something revolutionary -- we voted Republican. And we didn't vote for just any Republican. We voted to reelect Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, the tough guy, law-and-order darling who, along with a booming economy, has helped bring back the polish to the Big Apple.

Even as a registered Democrat, I couldn't vote for Giuliani's inadequate challenger, former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. Neither could Scott Gorenstein, a die-hard Democrat and former East Villager who used to take days off to be a "very proud foot soldier in ACT UP" demonstrations.

"I stood in the voting booth saying, 'I can't believe I'm doing this,'" Gorenstein admits. "With shame and guilt hanging over my head, I remembered all those ACT UP and Queer Nation protests when I was on the left of the Left." Gorenstein clicked the lever for Rudy. His reason was as simple as I was understandable: "The city works."

"More and more, gay men and lesbians in America's urban centers like New York City and Los Angeles are junking ideology and in the process shunning Democrats in favor of Republicans. (we're not talking about voting for rabid conservatives like Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who would like noting more than to shunt homosexuals onto their own island. And I don't mean Fire Island either.) In 1997, Giuliani won 39 percent of the overall self-identified gay vote and triumphed in our ghettos, grabbing 55 percent of the Greenwhich Village, 59 percent of the East Village, and 60 percent in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and Chelsea. Los Angeles presented a near mirror image: Republican Mayor Richard Riordan roared to reelection with around 50 percent of the gay vote.

Gay men and lesbians in big cities are voting for another group of people who. like us. are tossing old philosophies out of the window. Out new chosen heros are fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republicans who run their cities like businesses, not political philosophy classes. If gay men and lesbians rushing away from identity politics and the rhetoric of "the liberation of an oppressed minority" run headfirst into a gaggle of Republicans traveling from Right to center, what comes to pass? The end of an era, perhaps. Without a doubt, the end of many a conventional wisdom.

"What [gay men and lesbians voting for Giuliani] signals to me-- having been out since 1943 and living all my life in New York City-- is a maturation of the community," declares the pugnacious 76-year-old political activist Alfred Borrello. "We are no longer a petulant, adolescent group seeking its own good. We are coming to realize that the health of the city is for the good of our community. If the city falls to pieces, we fall to pieces."

Matt Foreman, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, New York state's largest gay and lesbian political group, explains that "Gay people are not necessarily one-issue voters and they are persuaded b safety, efficiency of public service, and leadership from a mayor." Riordan's current chief of staff, Robin Kramer, notes that "In general, gays and lesbians are liberal on social issues and conservative on economic issues-- just like the mayor. There is an affinity of beliefs."

Yet there seem to be growing pains for New York's gay men and lesbians in life under Giuliani's leadership. Many gay Giuliani voters are less pleased by what some call a crackdown on gay sex and nightlife as well as First Amendment issues raised by the mayor's push to zone X-rated businesses out of residential neighborhoods, which some say amounts to zoning them out of existence.

"I was offended that we [might] ship the XXX shops to the outskirts of town," grumbles Robert Copeland, once a registered Democrat. While he is now a registered Republican, he rejected Giuliani in favor of [former mayor] Dinkins in the '93 election. But Giuliani succeeded in getting Copeland's vote last year.

"People may not like [the sex theaters and shops], but they give New York its mystique, especially in this time when Disney has taken over Times Square. The old allure of New York is to have a little mystique, a little bohemia." Taking away that, Copeland complains, is "taking away a component that people are undervaluing."

Copeland is the embodiment of a kind of uneasy political schizophrenia the community seems to be suffering from right now. On the one had, we want to be good, upstanding citizens who desire clean streets, less crime, more jobs, and lower taxes. And we'll vote for a Republican to get that. On the other hand, we view ourselves and are viewed by society as rebellious outsiders. And we don't want anyone tinkering with our cherished civil liberties-- from regulating where we meet Mr. Right (Now) to limiting our access to a dirty movie. For many, aggressive hedonism has been a central part of gay identity for decades. Many gay men and lesbians who detest crime and want repeat offenders in jail nonetheless are quite irked when their dealer gets busted and they cant' buy recreational drugs for the weekend.

But as gay Democrat activists are learning, a weekend hedonist doth not a liberal ideologue make. There is a sense of anger and betrayal among large segments of the gay political class about so many gay men and lesbians voting Republican, even for a pro-choice, pro-gay Republican. "Ruth is bad on some issues, but Rudy is bad on most issues," thunders Andy Humm, the firebrand gay journalist and television host on the Gay Cable Network. Jeanne Bergman, formerly of Housing Works, which provides housing services and advocacy for homeless people with HIV/AIDS, is more blunt: "I don't assume that having the same sexual orientation makes you progressive-- it should. Gays and lesbians have been politically stupid in not recognizing how superficial quality-of-life changes could boomerang and hurt us."

Why the gay voting shift should be "politically stupid" to Bergman, or feel like a revolutionary act to me, is amusing. after all, none of us were born a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party. Many in the community equate a vote for a Democrat as proof of gay authenticity, but they can only stick their heads in the sand for so long.

While many of us are willing to vote for Giuliani or Riordan, we're not jumping to register as Republicans. If Gorenstein, the former ACT UPer, is a barometer, Giuliani has a long way to go in convincing him that the Republicans are the party for him. "My vote for Giuliani in no way signifies that I am going to become a Log Cabin member anytime soon," he says, mentioning the tiny band of organized gay Republicans.

If the gay and lesbian community is suffering from a Sybil complex with regard to its self-image, just imagine what the Republican party is going through. The candidates who appeal to us from the Grand Old Party-- Giuliani, Riordan, New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, and dormer Massachusetts Governor William Weld-- are bucking the conservative Christian Right in their open support of gay rights.

Both Riordan and Giuliani are masters of symbolic politics. Riordan was the first L.A. mayor to ride in the Pride parade, and every year he pedals the last 70 miles of the California AIDS Ride. One of his first appointments in '93 was openly gay Mike Keeley as L.A.'s deputy mayor. Riordan "appointed gays to key posts in his administration-- more than [former Mayor Tom] Bradley," says David Mixner the venerable Democratic Party power broker and quintessential Friend of Bill. Keeley served from 1993 to 1996 and wielded extraordinary power with responsibility for preparing and defending the mayor's budget and overseeing most of the government's departments. For his part, Giuliani marches in the gay Pride parade albeit only south of St. Patrick's Cathedral. Among his out staffers are commissioner of the Department of Homeless Services, Gordon Campbell; openly gay and HIV-positive Christopher Lynn, who was the Department of Transportation Commissioner and is now on the Tax Appeals Tribunal; and former city councilman Antonio Pagan, now commissioner of the Department of Employment.

In the City of angels there appears to be a love affair going on between Riordan and the community. "I enthusiastically supported him during his second election." says Mixner, from his posh West Hollywood home. "His record on gay and lesbian issues is unparalleled."

"It is a community I feel very comfortable with," Riordan told me in a phone interview from Washington.

It's hard to fault Riordan politically. Riordan supported domestic-partner benefits for city employees after his first election. He declared a state of emergency so the city could implement a needle-exchange program. He convened a meeting of West Coast mayors to talk about how they can help each other tackle the AIDS crisis through education and prevention efforts in their respective communities. During the "don't ask, don't tell" fiasco, Riordan wrote letters to congressional Republicans urging them to drop the ban gays in the military. Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, was particularly impressed by that action because Riordan "used his Republican credentials to urge other Republicans to do the right thing."

"To me, it's not politicking. It's common sense," Riordan points out.

Mayor Giuliani did the right thing by gays in Gotham this spring, also. Keeping a promise made in his reelection campaign to the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Giuliani administration introduced into the New York City Council comprehensive domestic-partnership legislation that would make the city's more than 8,700 (and growing) domestic partners the equivalent of spouses in matters as diverse as hospital visitations, funeral arrangements, and lease survivorship. In addition the bill would allow extension of important benefits to the domestic partners of city workers if they were gained through future collective bargaining. Whereas earlier bills had languished, this proposal was given serious backing.

"One thing I'll say about Giuliani is that, for better or worse, when he says he's going to do something, he does it," Foreman says. "I give him a lot of credit. We weren't able to pass this bill under a Democratic mayor."

Seated in an elegant armchair in his stately office in lower Manhattan, Giuliani is ever bit the picture of confidence and ease after more than four years of serving as mayor of New York City. But his public image is one of a man who loves a good game of hard ball-- which has led many in the gay community, among others, to view him as cold, disagreeable administrator.

"It's hard for them to get beyond the stereotype," Giuliani chuckles at a common misprision of him. "Republican. Prosecutor. Tough guy. Therefore, I must be antigay. The answer is even if al those things are true, I am about as strong a supporter of all the mainstream issues as you are going to find."

"I think I have helped in getting people in this city to perceive the gay and lesbian community as being the same, the dynamics the same as being the same as everybody else," says Giuliani.

These are sharp points of disagreement. He has gone on record in the press as opposing gay marriage. He marches every year in the St. Patrick's Day parade, which excludes the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization from marching under its own banner. His administration has restructured the Department of AIDS Services and blocked funding for Housing Works. "It's harder for a person with AIDS to get services because while the services provided by the city remained level, there are more people living with AIDS," protests Darryl Ng, the director of New York City Governmental Relations for GMHC. "Intentionally or unintentionally, Giuliani is leading the perception that a 48 percent drop in AIDS deaths in New York City means a decrease in services needs."

However, the very beliefs that can allow gay and lesbian Democrats to vote Republican may be the undoing of Riordan and Giuliani in the national party. If either man has designs on a higher office will have to get pat the religious conservatives who consistently vote and largely control the Republican primaries-- rewarding and punishing candidates with every vote. A case study is Governor Weld, who saw his nomination as ambassador to Mexico go down in flames partly because he tripped over time-honored protocols and partly because his fantastic record on gay rights and needle exchange in the Bay State offended the off-the-charts conservative chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, North Carolina's Jesse Helms.

As fro Giuliani, speculation about his national prospects immediately followed his introduction of the domestic-partners bill. "By doing this Giuliani has sealed his fate to remain, at best, a regional political figure," Robert Knight, the Family Research Council's director of cultural studies told The New York Times in May. Local New York politicos surmised that Giuliani was indicating he would limit his ambitions to New York governor or U.S. senator rather than the presidency.

But the Log Cabin Republicans have good advice for Weld, Whitman, Riordan, and Giuliani. "Keep doing what you're doing, it's working," advises Kevin Ivers, public affairs director of Log Cabin. "Stay away from pandering to the far Right. Just make your pitch over the heads of the party leaders and the activists, speak directly to the voters-- and deliver."

It will be an uphill fight to transform his party, but Giuliani is hopeful. "If there is somebody who can play the role of opening up the party to more moderate ad broad-scale voters, I'm a person who can help do that," Giuliani notes. "The party that wants to be a majority party should try to organize itself around the most legitimate principles that give it the broadest appeal possible without compromising itself."