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Elephants in the Room

A Gay Old Party With the Area's Top Log Cabin Republican.

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Picture a mid-century home in old East Memphis. The décor is minimal, functional, and nice. The modern elements call no attention to their modernity, and what remains is old and built to endure. A decorator might say the place needs some pepper: a mixologist's splash of timeless fabu. But I'm no decorator, and none of this would have crossed my mind or made this feature if this were a potluck supper for ordinary Republican fuddy-duddies. Yes, I've brought damaging stereotypes to the table when I should have brought chicken, squash casserole, or booze. This is a gathering of Memphis' Log Cabin Republicans, and in case you haven't heard, they're mostly gay.

The LCR represents a minority inside a minority. As Andrew Stricklin, president of the Memphis chapter, says, "When you're both gay and a Republican, it's like you have to come out of the closet twice."

In the nondescript kitchen of this ordinary house, appetizers are being consumed, and Stricklin takes a good-natured joshing about his modest contribution to the potluck. He's driven down from Jonesboro, Arkansas, where he lives and works, with an industrial-size can of beans.

"My family owns a restaurant," he explains, taking all the genial jabs in stride. He insists his dish, once de-canned, will be perfectly edible.

Stricklin says he's been a Republican his entire life, though he comes from a long line of Southern Democrats. "When I told my parents, they just looked at me and said, 'Son, we thought we'd raised you better than that,'" he says.

"You get politics in your blood, and you can't get it out," Stricklin says. There's an uncomfortable irony in the metaphor, but hopefully it will pass.

LCR claims thousands of members nationally, but they've chosen not to endorse President George W. Bush for reelection in 2004. It's the first time since the organization was founded in 1978 that they've officially withheld support from a Republican presidential candidate. The decision not to endorse was multifaceted, but it hinged on the president's continued support for a Federal Marriage Amendment.

"A couple spends a life together," Stricklin says. "They build a home together. They go through things together: good times, bad times, sickness.

"None of this is about redefining marriage," he continues. "It's about legal protection and making sure that gay couples have the same kind of protection under the law that straight couples have."

There are many elephants in this parlor. They swill cocktails and wonder if a cute-sounding first-timer from Jackson is going to make the shindig. Every face is an enigma.

Why, I wonder, would any self-respecting gay person affiliate him- or herself with a political party bent to the will of so many modern-day segregationists disguised as conservative Christians?

"There is a very strong majority within the Republican Party that, based upon their religious beliefs, think homosexuality is a sin. And yes, they do have a problem with the gay community," Stricklin says. "But there are others in the Republican community -- many others -- who are more moderate and more open-minded."

By light of day, the Republican Party is unwilling to let the LCR slip out of the closet long enough to make it an effective token. Few, if any, official GOP Web sites even link to the LCR. But Stricklin isn't discouraged.

"The way I see it, there are two options," he says. "I can do what I've been told I should do over and over again: I can give up my beliefs and become a Democrat. Or I can remain true to my full beliefs and stay right where I am. I can bring insight to people inside the Republican Party who have never met a gay person or who have but don't know it. I can leave the Republican Party. Or I can stick around and help educate people. I can help change the party.''

Stricklin says he's a Republican because he believes in individual rights but also in personal responsibility. He says he's a Republican because they stand for limited government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." He says he thinks the national board of LCR did the right thing when they chose not to endorse President Bush.

"There are a lot of beliefs that make up a person, just like a lot of people make up a country," he says.

Stricklin is chatty. He's relaxed. He likes talking politics, and in spite of the presidential election, he's fired up about his party. He is also fully aware that to others -- even to other Republicans -- his political affiliation might seem at odds with one of his basic human drives.

"There is no secret formula for making people accept who you are," Stricklin says. "We have to keep proving that we are loyal Republicans by continuing to support progressive Republican candidates. You have to understand. My beliefs -- what I hold true -- are best represented by the Republican Party." •

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