Opinion » Viewpoint

W. For Gay Rights

Can Bush move away from the religious right and support gays?



I can't believe I'm saying this, but George W. Bush may not be as bad for the gay community as I thought, and he may in fact do something to help -- change the anti-gay image of the Republican Party. Granted, the Republican Party has a long way to go to catch up to the Democratic Party's aggressive courting of the gay community, but as Bob Dylan put it, "The times they are a-changin'." One thing that changed everything -- including the possibility of equal rights for gays and lesbians -- was the terrorist attacks of September 11th.

For a long time the GOP has been moving to the right to mobilize the most dependable Republican voters -- the religious right. It started with Ronald Reagan's embrace of Jerry Falwell and the "Moral Majority." As governor of Texas, Bush beat his Democratic opponents by courting the religious right and used Ann Richard's timid support of gay rights against her. But as a presidential candidate, Bush began to move to the center on some issues. While he would not commit to a single gay-rights cause, he at least talked to gay Republicans and did not shut them out completely.

As president, thanks to the election fiasco in Florida, Bush has continued to work his way to the center on some issues. The president has angered some of his former supporters in the religious right, not only by continuing former President Clinton's executive orders prohibiting discrimination in federal employment based on sexual orientation but by appointing several openly gay people to prominent positions.

The Family Research Council issued a blistering critique of the Bush administration in September, accusing the White House of implicitly endorsing "the homosexual political agenda." Among the offenses they cited: letting openly gay Rep. Jim Kolbe speak at the GOP convention; naming former Massachusetts governor Paul Cellucci, a "militant advocate of homosexual rights," ambassador to Canada; picking gay activist Scott Evertz to head the White House AIDS office; and appointing a gay man, Michael Guest, to be ambassador to Romania. And Secretary of State Colin Powell was singled out to preside over Guest's swearing-in ceremony and recognize his partner of six years.

White House senior aide Mary Matalin may be another reason for hope. She is a founder of the pro-gay Republican Unity Coalition and a close friend of the Log Cabin Republicans. It remains to be seen whether she and gay Republicans can convince Bush to support concrete legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) or to lift the ban on gays in the military. While Clinton had many difficulties with the military establishment that affected his ability to carry through on his promise to lift the ban, Bush has the respect of the military and would be in a much stronger position to change the discriminatory policy.

After the September 11th terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson made public statements suggesting that God had lifted his protection of the U.S. and allowed the attack because of, among other things, the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians. This outrageous statement alienated not only the majority of the American people, it even had ultraconservatives like Rush Limbaugh distancing themselves from the religious right. This example of intolerance, along with the patriotic sympathy of a growing majority of Americans, gives the Bush administration an excellent opportunity to cut its ties to the religious right once and for all.

According to recent polls the majority of Americans support equal rights for gays and lesbians; even a majority of Republicans oppose discrimination against gays in employment and oppose the ban on gays in the military. If Bush would support ENDA and work to end the ban on gays in the military he could actually accomplish more for the gay community than Clinton. Most importantly, if gay and lesbian equality gets the bipartisan support of both major political parties, we all will benefit.

Don't get me wrong. I'm still skeptical of the Log Cabin Republicans' claim that George W. Bush deserved the vote of the gay community. He did not. But since we are stuck with him for at least the next three years, it is time for gay Republicans to put up or shut up. The ball is in their court now.

Jim Maynard is co-chair of the Memphis Lesbian & Gay Coalition for Justice.

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