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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

So How Anti-Gay IS the GOP These Days? Reading the Tea Leaves

By Matthew E. Pilecki -
Cindy McCain sent a powerful message of support with her ’NoH8’ photo
Cindy McCain sent a powerful message 
of support with her ’NoH8’ photo

Back in October, two weeks before the election, Joe Erbentraut wrote on this site that, as the headline had it, "GOP is partying like it’s 1999: 2010 election marks open season on gays."

Now that election is in the past -- and, significantly, so is one of the most contentious issues in our time, gays openly serving the United States Armed Forces. In wake of that victory -- in the face of severe Democratic losses in November -- it’s worth asking whether the GOP is facing the reality that a new generation doesn’t like vilifying us. Or is the GOP stuck in the same old anti-gay rhetoric?

When New York GOP gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino (R) declared that homosexuality is "not the example we should be showing our children" to a panel of Hasidic Jewish leaders in October, the media frenzy labeled the political novice out of touch and homophobic. Paladino admitted days later that some of his comments were "unacceptable" and even asked for enlightenment from leaders in the LGBT community.

But he still went on to lose the November election in a record landslide to his Democratic opponent, Andrew Cuomo. On the other side of the nation, there was GOP Colorado candidate for the United States Senate, Ken Buck.

Buck compared a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality to alcoholism while affirming that sexuality is a choice in an interview with Meet the Press. Buck lost in November when he had formerly been widely expected to win; many (his supporters included) pointed to that moment.

"Looking back now, I think when Buck answered that question about homosexuality being a choice on Meet the Press, it was the beginning of the end of his candidacy," David Catanese, national reporter for Politico, told EDGE."The problem is that socially, Colorado is a live and let live state and here is a U.S. Senate candidate, appearing to say that people choose their sexuality. If he just stayed on the message regarding fiscal restraint and economics, it probably would’ve been smarter."

But the experiences of Buck and Paladino seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) made headlines after he suggested sexually active single women and out homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in public schools back in 2004. DeMint refused to apologize for the statement and reiterated his belief in his 2010 campaign. He went on to win reelection.

Catanese said repercussions of anti-gay statements vary from state to state. He doesn’t believe, for example, that Buck’s statement probably would have hurt him in the South or even the Midwest. "I do think this is a cultural and geographical question," he said. "I think it’s less acceptable but I wouldn’t say it’s a disqualifier in all states, in all races."

Is ’gay’ the new ’Jew’?
Controversy surrounding the Texan Tea Party climaxed when a slew of emails were uncovered calling for the repeal of State Rep. Joe Straus (R-TX) as Speaker of the House in favor of a "true Christian speaker." Many believed that Straus’ Jewish faith motivated the attacks -- which included messages like "Straus is going down in Jesus’ name."

The Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization fighting anti-Semitism, believed the attacks were isolated and did not represent a majority of Tea Party followers. Nevertheless, the ADL described the incident as "us[ing] religion as shorthand for political qualification, which is discriminatory and smacks of a religious litmus test for public office."

Similarly, the ADL denounced Paladino’s remarks on homosexuality. They called them "offensive, counterproductive and contrary to our nation’s democratic values."

Todd Gutnick, ADL’s director of media relations, told EDGE that cohesion among all minorities is essential in the fight for equality.

"ADL has learned that the best way to fight anti-Semitism is to fight all forms of prejudice, bigotry, and racism," Gutnick said. "Jews can’t end anti-Semitism by ourselves. By the same token, the LGBT community cannot end homophobia and discrimination by itself -- it requires allies and public support. Polling indicates progress on a variety of other equality and fairness issues, but that doesn’t mean that we wait until the public supports our policies. We help shape public views by helping to shape the views of opinion molders and legislators and civic leaders. It requires coalitions and bridge-building. The LGBT community has to be there for other civil rights and religious liberty issues, too."

Homophobia is still more permissible in politics than anti-Semitism or racismn, however, at least according to Denis Dison, vice president of external affairs at the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund.

"You don’t see Fox News or CNN inviting white supremacists on the air to provide regular political commentary, but they often invite the leaders of viciously anti-LGBT groups like the Family Research Council to talk about employment non-discrimination, marriage, the military ban, etc," Dison said. "Frank Rich wrote a column in which he said homophobia was still at most a misdemeanor in Washington. I think that’s right."

The article Dison referred to criticized the Smithsonian’s decision to pull a segment of David Wojnarowicz’s "A Fire in My Belly" from an exhibit at The National Portrait Gallery.

The film, an expression of Wojnarowicz’s grief and fury over the death of his former lover and mentor from AIDS, received little attention until William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, an organization many consider a one-man band.

Donohue filed a complaint that the images were "hideously grisly" and "pornographic images of gay men." Several religious and right-wing bloggers and websites picked up the tune, and then so did politicians. The Smithsonian eventually sided with Donohue.

"It still seems an unwritten rule in establishment Washington that homophobia is at most a misdemeanor," Frank Rich wrote at the time.

Bridging the gap
Robert Wright, who also writes for the New York Times, argued that "playing the homophobia card is costl(y)" in the political spectrum.

Longtime NPR political analyst Juan Williams made headlines when he said on-air that he gets nervous when people in "Muslim garb" board a plan he’s on, leading to his termination from NPR -- and a surprising $2-million contract with Fox News.

In "Islamophobia and Homophobia," Wright theorized that if Williams’ comments had been targeted at the LGBT community, Fox News most likely would not have signed him so quickly. He credits the growing acceptance of gays among conservative Christians to the "bridging model," a theory that suggests tolerance is largely a question of getting to know people, and questions whether the same model would work for the Muslim community.

Catanese favors Wright’s theory and suggests that bridging would have more of an impact than political reform.

"To me, it’s less about policy arguments or parades that touch people," he told EDGE. "It’s about families who say, ’Ok, I see this differently now. Mike is a friend of mine and he’s not all that different than me.’ Older generations of parents and grandparents still hold bigoted views in many cases, just because they were never exposed to someone who was gay.

"Now," he continued, "it’s not uncommon for high school and college students to not only know gay people, but be friends with them. The stigma will continue to subside and that is the biggest driver of what politicians will or won’t say."

Conservatives keep changing their minds ...

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force agrees that bridging has had an effect on policy makers. Still, she encourages the LGBT community to continue to push for the advancement of civil rights.

"More people are coming out and increasing numbers of Americans know someone who is LGBT," Carey told EDGE. "This can affect how one treats or speaks of others, and how others respond to someone who is making hateful comments. But, let us not forget, we’ve been working to change society for well over 40 years.

"And," she added, "there remains much more to be done to get us full equalit. And I’m not just talking about legal equality. Full equality. Engaging with allies and bridging with other movements is important and something many of us are already doing."

Prior to President Barack Obama signing the repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," Cindy McCain garnered headlines after she appeared in an ad for the NOH8 campaign blasting the policy that barred gays from openly serving in the military. But days later, the wife of the U.S. senator and 2008 presidential candidate rescinded her stance on Twitter by writing that she stood by her husband’s support of the policy.

Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, told EDGE that he wasn’t surprised by Ms. McCain’s flip-flopping on the issue.

"Unfortunately the Republican Party, although they try to give some lip service to not being as hateful as they were before, calls these people to the woodshed because their policies are very far leaning if you look at any of the issues," Keegan said. "We are doing the right thing. We have equality and we are in the right place. Eventually we will get there, but currently there is a high price to pay for anybody who wants to speak out on these issues."

Nor is Keegan at all surprised that "people can be more accepting of gay rights when they are out of office then when they are in office. It used to be that where you sit on equality had much less to do with your party then it does now."

Figuring out the GOP mind
Catanese believes the motivation behind McCain’s change of heart is more complicated.

"McCain probably defers to her husband on military matters, and perhaps she listened to his argument and decided to be more cautious," he said. "It’s unclear, but I think people’s views on sexuality are more complicated than just supporting all LGBT issues at once or being against them. Black and white aren’t usually how most people are on these things."

"She’s moved by a personal experience because she has a son in the military," he added. "I think it’s instructive to put yourself in the shoes of the military family who maybe isn’t sure what this will mean for their son or daughter at war."

McCain, however, isn’t the first conservative to speak out in the name of gay rights. In an interview with Larry King, former First Lady Laura Bush said gays should have the right to marry and that she believed the law would soon recognize same sex unions. And with bipartisan support for anti-bullying legislation after a rash of LGBT teen suicides, it seems gay rights are becoming a point of discussion even among conservatives.

"We’re beginning to see true conservatives pierce the veil of intolerance on the right, and that means social conservatives are losing their grip," Dison told EDGE. But Keegan remains skeptical of the progression of gay rights among conservatives.

"Unfortunately, that’s the exception rather than the rule," he said. "It may be a lot easier to come around this issue, but there is a reason there are those teen suicides -- there’s not equality in this country. I think it’s hypocritical to show compassion in this one particular area but then think people should not have equal rights whether its marriage or serving the military. I think it’s great to start making a step forward, but what a shame that this is an exception and not a rule."

Not a great time for social issues
With the defeat of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," LGBT activists are refocusing on passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act through Congress. While Obama has said that he would support the bill, Catanese believes social issues will take a backseat until the economy improves.

"If unemployment remains at 10 percent, I think people are going to be less willing to get behind someone who is primarily focused on any social issue, let alone LGBT," he said. "There are still enough red conservative states out there that would react harshly to any proposal they see as potentially altering their culture or social fabric. Republicans may try to paint the Democrats as out of touch if they try to deal with anything other than economic issues until the unemployment numbers drop and other economic indicators get humming again."

Carey is aware of the current political climate, but tells EDGE that will not prevent her from fighting for equality on a federal level.

"The new political reality at the federal level is that we do not expect to see any pro-LGBT legislation passing through Congress for the next two years," she revealed. "This doesn’t mean that we abandon Congress though. Our community has never given up and has always taken advantage of challenging times by doing the hard work of continuing to educate members of Congress and their staff. We will also need to fight against any anti-LGBT bills and amendments that may come up."


1 comment:

  1. Great post, but shouldn't the headline read "leafs" not "leaves"?