Gay Republicans Soldier On, One Skirmish at a Time

Published: April 17, 2005

BEING a gay Republican has never been easy. But it seems to grow more complicated with every passing marriage.

Just over a week ago, a well-connected Republican strategist, Arthur J. Finkelstein, acknowledged that he had wed his partner of 40 years. Mr. Finkelstein guards his private life carefully (the wedding was in December), but the disclosure immediately found its way into the public debate about same-sex marriage and about the isolation of married gays in a party whose leaders want to outlaw their unions.

The vulnerability of gay Republicans to scorn – by those in their own party, as well as by Democrats, gay or not – was further exposed when Bill Clinton suggested last week that Mr. Finkelstein might suffer from “self-loathing” because he spent so many years advising Republicans who have been hostile to gay rights. Some aides to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton were irked by Mr. Clinton's remark, seeing the self-loathing label as old stereotyping that surely did not help Mrs. Clinton, whose re-election Mr. Finkelstein is working to prevent.

Yet the former president was also missing the point: self-loathing is nothing new for gay people of any stripe (see McGreevey, James E.). What is new is that the movement for equality has shifted to a different level, as gay Republicans, one by one and town by town, are now asserting a public role for themselves – and their spouses.

For gay Republicans today, identity politics may be a challenge in the conservative wing of the party, but they are making friends elsewhere. They may break with President Bush on same-sex marriage, but they are building relationships with grass-roots Republicans on city councils and boards who have real power over nondiscrimination laws. Curiously, as the party moves to the right on many social issues, the number of gays who identify themselves as Republican is growing, advocacy groups say, with gays saying that they want to influence a party that is (a) theirs and (b) politically ascendant.

“We have gay Republicans starting chapters in South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, all over the heartland,” said Christopher Barron, political director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay-rights group. “Gay conservatives use a lexicon that conservative politicians understand, be it about freedom, fairness or other values we have in common.”

Joining the party was once an easy call for many gays, who liked its libertarian ethos, which held people should live as they saw fit. They could see that Democratic politicians were no saints: the Northern political machines were hardly enlightened, and Southern leaders spewed invective against “the other” well past the first half of the 20th century. Congressional Republican votes were essential to civil rights in general. As for anti-sodomy laws, no one party could lay claim.

It was not until the 1950's that Roy Cohn gave full-blooded life to the stereotype of the self-hating gay Republican. A zealous aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy, Mr. Cohn, whom Tony Kushner made into a leading character in “Angels in America,” vilified gays and then went home to a male lover. He died of AIDS in 1986, and like other prominent Americans of the time, notably excepting Rock Hudson, Mr. Cohn refused to acknowledge that he had the disease.

It was the growing political power of the Christian right, starting in the 1970's, followed by AIDS and Ronald Reagan's slow acknowledgment of it, that spurred gays to turn to the Democrats. Republicans also faced the reality of gays in their party, as AIDS drove them to the surface.

“AIDS shattered the silence in gay life, and forced many gay people into the public eye,” said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, a nonpartisan gay rights group. “And many gays realized the radical change in the Republican Party – it was no longer the party of limited government and individual freedoms but had gotten into bed with fiercely antigay and anti-civil-rights elements.”

If gay Republicans have not made peace with social conservatives in the party, especially those wielding megaphones in Washington and on the air, they are trying to find greater relevance in communities, where people know them as more than a label.

Despite defeats for same-sex marriage in 11 states last November, Mr. Barron of the Log Cabin group pointed to at least one victory at the ballot box: Cincinnati voters repealed Article XII of the city charter, which barred officials from protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

“Our chapter president in Cincinnati spearheaded the fight against Article XII,” Mr. Barron said. “In a lot of places, it's conservative voices – gay conservative voices – who can best lead a fight.”

Martin Duberman, a history professor at the City University of New York who writes on gay issues, said being a gay Republican was no longer the contradiction that he and others once believed it to be.

“A number of gay people approve of the administration because they are militaristic, they are jingoistic, and they may have grown up in fundamentalist families,” Mr. Duberman said.

Still, it's not always easy being a gay Republican. Last fall, the Democratic presidential ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards made a reference to the fact that Mary Cheney, a daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney who worked on his campaign, is a lesbian – a move that, depending on your point of view, was meant to roil conservatives or to render sexuality nonpartisan.

If and when Ms. Cheney decides to marry, it will be interesting to see who offers best wishes, who offers armchair psychoanalysis, and who minds his own business.