Bushwhacked again

Gay Americans face an uphill battle during the next four years under George W. Bush. They are trying to keep a sense of optimism

BY Sarah Wildman

November 23 2004 12:00 AM ET

The election of
2004 got personal for gay Americans. Their lives became
the social wedge issue used by Republican campaign
operatives to dredge up evangelical Christian and
conservative voters, nudging aside the traditional
conservative bogeymen of abortion and the death penalty and
gun control. This was the election where gay marriage, civil
unions, and basic rights for gay men and lesbians were
put on ballot initiatives in 11 states; where gay
bashing was unabashedly tossed into closely contested
Southern races; where gay issues were discussed in
live-televised debates (and then hotly contested later); and
this was the election with a postmortem that worried
whether gay marriage had thrown the election to the
Republicans. This was, after all, the election between
the first presidential candidate to support civil unions and
the presidential candidate who sponsored a federal
anti–gay-marriage constitutional amendment.
In the end, the country was battered and
divided. The president was reelected on the politics
of hate dressed up in the guise of something vaguely
called “moral values.” And, despite it all,
President Bush still garnered support from 23% of
self-identified gay voters, according to a CNN exit
poll, who were apparently willing to ignore the issues
of discrimination and equality and go with the man they felt
would keep them both safe from terrorism and
prosperous at home.
Chris Barron, political director for the Log
Cabin Republicans, which did not endorse the president
for reelection, emphasized that looking at the moral
values was “not just about gay and lesbian issues, it
was stem cell research, abortion, Supreme Court
nominees; that’s a whole wide range of cultural
issues. [But] it would be disingenuous to say gay
marriage didn’t play a role, and important role in
certain states.”
Eleven states passed constitutional amendments
that ban same-sex marriage; additionally, eight of
those measures either ban civil unions outright or
create worrisome obstacles for their future passage. As Roey
Thorpe, executive director of the gay rights group Basic
Rights Oregon, said after that state’s ballot
initiative passed, “The very notion that our
constitution can be changed to deny rights to a minority
with a vote of a simple majority of those who turn out is ludicrous.”
In some cases the amendments were so poorly
worded that many believe litigation is inevitable.
“We definitely are anticipating some legal
challenges,” says Michael Adams, director of
education and public affairs at Lambda Legal.
“We have announced that we will file against
the amendment in Georgia. There may well be others. We want
to do whatever we can to challenge the amendments, but we
are trying to be strategic; we need to choose our
battles wisely, so we are taking a close look.”
Adams, like many other activists, says he is
still stubbornly optimistic. “We are not shaken
in our belief that we will win full equality over
time,” he says. Adds Log Cabin’s Barron:
“We certainly disagreed with [Bush’s
senior adviser] Karl Rove’s decision to use
this as a strategy, [but] it’s hard to argue that
it didn’t work to motivate evangelicals—which
shows the need of our community to do a better job of
reaching out to the heartland, to the South, and to
Republicans, to work to move the hearts and minds of
people. It’s not enough to move our friends and
neighbors in New York, D.C., Chicago, and California;
we need to do a better job of moving hearts and minds
across the country.”
At Oregon State University, political science
professor William Lunch points to research data that
show Americans under 30 are far more tolerant.
“Twenty or 25 years from now, my sense is that our
children will look back at us and say, ‘What was that
all about?’ ” he says. “That
may sound hollow now, while the wounds are still
fresh, but it is the fertile ground for education campaigns.”
As depressing as it all seems, it’s
important to remember that gay bashing was not
universally successful in 2004. Take the U.S. Senate race
between Jim Bunning and Daniel Mongiardo in Kentucky, for
example. Although Bunning squeaked to victory, voters
were repulsed by his supporters’ attempt to
paint the very straight Mongiardo as a gay man. In
North Carolina, Julia Boseman, a Gay and Lesbian Victory
Fund–endorsed nominee for state senate, was running
along at a rapid clip when her opponent took out ads
accusing her of supporting a radical
“homosexual agenda.” She won anyway.
“There is a silver lining in this in that
through these battles we are having these
conversations with millions more people than we ever
dreamed possible,” says Matt Foreman, executive
director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
“People need to really understand that this is
just round 1. Who would have thought four years ago
that marriage equality would be on the table in such a major way?”
In the weeks and months following the election
it will be tempting to shun the country. To believe
that this represents the worst of America. “I
think what [this election] showed is how much more education
we still have to do and how much more work there is
still to be done and that we have to keep doing
it,” says Steven Fisher, spokesman for national
gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. “A lot of
people who say they don’t know gay people need
to understand what discrimination means, what losing
health insurance means, and what these amendments can
do to people’s lives. Discrimination is not a
partisan issue; we have to oppose it no matter where it
comes.”

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