The new face of gay conservatives

Republicans control the White House, the House of Representatives, and a majority of governorships. Now a new wave of openly gay conservatives wants to put gay rights on the agenda in George Bush’s America

BY Chris Bull

April 02 2002 12:00 AM ET

Bond says gay and
lesbian progress in the party is primarily a function
of geography. “We are seeing Republican progress for
inclusion in New England, the entire East Coast, as
well as the more libertarian West,” he added.
“The challenge is the entire midsection of the
country, from the Midwest through the Bible Belt and
all the way down to the Gulf. These areas are still
not inclined to gay candidates, and there is a lot of
resistance.”

Guerriero is just
the highest-profile of droves of gay conservatives
coming out and running for office, challenging a party that
just one decade ago featured a procession of
right-wing speakers declaring “culture
war” against homosexuality at its national convention
in Houston. “There’s definitely
progress, but it tends to be measured in inches rather
than miles,” says Hastings Wyman, editor of the
journal Southern Political Report.
“We’re seeing gay people coming out
everywhere, from the White House to the statehouse, but
since the culture of the [GOP] has long been hostile
to the concept of identity politics, people are still
pretty cautious about it. There is still a pretty strong
Republican closet.”

Indeed, many
conservatives contacted by The Advocate for this
issue declined to be interviewed on the record, citing
everything from privacy concerns to the negative
reaction of voters to the fear of being fired. While
the GOP may not exactly be the Gay Old Party yet, this new
breed of gay conservative is breaking down barriers anyway.
Like Guerriero, they tend to be young, unapologetic,
and lacking in patience either for the closet or for
the notoriously antigay right wing of the GOP.
“People like Patrick are simply refusing to run
closeted,” declares Abner Mason, Swift’s
openly gay chief policy adviser. “Just the opposite.
They say, ‘This is who I am, but it’s not all
I am. Vote against me if you dare.’ ”

This emergence of
openly gay conservatives—and their effort to hold
their leaders accountable—could not come at a
more opportune time. The party controls the White
House, the House of Representatives, and 27
governorships. It also stands an even chance of recapturing
the Senate in the November election.

“The
Republican Party has on occasion veered from its Abraham
Lincoln roots on a national level,” Guerriero
says. “I hope what we are seeing is civil
rights becoming a bipartisan issue. History has taught us
that individual politicians must break ranks from the
extremes of their parties to make progress. [Lyndon
Johnson], after all, was a Southern conservative from
Texas who ended up as the great civil rights supporter.
I’m hoping more members of my party will show that
kind of courage.”

To lead that
crusade, Guerriero must first traverse some difficult
political terrain. At the April 6 state Republican
convention, he needs 15% of the vote from 4,200
delegates. If he reaches that threshold, he will face
off against Rappaport, a millionaire businessman, in the
September primary. Should he survive the primary, he faces a
tough November showdown against the Democratic ticket,
most likely led by former Clinton administration Labor
secretary Robert Reich, himself a strong gay rights
supporter.

“What
I’ve found is that a small minority of voters will
never vote for me because I’m gay,”
Guerriero says. “Another small minority will give me
special consideration because of my sexual orientation. But
the vast majority, the ones who determine elections,
will vote based on a candidate’s character,
stand on issues, and experience.”

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