The new face of gay conservatives

By Chris Bull

Originally published on Advocate.com April 02 2002 1:00 AM ET

Growing up in the
middle-class Boston suburb of Melrose, Mass., Patrick
Guerriero feared that his sexual orientation would thwart
his political ambitions, especially as a budding young
Republican. But unlike generations of gay and lesbian
conservatives before him, he refused to stay in the
closet.

Much to his
surprise and relief, Guerriero’s candor actually may
have played to his advantage. Not long after coming
out to family and friends in 1990 at age 22, he was
twice elected mayor of his hometown. Voters then sent
him to three consecutive terms in the state legislature.
This January, Guerriero achieved his greatest measure
of political acceptance yet when
Massachusetts’s acting governor, Republican Jane
Swift—no doubt noting his perfect record in
elections—named him her running mate for
lieutenant governor. At press time Swift had pulled out of
the race, but Guerriero is soldiering on with his
candidacy. After her announcement, Swift recommended
that Mitt Romney, the Mormon conservative who served as
chief of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and who now is
expected to win the Republican nomination for
Massachusetts governor, stick with Guerriero as his
running mate.

Instead of
receiving fire and brimstone from the right wing, Guerriero
has been greeted as the political equivalent of a rock star.
As he has crisscrossed the state campaigning,
audiences have swooned over his charisma and his
youthfulness. A columnist in the conservative Boston
Herald
rhapsodized about his “dimples” and
called him “breathtakingly adorable.”
The only carping came from a predictable source, his
Republican opponent, James Rappaport, who dismissed the
34-year-old as little more than a “nice young
man.”

“The
people of Melrose got to know me as a decent athlete and
active citizen volunteer who fought for improvements
in civil life,” Guerriero tells The
Advocate.
“They judged me by my character and my
record. I think that voters today are a lot less
concerned about the sexual orientation of their
leaders than they used to be, and this is true not
just in my state but across the country. They want to know
where I stand on the issues. There is no question this
a good thing for this country.”

No one would ever
dare say, “As Massachusetts goes, so goes the
nation.” Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly
3 to 1 in the state and control its entire
congressional delegation. Republicans here break the mold.
In 1967, Massachusetts Republican Edward Brooke became
the first African-American U.S. senator since
Reconstruction. Swift’s Republican
predecessors, Paul Cellucci and William Weld, earned
reputations as staunch gay rights supporters. (Weld
appeared on a 1993 cover of The Advocate as
“Hetero Hero.”) Now, 20 years after sending to
Congress two representatives who would become the
first to come out in office, Barney Frank and Gerry
Studds, the state is on the verge of another
breakthrough.

“Guerriero’s race is really a battle of wills
in the [GOP],” says Brian Bond, executive
director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a
Washington, D.C. political group. “Patrick represents
inclusion and the future of the GOP. But even in
liberal Massachusetts he’s going to have to
defeat the naysayers and lingering homophobia within the
party structure. Whether he wins the nomination will
tell us a lot.”

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.”

Despite
Guerriero’s candidacy and the state’s liberal
drift, his champion Swift has equivocated on gay
issues. In a bow to conservatives shortly after she
assumed the governorship in spring 2001, when President Bush
appointed Governor Cellucci ambassador to Canada, she
endorsed a proposed state constitutional amendment
that would ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Her
stance was immediately denounced by gay activists as
well as by a surprising source—her gay stepson, Brian
Hunt, the son of Swift’s husband, Chuck Hunt.

Guerriero, who
served as Swift’s deputy chief of staff before
joining the campaign, declines to comment on what he
calls a “private family matter” between
Swift and her stepson. “Let me just say the governor
and her husband care very much about [Swift’s]
stepson,” he says. “I’m going to
leave it at that.”

And he insists
his disagreement with Swift on same-sex marriage was
“largely a matter of semantics. There are fundamental
rights that we agree upon. Whether you call it
marriage or civil union or domestic partnership, we
both believe that same-sex couples in loving, taxpaying
relationships can and should be given the same rights and
responsibilities as all other families.”

Guerriero notes
that the election will not turn on same-sex marriage.
“To be frank, most voters are more concerned
about other issues,” he says.

Nevertheless,
politicos say Guerriero’s appeal could become even
more crucial with the moderate Swift out of the race.
“Patrick is the perfect choice as Mitt
Romney’s running mate,” Mason says. “As
a conservative and a Mormon in a liberal state, Romney
needs to show that he can work well with the gay
community.”

As for his
newfound status as the state’s golden-boy politico,
Guerriero, who is single, has bigger things on his
mind. “I find the attention flattering,”
he says. “But I think people are really looking for
new energy and passion, and I think I bring that to
the ticket. That has more to do with having a message
and being able to articulate it than about pure
attractiveness, whatever that is. I spend a lot more time
polishing my position on taxes than deciding what
shirt I’m going to wear in the morning.”