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Bushwhacked again

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

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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