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The new face of
gay conservatives

The new face of
gay conservatives

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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

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."

Advocate Magazine - KehlaniAdvocate Magazine - Gus Kenworthy

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