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Conservatives on
the edge

Conservatives on
the edge


Hurricanes. Criminal indictments. 2,000 dead soldiers. A supreme fight over the top court. Are D.C.'s antigay leaders too busy at the moment to fight creeping equality?

In late October the Kansas supreme court issued a remarkably sensible pro-gay ruling: It struck down the portion of a state law that punished underage sex more severely if it involved homosexual acts.

The case involved Matthew Limon, who in 2000 was found guilty of performing consensual oral sex on a 14-year-old boy when Limon was 18. He was sent off to prison for 17 years. Had Limon had sex with a girl, state law would have dictated a maximum sentence of 15 months. (The statute protects heterosexual lovers when one is 18 or younger and the age difference between the two is no more than four years.) The unanimous Kansas court found that having different punishments for gay and straight sex acts was plainly unconstitutional. "Moral disapproval of a group cannot be a legitimate governmental interest," wrote Justice Marla J. Luckert for the court.

The month before, also in Kansas, the Republican chairwoman of the state legislature's committee on children's issues tabled a proposal to outlaw adoption by gays and lesbians.

And the state senate majority leader, Derek Schmidt, also Republican, was fine with that. "In the great scheme of issues that need to be resolved by the legislature, this isn't at the top of the list," Schmidt said.

Yes, this is the same state where 70% of voters in April backed an amendment to the state's constitution enshrining marriage discrimination against gays. The same state with two Republican U.S. senators who could compete for a "most antigay" award.

While the national news--along with the Bush administration--has been consumed with a series of hurricanes, indictments against top Republican operatives, eroding support for the war in Iraq, soaring gas prices and oil company profits, and controversial Supreme Court nominations, equality has been creeping in around the edges.

Even in Kansas, one of the reddest of the red states.

Other 2005 victories have also been largely unheralded by the mainstream media: Connecticut began granting same-sex civil unions without any court order to do so. Massachusetts legislators, who in 2004 had backed a constitutional amendment to overturn marriage equality there, this year soundly defeated the same measure. Tennessee ordered that a residential "reparative therapy" program for gay teens called Love in Action be closed; notorious for 16-year-old Web logger Zach Stark (enrolled by his parents against his will), it operated as a mental health services facility--and allegedly controlled access to enrollees' prescriptions--without a license. California, Washington, and Pennsylvania courts, over five cases, decreed that the parenting rights and responsibilities of a nonbiological gay or lesbian parent (including custody) continue even after their same-sex relationship disintegrates.

There's more: The best female basketball player in history came out to scant media coverage and zero backlash. About 1,000 more gay-straight alliances were established in high schools nationwide. Human Rights Campaign noted that 84% of Fortune 500 companies had antidiscrimination policies covering LGBT workers' sexual orientation. And as The Advocate went to press, activists in Maine were optimistic that a majority of voters in November would decide to retain a law banning antigay discrimination; polls at press time showed support for the law at around 60%.

Sure, there's been bad news as well, amply reported in these pages: antigay violence, legal setbacks, almost any news out of Texas. But on the national stage the thundering of the antigay far right has, for the moment, quieted to a dull roar. If you doubt that, remember the Right's grandstanding just 12 months ago, after George W. Bush won a thin majority to keep his job: "In your reelection, God has graciously granted America--though she doesn't deserve it--a reprieve from the agenda of paganism....," the president of fundamentalist Bob Jones University famously wrote to the president. "Don't equivocate. Put your agenda on the front burner and let it boil."

Well, the Bush White House has indeed been boiling over in recent weeks, but it hasn't been in the service of fighting gay and lesbian pagans. "From what we're seeing, the Republican Party is realizing if we want to stay the majority party, then we need to abandon the Right's divisive social agenda," says Christopher Barron, political director for national gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans. "I think their 15 minutes are over."

To be fair, we should note that Barron spoke before the tepid Harriet Miers was replaced by steadfast ideologue Samuel Alito as Bush's latest Supreme Court nominee. But that nomination tends to underline rather than contradict the fact that Bush and the Republican leadership have for some time been neglecting the conservative social agenda of his far-right supporters.

"The Republicans are in a whole heap of trouble [with Christian conservatives] over the Miers nomination," says Jay Campbell, a pollster with the left-leaning firm Peter D. Hart Research Associates, who says those voters "could stay home from the polls if they stay mad about Miers." After the Miers debacle, the choice of Alito appears to be less a definitive indication of the far right's influence than a make-good for promises not kept.

At the moment Bush may not have the political capital to push an antiequality agenda that--aside from marriage--most Americans oppose. In national polls, approval of Bush hovers at or below 40%, the lowest of his presidency. Only 28% of those polled think the country is heading in the right direction, according to an October NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. Such negative numbers haven't been seen regardless of party since 1993-94--just before the Republicans took over leadership of the House and Senate from the Democrats in November 1994.

Some of those hardest hit by bad news and all-consuming crises have been those best known for thumping their antigay positions: U.S. representative Tom DeLay, forced to step down as House majority leader to fight money laundering and campaign finance violations charges in Texas; U.S. Senate majority leader Bill Frist, under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible insider trading; I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, whose indictments for perjury and obstruction of justice lost him his job as chief of staff to Dick Cheney, thus severely handicapping the vice president's political machine; and Karl Rove, Bush's deputy chief of staff and the architect of the Republicans' "bash the gays" ballot-box strategy in 2004, who's still in danger of indictment by the same special prosecutor who nailed Libby.

Where we stand, then, is at a moment of opportunity for the forces of progress and fairness. Antigay political leaders are hobbled, and swing voters are ready to throw their support behind new leaders. But it's not gay rights they're worried about: It's Iraq, gas prices, hurricane relief, health care costs, and national security.

"The current political environment suggests we are ripe for change, but it is not quite as obvious what kind of change voters will want," says Amy Walter, a senior editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, which issues political analysis online.

It's equally unclear why a majority of swing voters backed Bush in 2004. The national media's Election Day exit poll showed Iraq and terrorism of equal concern to voters--just behind their chief worry, "moral values," which got the lion's share of attention. However, a month later, a poll by Pew Research Center, posing the question differently, had moral values at 9% and Iraq at 27%.

"I think a lot of people misinterpret what the voters meant by the term 'values,' " says Walters. "People think it means voters based their decision on issues like abortion and gay marriage. But in fact what they meant was [that] they respected the candidates' set of values." That includes intangibles such as honesty and integrity, measures on which the Republican leadership is now falling far short.

After all, what brought down rampaging far-right senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s was not a swell of support for the Communists and homosexuals he was rooting out of the military and the government. It was that he simply had "no sense of decency."

The 2006 midterm election is still a year away--and as this discussion itself proves, anything can happen in a year. And whether or not you view the Democrats as being more friendly to gay equality, voters abandoning the Republicans don't automatically start liking the Democrats. "Just because people are mad at their current leaders, the voters don't just wake up one morning and say I'm going to vote for candidates with a progressive agenda," Campbell says.

Gay Democrats at least smell an opening. National Stonewall Democrats executive director Eric Stern says his staffers call state party directors constantly, offering LGBT volunteers and other help. "You can bet these Democratic candidates will remember us," he says. "The American public is hungry for change. You can be certain they will take a fresh look at progressive candidates."

Gay Republicans too are optimistic. "We're starting to hear more from moderate Republicans," says Barron of Log Cabin. "They are standing up, despite the radical right." He notes that "30 Republicans voted for hate-crimes legislation that was trans-inclusive" in passing the historic bill in the U.S. House in September. "Sure, we'd love to see more than 30, but we think the number of Republicans who support us will grow."

Perhaps some of the greatest hopes for 2005 and 2006 lie not in party leaders but in gay people themselves, running for office on either ticket. Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund president Chuck Wolfe confirms that more openly gay Republicans are running for office this year than last because the political climate has improved--for instance, there's now a lack of enthusiasm for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. "No matter what party you vote for, we see that as a sign that more gay people think they can win in this climate," he says.

The fact that antigay forces continue to wield e-mail lists and budgets in the millions--compared with a tiny fraction of that for gay activist groups--is both a sobering caveat and a lesson about how the progress of equality defies number-crunching.

When Lynne Bowman of Equality Ohio goes to work, she simply walks from her kitchen to her small office at her home near Columbus. She says that when she started her organization in June, she became the state's first paid staffer for an LGBT rights organization. In contrast, her antigay counterpart, televangelist Rod Parsley of Reformation Ohio, who has the resources of his giant World Harvest Church in Columbus, launched his organization in October with $30 million in pledged support, as 2006 gubernatorial candidate J. Kenneth Blackwell (who presided over the controversial Bush-Kerry vote count as Ohio's secretary of state) stood by his side at a public ceremony. Reformation Ohio's explicit goals include "evangelizing" 1 million Ohioans, converting 100,000 to born-again Christianity, and registering 400,000 as voters.

Nevertheless, Bowman is determined to battle Parsley and his allies at a grassroots level with the simple power of the truth. "We realized that each and every one of us just has to vow to make sure that never again can we let the Right make critical decisions about our lives based on such horrible misconceptions of who we are and what our community stands for in this country," she says.

And with the national push for antigay discrimination temporarily dampened, perhaps the people at the grass roots are ready to hear that message

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