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Considering her woeful lack of experience with gay issues, what can we really expect from Sarah Palin?

When John McCain announced Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in late August, the response was near-universal astonishment. With no foreign policy credentials, next to no national profile, and having served in the statehouse for less than two years, Palin has such a thin record -- both legislatively and in terms of public statements -- that it's difficult to predict just what sort of vice president (or, given McCain's advanced age, president) she might soon become. As for issues affecting gay Americans, there's only a handful of legal decisions -- made early in her tenure as governor -- that can help us divine where she stands.

A self-described "hockey mom," hunting enthusiast, and evangelical Christian, Palin has been reared in the political culture of Alaska. It's a state whose politics is defined at times by a libertarian, live-and-let-live approach that fits naturally with frontier existence and at times by a more intrusive, religiously grounded conservatism brought by the Southerners and Westerners who swarmed the state in the 1970s and '80s for jobs in the booming oil industry. In 1996 the Alaska state legislature passed a law stipulating that marriage can exist only between people of opposite genders. A gay couple sued the state on the basis that the measure was discriminatory. Two years later, 68% of voters approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, making Alaska the first state to amend its constitution this way.

Palin, then mayor of Wasilla -- a city about 40 miles north of Anchorage with a population of less than 10,000 -- supported the marriage amendment, as did most of the state's politicians. And she continued to solidify her reputation as a traditional, "family values" conservative as her political career took off. Running for governor in 2006, she announced her opposition to a 2005 Alaska supreme court ruling that ordered the state government to offer health and retirement benefits to the domestic partners of its employees; her Democratic opponent, former governor Tony Knowles, supported the ruling. In a questionnaire provided by the Alaska chapter of the Eagle Forum, the socially conservative lobbying organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly, Palin listed "preserving the definition of 'marriage' as defined in our constitution" as one of her highest priorities.

Palin won the gubernatorial election comfortably -- and one of her first acts in office was to veto a bill that would have blocked those court-ordered benefits for same-sex couples. The move is now cited as an example of her "inclusiveness," but she made it only under the advisement of the attorney general, who said the bill violated the state constitution's equal protection clause. In a statement released in conjunction with the veto, Palin made clear her continued opposition to domestic-partner benefits: "Signing this bill would be in direct violation of my oath of office," she said, emphasizing that her rejection of the bill was purely legalistic and ought not to be taken as a sign of any newfound support for gay rights.

Palin's gay supporters stress, however, that whatever her motives for rejecting the bill, the governor still did the right thing. "She opposed the ruling and said that the rule of law was paramount to her own views," says Jamie Hobson, who grew up in Alaska and volunteered in Palin's 2006 gubernatorial campaign. Hobson, now a senior at Northern Arizona University, says that no one working on the campaign had issues with his homosexuality, and he defends Palin's record as governor. "I hear people say she's really homophobic, she's a creationist, a religious nut case," he says. "She may believe some of those things, but she's never pushed that agenda down our throats." Hobson has a point. For all the p

caricaturing of her as a backward Bible-thumper in recent weeks, there's little evidence from Palin's (albeit short) tenure as governor that shows she has attempted to foist a conservative religious political agenda on the state. For instance, she hasn't nominated advocates of creationism to the board of education; nor has she pressured the board to add the teaching of Genesis to school curriculums. (Palin did, however, impose her politics on the church when she called construction on the Trans-Alaska pipeline "God's will" and asked people to pray for federal funding during a June address to the Wasilla Assembly of God Church.)

Days before her veto of the bill that would have banned domestic-partner benefits, Palin called for a statewide "advisory vote" to determine whether to hold a referendum to overturn the supreme court's 2005 ruling in favor of same-sex couples. Fifty-three percent of voters supported the referendum, but the proposal never gained traction in the legislature and Palin didn't pursue it further. Hobson says gay people should give her credit for that decision, especially given her wildly high approval ratings in the state, which stand near 80%. "She has the political capital to push the issue," he says. The fact that she hasn't seems to suggest she might not be the religious extremist her detractors paint her to be. "She has basically ignored social issues, period," Gregg Erickson, an economist and columnist with the Alaska Budget Report, told the Associated Press.

Still, Palin's religious affiliations have been troubling to gay activists. In early September the Associated Press reported that the Wasilla Bible Church, her home church, recently promoted an "ex-gay" conference oranized by the antigay evangelical group Focus on the Family. Palin hasn't commented publicly on such organizations and their controversial methods, but during the 2006 gubernatorial race she acknowledged that she didn't know whether people choose to be gay. "Wasilla sort of has the reputation of Appalachia," says Allison Mendel, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the domestic-partner benefits case. "Even for Alaska it's kind of backward."

Back when Palin was mayor, the Wasilla Assembly of God Church pushed for the removal of several books from the local library--including one titled Pastor, I Am Gay. According to press at the time, Wasilla librarian Mary Ellen Emmons said Palin asked her how she would respond to requests to remove books from the library's shelves. Emmons said that she wouldn't comply. While Palin did not name specific books to be removed, she did fire the librarian a few weeks later. (Emmons was reinstated after a community uproar.)

There's no doubt gay conservatives have been warming to Palin. On August 29, the day her selection was announced, Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Sammon released a statement praising her as an "inclusive Republican who will help Senator McCain appeal to gay and lesbian voters." Log Cabin announced its long-expected endorsement of McCain (his steadfast opposition to the Federal Marriage Amendment endeared him early to the organization) four days later at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

Beth Kerttula, the Democratic minority leader in the Alaska house of representatives, says that she hasn't had any conversations with Palin about gay rights, and her minimal public record makes it difficult to predict how she would act in the White House. But she adds, "given the governor's stand on [reproductive] choice and other issues, I'd be suspicious of where she stood [on gay issues]."

Several news outlets have reported Palin's assertion, made during the gubernatorial campaign, that she "has gay friends." Finding these individuals has been difficult. "We don't know anything about that friend," says Marsha Buck, president of the Anchorage-based gay rights group Alaskans Together for Equality. "If that friend or those friends are Alaskans, we don't know anything about them. We're wondering maybe if it's a friend who lives in the lower 48." Asked about Palin's alleged gay friends, Mendel laughs and says, "Don't you hate that? 'Some of my best friends...' "

Indeed, only one of the Alaskans interviewed for this piece claims to know the identity of any of Palin's gay friends. Douglas Locke, owner of the Kodiak Bar and Grill, a gay hangout in Anchorage, says he knows "a gay guy who knows her" and that "he says she's as sweet as pie around gay people." Yet, when asked if he thought his friend would be willing to talk about his relationship with Palin, Locke said his friend told him no.

At press time, the Palin selection has proved a brilliant political move on McCain's part. It has energized the GOP's conservative base and enlivened the race like no other VP selection could have. The relentless media speculation about Palin's family in the days leading up to her convention address stirred nationwide curiosity, leading to over 40 million viewers--far more than her Democratic counterpart Joe Biden earned, and only about a million shy of the audience who tuned in for Barack Obama's historic acceptance speech. But Buck says that Palin's freshness on the national political stage and the McCain campaign's tight control of her media appearances are causing many people--including anxious gay voters--to project views onto the governor that they want her to share but which she may not necessarily hold. "Her silence is being interpreted as friendliness," Buck says, "and we in the gay community should interpret that as we don't know where she stands."

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