The G.O.P.'s "Kinder, Gentler" Gay Bashing

On June 15, conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams asked his guest a very blunt question: "Is homosexuality a sin?"With candor unbecoming of a politician, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) responded, "Yes, it is." Lott then compared homosexuality to kleptomania, sex addiction and alcoholism, saying "There are all sorts of problems and addictions, and difficulties and experiences of this kind that are wrong. But you should try to work with that person to control that problem."Thus began the far right's latest attack on the gay and lesbian community. Veiling the assault with rhetoric suggesting that homosexuality is a curable disease or a sinful lifestyle choice, conservative Republicans have initiated a new, different, and very subtle anti-gay agenda."The recent attacks on gays, including Senator Lott's statements, represent a highly sophisticated new direction for the far right," said Robert Bray, former media director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF). "The Republicans have moved away from old-school gay bashing -- painting gays as child molesters or sexual deviants -- and instead are taking a softer approach."Lott's highly publicized remarks provoked immediate rebuttal from politicians and civil rights activists. With unusually direct language, the White House called Lott's comments "backward in thinking" and "an indicator of how difficult it is to do rational work in Washington." Lott's fellow Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she was "shocked" by his comments and flatly disagreed with his conclusions. Some gay rights leaders were less kind in their choice of words."The profound ignorance reflected by Senator Trent Lott's comments brings disrepute on his office and seriously erodes his leadership in the Senate," said Kate Kendell, Executive Director of the NGLTF. "He is an embarrassment to Congress and the Republican party."Despite the vigorous protests, Lott's statements found hearty support from fellow Republicans and the religious right. Galvanized by Lott's comments, a coalition of 15 organizations lead by the Family Research Council and the Christian Coalition ran a series of full-page advertisements in the "New York Times," the "Washington Post" and "USA Today." The ads featured testimony from "ex-gays" like Anne Paulk ("wife, mother, former lesbian") who have "walked away from their homosexual identities." Like Lott's comments, the ads veiled their homophobia by portraying homosexuality as a disease or a shortcoming that can be overcome through religious salvation. By speaking about homosexuality in more nurturing terms, the 15-organization coalition hopes to take the edge off a divisive issue and broaden the appeal of its anti-gay agenda.The recent attacks also attempt to pit minorities against each other. The far right coalition has skillfully introduced the issue of race into its agenda by using African-American minister and ex-football pro Reggie White in two of the anti-gay advertisements. Under an imposing picture of White in his Green Bay Packer's uniform, White was quoted as saying, "I've been called homophobic. I've been called stupid. I've been called unintelligent, and I've been called a nigger by so-called gay activists.""Reggie White's quote saying he has been called a 'nigger' by gay activists seems a despicable attempt to obscure the homophobia in this ad campaign by playing the ultimate race card," said Willa Taylor, chair of the National Black Lesbian and Gay Leadership Forum. "This is just the right's latest outrageous attempt to split the black community along gay and straight lines."Meanwhile, Sen. Lott is backing his anti-gay comments with action -- or, more accurately, inaction. For more than eight months, Lott has been using his power as majority leader to block the Senate vote confirming philanthropist James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel, who is openly gay and a leading supporter of gay rights, was nominated by President Clinton and approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last November. Although Sen. Feinstein, who has been leading the lobbying efforts on Hormel's behalf, claims that Hormel has more than enough support in the Senate, she cannot get Lott to schedule the necessary vote.Hormel's blocked confirmation is but one of the anti-gay measures being pushed right now by Republicans in Congress. Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) has drafted an amendment that would forbid the federal treasury from spending any money to enforce President Clinton's executive order barring discrimination against gays in the government. Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Calif.) authored a different amendment that would preclude San Francisco's unmarried domestic partners -- often gay couples -- from receiving the same benefits as married couples. And Republicans in the House Judiciary Committee are expected to attempt to strike down an amendment that would include sexual orientation under the federal hate crimes law.In addition to the newspaper and congressional battles, the anti-gay attacks are spreading to television. America's fifth major broadcast television network, "Pax Net" (named after its founder, conservative TV executive Lowell Paxson) will hit the airwaves on August 31. Pax Net's covertly religious agenda was articulated in a recent series of ads that lambasted other television networks for promoting "alternatives lifestyles" and "bizarre and depressing views of families." Aware that "alternative lifestyle" is not-so-subtle code for homosexuality, gays and lesbians have good reason to rue Pax Net's arrival.Do all these attacks on gay rights reflect an increasingly homophobic America? Not at all.A recent study of American attitudes towards gays and lesbians, commissioned by the NGLTF, found that disapproval of homosexuality has dropped nearly 20 percentage points since its peak of 75 percent in the late 1980s. And although 56 percent of the population still disapproves of homosexuality, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that gays should have equal rights."On every single kind of question," said Urvashi Vaid, director of the NGLTF's Policy Institute, "public opinion towards gay and lesbian people is moving towards acceptance."Why, then, are gay rights being threatened more now than ever before? Many observers believe that these attacks are part of an orchestrated Republican agenda that has more to do with the upcoming November elections than with any moral concerns. Fully aware that gays and lesbians remain one of the least liked groups in the country, the radical right is hoping to drum up political support based on homophobia and fear."It is not coincidental that Hefley's amendment is happening with the fall elections upon us," said Tracey Conaty, a spokesperson for the NGLTF. "It is an effort to score cheap political points against a minority community.""Lott's mean-spirited pronouncements are part of an escalating pattern of political gay-baiting, carefully calculated to raise money and energize extremist voters as we near the November elections," stated Brian Bond, Executive Director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund.Reactions like these have come from outside the gay and lesbian community as well. A "New York Times" editorial, called "The History Behind Trent Lott," drew explicit connection between Lott's comments and the political aspirations of the Republican party."Starting about 20 years ago," said the July 10 editorial, "evangelical Christians began shedding their traditional aversion to political activism. In the South especially, they have flooded into the electoral process, settling mainly in the Republican party... Suddenly, a party that had been centered on economic issues and anti-Communism, and that first began to court the Southern vote in the days of segregation, found that its best new troops had concerns other than race: prayer in schools, abortion and opposition to gay rights." Citing three notable examples in which Republican candidates won elections on anti-homosexuality platforms, the editorial implied that Lott and other Republicans have similar intentions of courting the anti-gay vote.Other observers speculate that the recent attacks are designed to test out the potentially effective -- but politically sensitive -- anti-homosexual agenda. On July 15, the "Washington Post" reported, "The 15 religious organizations... have different motivations for escalating their campaign against homosexuality. Those with stronger political leanings envision the campaign as a kind of political litmus test to force candidates to be more public with their views on homosexuality."If the attacks were, as the Post speculated, a "political litmus test," conservative Republicans may choose to ease off the anti-homosexual agenda come November. Judging from the vigorous responses to the advertisement campaign, Hormel's stalled confirmation and Lott's comments, Republicans may have found that being anti-gay is less popular than they had hoped."These comments are out-of-step with the American people and prevailing medical and mental health opinion," said Winnie Stachelberg, Political Director of the Human Rights Campaign. Data from the NGLTF study supports Stachelberg's assertion; while 56 percent of the population may not approve of homosexuality, far fewer believe in discrimination. Professor Alan Wolf, one of the study's prime authors, described this dichotomy as the "soft homophobic position." According to Wolf, Americans believe, "sure, gays should have rights. We all have rights. We should respect gays. But if what you're asking is for me, Mr. Average American, to say yes, your lifestyle is the moral equivalent of mine, that I'm not willing to do."Other gay rights organizations have issued angrier responses that may dissuade Republicans from pursuing the anti-gay vote. The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund called "on the Senate to repudiate [Lott's] ignorant attack by taking real action for lesbian and gay civil rights." The International Foundation for Gender Education even responded to Lott's comments with a call for direct political pressure: "It's time for all good Americans to send a strong message to our political leaders that they are not elected to judge us based on our affectional orientation. The government has no place in our bedrooms, and Trent Lott's bigoted beliefs about homosexuality should not be allowed to affect anyone else."Not only has the backlash come hard and fast, but it has come from all angles -- including from within the Republican party."Senator Lott has insulted every gay person in the Republican Party," said a statement released by the Log Cabin Republicans, a faction of gay G.O.P. members. "One of his Senate colleagues needs to pull Lott aside and remind him that he is not the majority leader of Mississippi -- he's just Majority Leader of the United States Senate. Whether it's ignorance on his part or blatant pandering to [Focus on the Family's] James Dobson and the radical right, it's wrong and it will cost the party if it continues."Even conservative Republicans have expressed concern over the recent attacks. Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I don't believe the party is likely to grow stronger or our voters more numerous through attacks on minorities, whether they be sexual minorities or religious or racial minorities."The backlash may be registering. A July 22 "Washington Post" article reported that even the most vocally anti-gay Republicans have become tight-lipped about the subject."As the House prepares to take up several gay rights measures this week," reported the Post, "a number of senior Republicans say it's an issue they'd rather not debate on the House floor." However, the unexpected silence may also be a part of an orchestrated political decision -- allowing the current controversy to die down, but with plans to re-introduce the attacks as the elections draw closer. The recent attacks may have resonated with more conservative voters, especially in the "Bible Belt" of the South and Midwest, who will be increasingly targeted as November approaches."I suspect that the far Right will run another anti-gay campaign right before the November elections," said Bray, now the director of the San Francisco-based SPIN Project. "They're trying to draw out the hardcore conservative voters who, in a mid-term election with low voter turnout, will make a crucial difference."With their sophisticated and subtle new campaign, a second round of advertisements could be a major factor in the November elections. And if so, the G.O.P.'s highly coordinated attack on gay rights -- an attack motivated by political power and based on homophobia and fear -- will have paid off.

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