Cabin Fever

Patrick Guerriero, executive director of conservative gay rights group Log Cabin Republicans, has been getting asked one particularly humorous question a lot these days: "So who are you going to vote for? John Kerry or Ralph Nader?" After all, he and his group of gay Republicans have seemingly been hung out to dry by the Bush administration and its backers in Congress. This week Republican leaders in the U.S. Senate pushed for but failed to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. A procedural vote on the proposal needed 60 votes to pass but went down on Wednesday by a vote of 48 votes backing the amendment to 50 against. Still, Guerriero and his fellow gay conservatives have been left feeling beleaguered by all the antigay rhetoric that surrounded the Senate debate. "I do a lot of soul-searching," Guerriero admitted. "Our membership is ticked off."

Mind you, that does not mean Guerriero is going to leave his Log Cabin post or the Republican Party. Growing up in a middle-class Boston suburb, he 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 has refused to stay in the closet and has been successful. However, he is furious that the GOP – of which he and others have remained loyal to for so long – seems to be completely shunning gay men and lesbians while catering to a far-right agenda in which advocating the opposition of gay rights has become a favored means for raising campaign funds.

Guerriero, who declined to tell Advocate.com how he will vote in the upcoming presidential election, said he was heartened this week by a group of moderate Republican senators, including Arizona's John McCain, Maine's Olympia Snowe, and Rhode's Lincoln Chafee, who refused to support the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. In fact, such senators, who did not want the Constitution tampered with, were key to ensuring that the measure died. In a stirring floor speech McCain said, "The constitutional amendment we're debating today strikes me as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans." He added that the amendment "usurps from the states a fundamental authority they have always possessed and imposes a federal remedy for a problem that most states do not believe confronts them."

The developments provided an embarrassing defeat for Bush and the Republican leadership, including majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who were advocating for the measure. "What we've seen in the last several days is that there are voices that will stand up against intolerance and actually take a different position than their president and their leadership in the midst of an election year," Guerriero said.

With questions about the war in Iraq, terrorism, and the economy looming large in this election year, many voters and lawmakers have seemed unconcerned about marriage rights for gay men and lesbians. Antigay groups and lawmakers have been hoping to turn the issue of same-sex marriage into the next "abortion issue." During debate on the amendment proposal, Santorum pleaded with his fellow lawmakers that "the future of our country hangs in the balance because the future of marriage hangs in the balance. Isn't that the ultimate homeland security – standing up and defending marriage?" But this week he and other amendment supporters learned that if there had been an up-or-down vote on the bill, as many as 60 senators were prepared to vote against it. So they turned to a procedural vote instead.

The week definitely had its bizarre moments as gay-hating senators tried to push through the FMA. In a move to get "celebrities" to show their support for the amendment, Santorum held a press conference and could only coax such people as actor Dean Jones (Herbie, the Love Bug) and singer Pat Boone. The press release chimed in that Boone is "the second most popular singer in the United States in the 1950s – second only to Elvis Presley." Meanwhile, Republican senator John Cornyn of Texas told an audience that gay marriage "does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle. But that does not mean it is right.... Now you must raise your children up in a world where that union of man and box turtle is on the same legal footing as man and wife."

In August, around the time of the Republican national convention, the Log Cabin Republicans' board will decide whether to endorse Bush. In 2000 it did endorse him, estimating that about 1 million conservative gay men and lesbians voted for the president. Back then, however, Log Cabin stated it believed the president when he said he was a compassionate conservative and "a uniter, not a divider"; his position at the time was that same-sex marriage should be handled at the state level, as opposed to the form of an amendment. After Log Cabin endorsed a more gay-friendly John McCain during the Republican primary campaign, an informal group of conservative gay men and lesbians known as the Austin 12 acted as a kind of sounding board for the Bush-Cheney campaign. The president said he was a "better man" for the interaction, and gay rights groups hoped that Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, Mary, would speak out for equality. Openly gay congressman Jim Kolbe of Arizona subsequently spoke at the Republican national convention.

Four years later, however, not one of the Austin 12 is publicly supporting Bush. And most Log Cabin members are falling into the same boat. "I think that our membership is at a boiling point," Guerriero said. At the group's convention in Palm Springs, Calif., earlier this year, he noted that Log Cabin members were still almost evenly split on whether to vote for Bush. Now they are more against the president than they've ever been. "We always thought that the worst the president would do is support the amendment but do it behind the scenes," he said.

What may have been the final nail in the coffin for many conservative gay men and lesbians was Bush's weekly radio address last Saturday when he talked about the need for senators to support the FMA. "He greatly jeopardized any chance of a formal endorsement," said Guerriero. "It was a watershed moment. What was remarkable was that there was not even any tolerance in the address. There was nothing saying that he respected all families or the Employee Non-Discrimination Act or hate-crimes legislation. All he used was the lexicon of the far right and did not even give a bone to gay and lesbian families. It was a slap in the face."

Openly gay Washington, D.C., city council member David Catania, who was one of the Austin 12, left the Republican Party in disgust several months ago and now says he plans to vote for John Kerry. "I want to say that Patrick Guerriero is doing the best job that he can, and it's important to have our voices in both parties," he said. "However, my gag reflexes have expired and I'm not longer able to listen to the rhetoric of the Republican Party. I feel like Tom Hanks in the movie The Terminal. I no longer have a home." Catania said it won't necessarily be the loss of conservative gay men and lesbians that will hurt Bush in the election, but their friends and family members who no longer feel they can vote for him.

Whatever the amendment's future in Congress, there were signs its supporters intended to use it in campaigns already unfolding. "The institution of marriage is under fire from extremist groups in Washington, politicians, even judges who have made it clear that they are willing to run over any state law defining marriage," South Dakota Republican senatorial candidate John Thune said in a radio commercial airing in his state. "They have done it in Massachusetts, and they can do it here," added Thune, who is challenging Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle for his seat. "Thune's ad suggests that some are using this amendment more to protect the Republican majority than to protect marriage," said Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for Daschle's campaign.

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