The gay Republican moment

    Much has been written lately about the historic court decision that tossed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” onto the ash heap of history. And so much has happened. Last month, federal judge Virginia Phillips ruled that it was unconstitutional to force gay military people to stay in the closet while serving their country. Three days ago, Phillips issued an injunction ordering the military to allow its gay personnel to serve openly – effective immediately. Yesterday, President Obama’s Justice Department asked the judge to rescind her injunction; the department said it plans to appeal her historic ruling.

    And the group that triggered this whole chain of events, by suing six years ago to end the government’s stay-in-the-closet policy, told the press yesterday: “We are not surprised by the government’s action, as it repeats the broken promises and empty words from President Obama avowing to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ while directing his Justice Department to defend this unconstitutional policy…We will oppose it vigorously because brave, patriotic gays and lesbians are serving in our armed forces to fight for all of our constitutional rights, while government is denying them theirs.”

    So said the Log Cabin Republicans. I confess that I never expected to see the day when a major event would hinge on the actions of the Log Cabin Republicans. So let’s pause to recognize and praise them, if only because they’re finally garnering respect in high places after many long years of being kicked around.

    After all, what could be more out of place in polarized Washington than a group comprised of gay Republicans? The mainstream GOP, at the insistence of the religious right, has frequently disrespected them. And most gay people, being Democrats, have typically dissed the Log Cabin Republicans as a bunch of Uncle Toms.

    Ever since the group was founded in 1977, there have been some very embarrassing incidents. I’ve covered several of them. For instance, during the summer of 1995, the group donated $1000 to ’96 Republican presidential front-runner Bob Dole. The Dole campaign cashed the check. But when news of the donation soon surfaced in the press, and the religious right predictably squawked, Dole hurriedly returned the money.

    Meanwhile, Dole’s aides behaved as if the Log Cabin group was a foul substance that needed to be scraped off their shoes; in their words, “If we had known they were a gay group, we would not have accepted the check.” That was a lie; they knew full well that the Log Cabineers were gay. Dole himself had worked with the group while co-sponsoring an AIDS assistance bill. Dole’s chief of staff had lauded Log Cabin director Rich Tafel as “an articulate, terrific spokesman” for the view that Republicans should be more tolerant toward gays.

    Log Cabin was led by guys in coats and ties who supported balanced budgets and Newt Gingrich’s fiscally conservative Contract with America, but that got them nowhere with the religious conservatives who cracked the whip backstage. This was clear again during the 2000 GOP primary season, when candidate George W. Bush kept spurning Log Cabin’s request for a friendly meeting. Bush was loathe to defy the sentiments of the “family values” crowd; indeed, Log Cabin had been dissed only two years earlier, when the Texas Republican party had refused to allow the group to set up a booth at the annual state convention.

    Bush had already publicly stated that he didn’t want to meet with Log Cabin because “it creates a huge political scene…a huge political, you know, nightmare for people.” Log Cabin was clearly out of sync with the prevailing Republican vibe; in early 2000, conservative primary voters received anonymous messages that targeted Bush’s chief opponent, John McCain, as “the fag candidate.” (The Bush camp denied any involvement.)

    In the end, however, Bush changed his mind – he was taking heat for not being the “compassionate” conservative he claimed to be – and in April 2000 he did meet with some gay Republicans. But Rich Tafel, the Log Cabin director, was not invited to the meeting, apparently because the Bush team was miffed that Tafel had previously assailed Bush for sucking up to the religious right.

    When Log Cabin sued in 2004 to abolish DADT, few people paid much attention. The group was also hit hard by the great recession, which forced its major donors to shut their checkbooks. Yet today, Log Cabin is navigating in friendlier waters – even within the GOP. The party’s traditional anti-gay rhetoric is far more muted this year. One prominent Republican, ex-Bush strategist Ken Mehlman, has come out of the closet and spoken in favor of gay marriage. Former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt has urged the party to endorse that issue.

    And last month, conservative Texas Sen. John Cornyn appeared for the first time at Log Cabin event – after having frequently turned down such invitations, as well as Log Cabin donations, in the past. Cornyn, who chairs the GOP’s effort to retake the Senate, took heat from the right-wing Family Research Council, which assailed his decision to attend as “deeply troubling,” given the gay community’s “debasement of our culture,” but Cornyn said in response that “respecting each other’s dignity” was important.

    That marks a big sea change for the group. So does the federal court case, which has done more to abolish DADT than any Democratic initiative. It just goes to show that, in politics, you never know.

    During the Dole debacle 15 years ago, Rich Tafel told me, “We don’t go stew in a corner. There’s always tomorrow in politics.” For Log Cabin, tomorrow is now.

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