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COLUMN LEFT / LINDA R. HIRSHMAN : This Year's GOP Target: Gay Men? : There's every indication that Bush's campaign surrogates will take aim at homosexual rights.

August 02, 1992|LINDA R. HIRSHMAN | Linda R. Hirshman is a professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law of the Illinois Institute of Technology and a panelist on the public radio show, "Inside Politics."

A gay man employed until recently by the Bush campaign went public several days ago with claims that he had been forced out because the campaign is becoming dominated by gay-bashing religious fundamentalists. This news reveals something about what the Republicans' political shock troops will look like this year.

In 1988, we saw the notorious "Willie Horton" ad, linking hapless Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis to the black rapist his Massachusetts prison system had released. The ad had everything: ordinary race hate, pictures of the softie Democrats and the powerful sexual undertones of racism. Who will the Willie Horton of the 1992 campaign be? There have been hints since the Democrats started taking the lead in the polls, but by now the answer seems obvious. He will be a gay male.

Bush-Quayle staffer Tyler Franz's story was just the latest indication of what's up. I got a whiff of the Bush campaign's strategy at a television appearance by vice-presidential candidate Al Gore right after his selection. Almost the first question from panelist and sometime Republican campaign adviser George Will was about Gore's position on gay rights. Did Gore believe "that homosexuals had a right to their life-style like any other life-style?" Will asked the would-be vice president. Since Gore had little record of involvement with the subject, the question seemed bizarre. Gore is an educated man; he answered that he doubted homosexuality was a freely chosen life-style, and the interview went on without extensive discussion of the issue.

A few days later, Utah Sen. Jake Garn, in his role as offensive lineman for George Bush, called the Clinton/Gore ticket "pretty boys"--not the first description that comes to mind for two married, middle-aged national political candidates with five children between them. But if you understand the coded language of negative campaigning, the message is clear--pretty boys are associated with homosexuals.

There were press reports a few weeks ago that a "senior campaign official" (who dared not speak his name) admitted explicitly that the Bush campaign intended to use the gay issue against Clinton. And one who did give his name, senior adviser Charles Black, accused Clinton of having "a gay agenda," despite the general lack of gay issues in the campaign.

Maybe it won't work. Sadly, American society is so segregated by race that often white Americans hardly know their black fellow citizens. By contrast, gay men are not strangers to the American electorate; they are brothers, neighbors, co-workers and friends. When the Bush campaign asks Americans to hate and fear gay men, it is these familiar people they demonize. Moreover, perhaps because they are not concentrated in the working class, gay men are not seen as an economic threat.

Because most Americans know gay men, they can distinguish between the sexuality of gays and willful acts like the commission of violent crimes. Despite the political profit the Bush campaign made of the Horton case, the Dukakis campaign could not avoid the fact that Willie Horton committed a horrible rape. Bill Clinton, who prosecuted his own brother for drug offenses, is hardly going to be vulnerable to charges that he's soft on crime.

Perhaps because the Bush presidency has not taken a hard line against gays, the Bush campaign is under pressure from the right to do so. But even if Bush won again, besides whatever damage his campaign would do by using gays as campaign fodder, it's hard to envision how the Bush Administration could promise its supporters to repress the gay "lifestyle."

The laws against sodomy are state laws, like most criminal law. In many states they have been repealed, and in the states where such laws haven't been repealed, they are essentially unenforced. Although the Supreme Court refused to strike down such laws as unconstitutional a few years ago, the justices made it pretty clear that they would treat the issue quite differently if states were throwing people in jail for homosexual conduct. The picture of the United States government monitoring private sexual conduct for homosexual acts under some new federal criminal scheme does not have a lot of appeal, especially to anti-government conservatives who make up a big part of Bush's vote.

Nor should it work. Gay-baiting and gay-bashing have been tried often by desperate politicians, and the history of this century has shown repeatedly that the course of such hate, once unleashed, is difficult to predict--or control.

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