HOUSTON — Frank Ricchiazzi has been a Republican a lot longer than he's been out of the closet. But the Orange County resident, one of only two openly gay men among more than 4,400 delegates and alternates at the Republican National Convention, was none too pleased Monday with his party.
As the convention kicked off its four-day run in Houston, the GOP approved a platform that includes a "family values" section that critics like Ricchiazzi suggest is tainted with homophobia.
Ricchiazzi is irked that the platform rejects calls for legal protection on the basis of sexual orientation. And he is perturbed that the document contains no mention of homosexuality in a section on the AIDS crisis. Instead, the platform is laced with references to maintaining "traditional" marriages and family values.
"I believe the Republican Party has given the religious right 100% carte blanche on this platform," said Ricchiazzi, a resident of Laguna Beach who spends his weekdays in Sacramento as assistant director of the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"I believe there's got to be room for everyone--from gays to evangelicals--in this party," he said. "This is America."
For Ricchiazzi, 47, the convention has already been a mixture of triumph and testiness. Along with his objection to the platform, he has gone head-to-head in several animated, hotel-corridor discussions with the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, leader of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition.
Ricchiazzi, an alternate delegate, also has had to put up with recent anti-gay remarks from George Bush--his president, the leader of his party.
But the mere presence of Ricchiazzi at the convention, his first, provides hope for him that the Republican Party's much ballyhooed "big tent" is more than mere hyperbole.
"There's a lot of people here who--when they see me, talk to me, hear what I'm all about--may have to question their stereotypes," said Ricchiazzi, a short, energetic man who sports wire rims and a neatly trimmed mustache. "And the only way to make change is from the inside."
Ricchiazzi has been willing to work from within the system since his days in Buffalo, N.Y., where he grew up in a large, extended Italian family in a neighborhood where "if your name wasn't Ricchiazzi, Iacobocci, Mazzatelli, you were the foreigner."
He became a Republican "about the time that (George S.) McGovern opened his mouth" as the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee. A Vietnam veteran, Ricchiazzi said he was already growing jaded about the party when troops were sent to war "by liberal Democrats" and told "to put one hand behind our backs while we fought."
His youth was spent confused about girls and his sexual orientation. When he finally "came out" in his mid-30s, relatives surprised Ricchiazzi and accepted his sexuality.
Ricchiazzi said he initially found that same acceptance in Republican circles. After he migrated to California and began earning a steady income investing in apartments and office buildings, Ricchiazzi dove into GOP party activities in Los Angeles County.
He ran for Assembly in 1982, chaired a local Republican group, got appointed by former Gov. George Deukmejian to a state motor vehicle department oversight board and has held prominent positions with the Log Cabin Federation, a national gay Republican club. He got the nod from Gov. Pete Wilson for the DMV post in February.
At first, he said, everyone in the Republican Party "knew I was gay and didn't give a damn." But now it's different: Being gay "became an issue when this extreme religious right wing got into the party during the 1980s and made it an issue," he said.
"I'm very angry," he said. "To me it's unconscionable that the President of the United States has listened to that bigotry and is intimidated and afraid to sit down with loyal Republicans who happen to be gay."