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COLUMN ONE : Pariahs in Their Own Party : Gay and lesbian Republicans are dismayed to find the GOP becoming increasingly hostile as '96 nears. Some struggle for acceptance, but others feel betrayed and are ending a lifetime allegiance.

October 06, 1995|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ritch Colbert, natural-born Republican, begged his puzzled parents a generation ago for a trip to San Francisco to hear his hero Barry Goldwater campaign for President. When the 8-year-old got home, he marched the streets of liberal Marin County, hefting a campaign poster stapled to a broomstick--a one-boy Barry Brigade.

Last week, Colbert led a lonely march of a different stripe when he took to a podium in Palm Desert at the California Republican Party Convention. His task at what he called this "history-making" workshop: to help explain gay and lesbian Republicans to a party that increasingly is defining itself in opposition to them.

If anything, however, the workshop underscored the continuing isolation of gay men and lesbians within the GOP--it attracted little more than a dozen like-minded audience members. Most of the 2,000 conventioneers, who packed into a huge auditorium for Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed's speech the following morning, were oblivious to the workshop.

Social-issue conservatives such as Reed are on a roll within the party. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole--the front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination--has openly turned his back on gay and lesbian support. And Colbert and thousands of Republicans like him are left to confront dual challenges.

Politically, they must persuade an increasingly hostile party to accept them. Meanwhile, they must live in a gay community that often ridicules them as sellouts, an environment that has traditionally been liberal and largely Democratic.

As they face these realities, gay and lesbian Republicans have to answer a question that Gary DePew, 34, a Van Nuys film producer, asks himself a lot these days: "What does the party have to offer me?"

His answer reflects what many say: "I'm not sure at the moment."

"I participate in Republican politics because I think I have a lot to offer them," DePew says. "It's no secret that the Republican Party is kowtowing to the radical right. . . . I'm not so much looking to reconcile myself with the party. I'm hoping to work within the party to help it reconcile with itself."

While political scientists figure that 25% to 33% of gay voters--motivated by economics, by broader ideology or simply by habit--cast their ballots for GOP candidates, gay Republican activists acknowledge that some of their ranks are peeling away from the party and heading off into the hazy world of "independent" and "decline to state."

For many, the struggle to reconcile a gay identity with a Republican ideology has proven impossible. Marvin Liebman--for 30 years part of America's conservative fabric--has found that out the hard way. Liebman, 72, announced his homosexuality in the pages of friend William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review in 1990 and published "Coming Out Conservative" two years later. In 1995, he called it quits; he is a casualty, he says, of the radical right.

"I am conservative, Republican, and Christian," Liebman wrote early this year in the Advocate, the leading magazine serving the gay community. "God knows, I'm gay too. Isn't it possible to be all four, or have I become a living oxymoron? The answer eluded me for some time but is now obvious: No, it is not possible--at least for me--not in today's world."

*

Five years ago, when Liebman had his public coming out, the conjunction was not yet quite so difficult. The political parties had yet to become so polarized on the issue of gay rights.

Patrick J. Buchanan had not yet mesmerized a wildly applauding 1992 Republican convention by unleashing the "religious war going on in this country for the soul of America." "Family values" had barely entered the nation's cultural conversation. The Democrats had only begun the courtship of gay voters that blossomed with Bill Clinton's promises during the '92 campaign to accelerate the war on AIDS, which he largely fulfilled, and the promise to lift the ban on gays in the military, which he ultimately broke.

These days, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile homosexuality and Republican ideology. Today, prominent Republicans openly compete to be known as the staunchest opponent of what some conservatives label the "gay agenda."

Around the edges of the party, social-conservative groups attack gays with a harsh rhetoric that has otherwise largely disappeared from American politics. And among leaders of the conservative movement, who make at least some effort to woo blacks and women, there is little regret that Republican gays feel increasingly alienated from the party.

"Their votes are welcome," says Robert Maginnis, policy analyst for the conservative Family Research Council. "But to give the state sanction to them is completely contrary to the moral heritage of the nation."

Reactions like that--voiced by the loudest if not the largest segment of the GOP--set gays and lesbians apart from even Republicans who support abortion rights in their isolation and vulnerability within the party that represents them.

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