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A Leader Falls Amid a War in the House

Politics: Gay Congressman Steve Gunderson will quit, but not before writing a book.

August 25, 1996|GREGG ZOROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — Something happened just months after Steve Gunderson became the first openly gay Republican congressman by revealing his years-long romance with architect Rob Morris. Gunderson invited a close friend dying of AIDS to dinner at the exclusive Members Dining Room in the Capitol.

The man was clearly failing. He had facial lesions and carried an IV pack on his back. In a few months, he would be dead.

But shortly after this dinner, another GOP congressman--whom Gunderson, with characteristic discretion, declines to identify--approached and upbraided the Wisconsin Republican for "exposing innocent people" to the disease by allowing an AIDS-stricken man into the dining room.

The incident last year, as described by Gunderson and Morris in their new book, "House and Home" (Dutton), was a little sample of sentiment on Capitol Hill. Last month, fears about a national gay and lesbian "agenda" and the issue of same-sex marriages would move other congressmen, Democrats and Republicans alike, to all but declare war on homosexuals in House debate.

"We as legislators and leaders for the country are in the midst of chaos, an attack upon God's principles," declared Rep. Steve Buyer, (R-Ind.), during two days of emotional floor debate.

Others weighed in with warnings that gay rights groups were "scheming" to legalize same-sex marriages, that most Americans believe "homosexuality is immoral, that it is based on perversion, that it is based on lust," that the country must "take a stand." More than one cautioned that a culture that embraces homosexuality is doomed.

The result was a 342-67 vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, defining matrimony as a heterosexual union and limiting marriage rights of gay men and lesbians. It had strong bipartisan support, drawing the entire Democratic leadership. Gunderson was the only Republican to vote against it.

But even as Gunderson, 45, planned a counterattack with his book--which argues that the same "family values" cherished by conservatives can be applied to a stable gay relationship--the maelstrom consumed him. On the eve of his book tour with Morris, 36, the man he has lived with for 13 years, Gunderson announced that he would not run again for Wisconsin's Third District slot.

The reason: A warning of a well-financed hate campaign from the conservative right that would say Gunderson has AIDS, which the congressman has denied.

Gunderson's decision was sudden, unexpected and drenched in irony. His book ends on a triumphant note with Gunderson winning his eighth reelection in 1994, even after announcing to the world that he is gay. Yet the same forces that Gunderson and Morris say they defeated then are now blamed for driving him from office.

"In some ways this marks a victory for bigotry and discrimination," Gunderson said in a press release.

*

"House and Home" had no sooner reached bookstores than it began drawing fire.

"I don't think the book has a prayer of selling--totally squat," says Rep. Bob Dornan, (R-Garden Grove), chief antagonist for Gunderson both in the book and the House. "I've watched homosexual books fail and the ones that succeed in the homosexual community have to be, quote, raw, hot sex."

In the book he remains loyal to Gingrich, whom he describes as a kind of older brother, despite Gingrich's belief that homosexuality is addictive behavior, like alcoholism, rather than an innate condition.

"Friends of mine have been astonished to hear me say this, but Newt was instrumental in my coming to terms with my homosexuality," Gunderson writes. "During the 1980s, when I was still uncomfortable about being gay, Newt . . . was one of the few Republicans who plainly saw no contradiction between my being gay and my being a Republican. . . . Newt made it clear to everyone that he trusted me, enjoyed my company, respected my judgment and considered me a friend."

Newt Gingrich read "House and Home" and provided a quote for the dust jacket, a benignly worded paragraph about "true leaders" and the difficulty of balancing private and public lives.

That struggle takes up large portions of the book, with Gunderson immersing himself in politics in 1974 at age 23 while personally tormented by his attraction to men. The turmoil continues through his 1980 election to Congress at age 29.

Finally in 1982, after yet another unremarkable date with a woman, a voice calls on Gunderson to accept "the person I made you to be." For the deeply religious Republican, the epiphany resolves his personal chaos.

Morris would enter his life within a year in a chance meeting at a gay bar in Washington. But Gunderson, painfully aware of the political risks, remained closeted for more than 10 years before slowly and grudgingly emerging.

In his 1994 reelection, Gunderson beat back strong, local opposition from the religious right and nationally based attacks, as when Dornan proclaimed to a major Wisconsin newspaper that, "We've got a homo in our midst in the Republican party . . . we have a moral obligation to expose them and destroy them."

Gunderson had promised in 1994 to serve only one more term and did not register in the primary. But supporters conducted a survey showing overwhelming support for even a write-in candidacy. So Gunderson--who was slated to be chairman of the House Agriculture Committee next year--was preparing to launch such a campaign when he suddenly changed his mind late last month.

Gunderson says Gingrich had promised to support him if he ran, but warned that there were people "prepared to do whatever was necessary to not only defeat me, but destroy me. . . . I honestly had no idea how badly some people want to get rid of me, simply for being what I am."

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