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Schlafly is still making her point, unabashedly

September 01, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Phyllis Schlafly is a longtime opponent of the gay rights movement.

Over the years, she has warned that the Equal Rights Amendment would lead to a recognition of gay rights. She has said people may demand "restrictions on homosexuals for public health reasons" because of AIDS. She has complained that children's sex-education programs are misused to spread the belief that homosexual sex is acceptable if a condom is used, when educators should "just tell them to keep their hands out of what's inside your swimsuit."

If anyone has helped conservatives nail down the plank in the Republican Party platform opposing same-sex unions, it is this octogenarian stalwart, who emerged as a pivotal force this week behind language supporting a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

And she did it all with the help of the oldest of her six adult children, John Schlafly, 53, her aide de camp, who is gay.

"It's no problem," Schlafly says. "He supports me in everything I do."

John Schlafly literally supports her, holding her arm firmly and lugging a big bag of her books, as mother and son trudge down a Manhattan sidewalk under a pitiless sun. Schooling around them in the humid miasma is a surreal parade of tourists, protesters, delegates, sightseers, police -- and yes, publicly affectionate gay couples.

This is, after all, New York. The culture wars inside Madison Square Garden wilt quickly in the cauterizing glare of gay culture outside on the streets of Manhattan. Already, the gay Log Cabin Republicans have inspired an outbreak of Log Cabin fever among New York Republican politicians, who need Democratic votes to get elected and strayed from the official party line, making sure they were seen and heard at Log Cabin events.

Inside the convention, where traditionalists clash with those promoting tolerance of other lifestyles, Republicans talking about the divided America need look no further than the Schlaflys.

Shrewd operator

Phyllis Schlafly is a disarming woman, with a genteel but very direct manner. Earlier in the day, she greets a guest in a well-lighted suite of an old-fashioned hotel that is decorated with gilt mirrors and salmon toile. She smooths the skirt of her lavender knit suit, which is set off by a gold elephant pin and another spelling out "GOP." Her blond hair is upswept in a retro marcel wave-style do.

But make no mistake: She is a shrewd political operator who has hammered a raft of conservative planks into a number of Republican Party platforms over the years. Her St. Louis-based Eagle Forum is an influential conservative group.

Christian leader Ralph Reed, the Bush campaign's coordinator for the Southeast region, said Schlafly has been a behind-the-scenes player on GOP platform issues since she began attending as a delegate in the 1950s.

"Given her leadership on the pro-life plank on the platform, she's highly respected and well-regarded and influential," he said. "She's prominent at every convention."

Fellow conservative Gary Bauer said Schlafly's role reflects her stature as a member of the anti-abortion movement, which he said is ardently opposed to gay marriage.

"The whole pro-life movement feels very strongly about that issue, as does the president," he said. "I bet if you asked the delegates to vote, it would be 99%" against same-sex marriage.

Schlafly's son, an attorney by profession, is a paid staffer, she says. He is director of an Eagle Forum office in Alton, Ill., where he lives, and helps her with fundraising, scheduling and mail.

John Schlafly is a soft-spoken man with deep, expressive eyes, whose dark khakis and light cotton shirts rumple quickly in the New York heat. He stops for a moment to collect his thoughts when asked if he supports his mother's signature issue of the week, a constitutional ban on gay marriage.

"I think the traditional definition of marriage has served our society well, and it shouldn't be changed," John Schlafly says, choosing his words slowly. "That was the law in every state, and still is except for certain court decisions. I don't see why there's anything wrong with it."

On this day, he is helping his mother sort through the stacks of party invitations that can make the convention experience as disorienting as a video on fast-forward. Phyllis Schlafly idly asks her son what day of the week it is.

On this night, there is the possibility of a dinner with the Missouri delegation, he tells his mother. And a more lavish party thrown by fellow conservative Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. People are saying the latter is "the desirable place to be, not the Missouri people," he tells her.

"Why, because they're conservatives?" she asks.

"Well, Grover has a reputation of throwing a good party," he says knowingly.

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