Is Senator Helms Gay Public Enemy No. 1?
Originally published in Out.
IT’S EARLY ON A TUESDAY afternoon, and a pack of reporters has clustered on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol building. With the Balkan conflict reaching a critical juncture, the national media are looking for some punchy sound bites from the top Republican senators about the deployment of United States forces.
Phil Gramm rounds the corner, past the spiral staircase and the “SENATORS ONLY” elevator into the grand hallway, heading toward the GOP caucus lunch. The pack envelops him, looking for a quote from the presidential wannabe with the terrapin face. A few feet away, Nancy Kassebaum holds forth to a smaller group in her patient, patrician style. Richard Lugar stands stiffly against a wall, as if posing for a second-rate muscle magazine, delivering his opinions in bland, non-confrontational tones.
But no one swarms Jesse Helms as he wanders into the hall. Only one person approaches him, a journalist from the senator’s home state of North Carolina.
“This isn’t about Bosnia, senator,” the reporter says.
“OK,” says Helms. At 6-foot-1, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could come across as a formidable statesman. Instead, he carries his shoulders in a stooped fashion; his mouth is tiny and pursed; and he seems surprisingly frail for a man his size. Former Helms staffer John Carbaugh once called his ex-boss “one of the great tragic figure of American politics,” and up close, the 74-year-old senator has a profoundly sad look to him.
The reporter asks, “How powerful is the homosexual lobby, and why do you continue to make homosexuality one of your top issues?” Helms thinks for a moment, his brain obviously shifting gears. Up close, he’s not as bold as he seems on the Senate floor. “I don’t know whether they’re powerful, or whether senators think they’re powerful,” he mumbles. It’s quite a meek statement from a man who, in the past, has accused Congress of “falling all over itself” to do what the gay lobby “almost hysterically” demands.
Helms asks the reporter to repeat the second half of his question. Midway through, the reporter stutters. Helms seems addled. “I can’t understand you,” he says. And without saying another word, without waiting for the reporter to repeat himself, the senator swivels around on his left foot and walks away.
These days, there must be a lot Jesse Helms can’t quite understand. With House Speaker Newt Gingrich condemning tearoom raids; with the Christian Coalition shifting its focus away from divisive issues like homosexuality; with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch memorializing lesbian and gay Holocaust victims on the Senate floor; with the Senate’s GOP leaders calling for compassion for people with AIDS, Helms seems more than ever like a dinosaur in the conservative movement.
While other prominent conservatives couch their homophobia in genteel terms—like Gingrich’s call for “toleration” without “promotion”—Helms refuses to change his style with the times. His methods of bashing lesbians and gays retain a quaint viciousness, with their use of discredited arguments and bogus statistical information. Last July, trying to scale back the Ryan White CARE program for people with HIV, Helms proclaimed, “Reliable surveys, Mr. President, show that many homosexuals average 16 different sex partners every month, 182 partners per year….Now, is it not clear, Mr. President, that AIDS is a disease of sexually promiscuous people?” His statistical source: a 15-year-old study of Hepatitis B patients.
There’s no question that sort of relentless gay bashing has kept him in the good graces of a certain conservative core. “Senator Helms is one of a kind,” says former Reagan aide Gary Bauer, president of the Family Research Council. “There is no shortage of people in both parties that head for the tall grass when things get tough. He has never done that.”
But, as he runs for a fifth term, is Helms the force he once was? Is he still Queer Public Enemy Number One? While he still crusades maliciously against gay men and lesbians, there’s mounting evidence that Helms is getting pushed aside by a newer generation of conservatives with toned-down rhetoric and more sophisticated political strategies. With Helms’ national approval rating sometimes dipping as low as 13 percent, he’s seen by some of his natural allies as an impediment toward building a grassroots conservative consensus across the United States.”He’s not someone who can carry water for them because no one respects him,” says Gregg Ivers, a political scientist at American University. “He’s not someone people put on the national hustings and say, ‘Go out and campaign for this candidate.’ In the current conservative movement, Jesse Helms is irrelevant.”
BACK WHEN STONEWALL WAS JUST the name of another Confederate general, Jesse Helms had already learned how to tar his opponents with the taint of homosexuality. As an editorialist for WRAL-TV in Raleigh during the 1960s and early ’70s, Helms took on anyone who threatened the status quo. “The civil-rights movement, as Dr. King calls it, has had the uncommon number of moral degenerates leading the parade,” he said during one of his commentaries. “Bayard Rustin, who directed the March on Washington in 1963, is a self-confessed homosexual who served time in jail for a sordid offense. James Baldwin, the Negro author and widely advertised authority on civil rights, cannot get his mind out of the sewer, if one may judge from the literary efforts.”
To his 100,000 viewers, Helms was an anchor against the anti-war protesters, the militant blacks, the outside agitators, the liberal media, the sexual misfits threatening to overrun American culture. He was the paragon on traditional values: The son of the police chief in segregated Monroe, North Carolina, Helms grew up in a world of Baptist prayer meetings and high-school band practice. He delivered newspapers, swept floors, jerked soda throughout high school. When the Raleigh News and Observer offered him a job, he dropped out of college to write sports. He married the editor of the women’s page, enlisted in the Navy (but never saw combat), ditched journalism to work for the North Carolina Bankers Association until he was hired as a TV editorialist. More than anything, the charmed ordinariness of his life shaped his political views. “I am just speaking for me and what’s right for me,” he once said. “Why not go back to traditional moorings?”
When Helms decided to run for Senate in 1972, against a moderate named Nick Galifianakis, he played upon his opponent’s Greek name (“Jesse Helms: He’s One of Us”) and tied the Democrat to presidential candidate George McGovern. In a year of Republican upsets, Helms edged past Galifianakis by a 54-46 margin to become North Carolina’s first GOP senator since 1895. But Helms didn’t enter the Senate railing about sexual deviance. Homosexuality wasn’t prominent on the minds on Americans in the early ’70s, and Helms knew there were more potent political issues to exploit. So he focused on the conservative ABCs: abortion, busing, communism. He sponsored amendments he knew couldn’t pass, but which would force his adversaries to cast embarrassing votes. “I voted against one of Jesse’s amendments on sex education and my mother called me up to complain,” a conservative senator once told The New Yorker. Jesse offers the kind of amendments that make your mother call you up.” Helms also used those early years to build a political network, hooking up with the New Right’s direct-mail guru, Richard Viguerie, and making links with groups like the anti-union National Right to Work Committee. His National Congressional Club became a major fund raiser for right-wing candidates.
It took a full dozen years after his election before Helms became a serious queer-baiter. He was changing with the times. Across the American South, homosexuality was replacing race and communism as the number one hot-button issue for the Far Right, poisoning the 1983 Mississippi governor’s race and the 1984 Texas Senate race. Helms drew his mud from the same toxic pit. In the final days of his 1984 campaign, he charged that his conservative Democrat opponent, Governor Jim Hunt, was supported by “homosexuals, labor-union bosses and crooks.” The pro-Helms newspaper The Landmark went further: It ran an article headlined, “Jim Hunt is Sissy, Prissy, Girlish and Effeminate.” Claiming that Hunt had a “pretty young boy” for a lover, The Landmark asked, “Is Jim Hunt homosexual? Is he bisexual? Is he AC or DC?….He has a preoccupation with dress and appearances. He has the prettiest manicured fingernails you have ever seen.”
Helms won, and he took his third-term oath at a moment when lesbians and gay men were becoming more and more visible to middle America. Gays were gaining political power like never before; more significantly, AIDS was making headlines. The day of Helms’ swearing in, scientists announced that they found the HTLV-3 (now HIV) virus in the brains of people with AIDS-related dementia. The same day, psychologist Paul Cameron testified before Houston City Council, calling for a quarantine of all gay men. All around the country, people debated how to control the virus: screen blood donations? mandatory testing? close the bath houses?
Helms sensed a political issue that had reached ripeness. As his opening salvo, he attacked a brand-new District of Columbia anti-discrimination law. The local ordinance barred insurance companies from requiring applicants to take an HIV test, and it prohibited the insurers from adding a surcharge to the premiums paid by newly infected HIV-positive men and women. Helms decided to put Washington’s city leaders in their places. So he attached an amendment voiding the D.C. law to an unrelated bill, and then lined up the support of some “fine black ministers.” He held a press conference at which the preachers claimed the law would bring more homosexuals to D.C., threatening tourists with “concentrated exposure” to AIDS through drinking fountains and other methods. On the floor of the Senate, Helms charged, “These people with a lifestyle of their own who deliberately put themselves at risk in contracting AIDS are singled out by the D.C. council and told, ‘We are going to put you on a little bit of a pedestal.'” The Senate passed his amendment by a voice vote, though it got deleted before final passage.
That launched an 11-year reign of terror, in which Helms has attacked gays with a savagery rarely seen in the Senate, or even in civilized society. As the years rolled on, Helms came to see lesbians and gay men as an all-powerful force hell-bent on wrecking the American culture in which he grew up. They perplexed him, those people whose values seemed so far away from the ones he learned in Monroe, those people who wanted to defund the Boy Scouts and give federal money to erotic artists. He couldn’t understand how his colleagues in the Senate—and Presidents Clinton and Bush—could disagree with him. “I had reached the conclusion that every possible concession had already been made to the AIDS lobby and to the homosexual rights movement which feeds it,” he said during a debate on letting HIV-positive immigrants enter the country. “But the Clinton administration’s kowtowing to this arrogant and repugnant political group is beyond belief.”
Most of all, he felt rage at how gays and lesbians targeted him personally: putting a 15-foot-high condom over his house, or calling for a boycott of his number-one corporate patron, Philip Morris. He imagined the mutual antipathy erupting into violence. “The Capitol police called yesterday to my office and said we would like to have a couple of people escort Senator Helms around the Capitol for a day or so,” he told his colleagues. “I said, ‘What is going on?’ They said, well, frankly, some members of the homosexual community have made threats against Senator Helms. Well, la-di-da. Let them threat. Let them threat.”
In fact, most of the real threat has come from Helms, who uses his considerable skills to attack lesbians and gay men. For two years, he blockaded a “hate crimes” bill to monitor bigoted violence, explaining that “studying hate crimes against homosexuals is a crucial first step toward achieving homosexual rights and legitimacy in American society.” He has introduced repeated amendments to restrict the civil liberties of people with HIV, as with an amendment (passed 55-44) allowing doctors to test surgery patients for HIV without their consent. He kept HIV-positive immigrants out of the country for three years. He forced a federal investigation of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) for producing explicit comic books to promote safe sex. (The investigation absolved GMHC.) And he used Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic photographs as a pretext to write restrictions on the National Endowment for the Arts. “The NEA has been throwing away the taxpayers’ money on bullwhips inserted into the posteriors of homosexuals,” he proclaimed on the Senate floor.
Although many senators feel embarrassed by his words, they have voted with him—partly because they knew that if they didn’t, he would publicize their “pro-homosexual” votes and try to get them defeated in the next elections. “It’s not the case that all his colleagues have the greatest respect for his stands on the issues, but they know his support or opposition can have a great impact on their careers,” says Ralph Payne, a gay former aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein.
Most of his time in the Senate, Helms has been in the minority party and thus more of a nuisance than anything else. But in January 1995, in the aftermath of the GOP landslide, Helms became part of a Republican majority, the chair of a powerful committee—and well-positioned to wield his power in new ways. The havoc he has tried to wreak goes beyond the gay meccas of Washington, New York and San Francisco—into the cities and factory towns of his own home state.
FROM THE FIFTH FLOOR OF THE SNOW Building, you can look out the window and figure out exactly which downtown you’re standing in. “Genuine ‘Bull’ Durham Tobacco,” says the fading sign, painted on the side of a brick building. This is the heart of North Carolina: Here, the cigarette and textile industries, like the billboard, have faded, while companies like IBM and Glaxo-Wellcome draw newcomers from across the nation. It’s a place of contrasts. In cities like Durham, shopping centers and research firms spring up faster than Carolina cotton. Twenty miles in any direction, though, lies some of the state’s worst rural poverty. Homes lack indoor toilets; chicken farms sit idle; men and women scrape by. Some of them have AIDS, but unlike their city cousins, they often live miles from the nearest high-tech hospital.
Susan Sachs gets paid to help them cope. As director of the Piedmont HIV Health Care Consortium, she coordinates the medical and support services for HIV-infected people in Durham and eight surrounding counties. Under her direction, case managers schedule van rides to hospitals, locate sensitive doctors, provide emergency rent money, help with household chores, fill prescriptions, lend emotional support.
Sitting in her office in the Snow Building, an Art Deco landmark that still uses elevator operators, Sachs tells of a male couple living on a rural farm, surrounded by their animals, isolated from their friends and estranged from their families. As they both got sick, the idea of being unable to stay together and care for each other seemed unbearable. So the consortium arranged for them to live at home by funding a home-health aide who visits regularly. Another recent client, married with eight children, “lived in his home the entire time he had the illness, surrounded by the people he loved.”
The source of the consortium’s funds—$200,000 in the 1995-96 budget year—is the Ryan White CARE Act, a $633 million federal program that provides services to people living with HIV. Supported by both political parties, it nonetheless has become Jesse Helms’s number-one gay-related target since the Senate’s Republican takeover. For two days last summer, as his colleagues tried to renew the Ryan White funds, Helms commandeered the Senate chamber, calling the bill an underhanded scheme to funnel federal money to gay organizations. “The promotion, the advocacy of homosexuality does nothing to help the innocent victims of AIDS like Ryan White, whose name is being exploited in this legislation,” he proclaimed.
But his fellow senators were listening with half an ear. Helms won a brief victory when the Senate agreed, 54-45, to an amendment prohibiting the use of funds for programs that “promote homosexuality.” But then Nancy Kassebaum, who chairs the committee that wrote the bill, sponsored an amendment gutting Helms’. Her amendment won by an overwhelming 76-23 margin. Helms also sponsored two measures restricting the growth of AIDS funding. The Senate soundly defeated both.
Helms finally voted against the Ryan White Act. Only two others joined him. Both Democrats and Republicans say they didn’t wanted to make any grandiloquent statements against homosexuality; they simply wanted to help the terminally ill. “Everybody wanted to find an answer to this,” Kassebaum says. “As we debated it on the floor of the Senate, everyone has prepared to move forward with what [the committee] had done with it.” Gay lobbying helped too—a testament to the growing effectiveness of Helms’ opposition. “The education efforts are working, and people don’t want to be unduly associated with what they recognize as hate campaigns,” says Mark Agrast, an aide to gay congressman Gerry Studds.
THE RYAN WHITE BATTLE, with its lopsided results, might be a harbinger of Helms’ future. Not only are moderates like Kassebaum dissing North Carolina’s senior senator; many conservative activists and politicians are also keeping their distance. The reason why? The conservative movement, as represented by groups like the Christian Coalition, has reached a critical mass. “As social movements grow successful, there’s always a split between the true believers and the pragmatists,” says Chip Berlet, who monitors the Far Right for the Boston-based Political Research Associates. “There’s a hardcore Right that’s obsessed with a number of issues: abortion, feminism, homosexuality and race,” he says. “But the main branch of the Christian Coalition is going with pragmatism.”
That doesn’t mean folks like House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed feel any friendlier to gays. Rather, they realize the old methods don’t work. By stepping into the national spotlight and battling the forces of sexual perversion, Jesse Helms might fire up the faithful. But he’s pushing away the vast majority of Americans, who don’t cast their votes based on blatant hate-mongering.
So the Christian Coalition and many of the new congressional Republicans are focusing on bread-and-butter issues. They’re trying to expand their political base by talking about wasteful spending and high taxes. “Moral issues are still our core issues,” says Phil Crowson of the North Carolina Christian Coalition. “But we know there are other issues that affect the families. It’s no secret that we’re concerned about the tax burden upon families. And we feel balancing the budget is essential for the future of America.”
At the same time, the Christian Coalition and similar groups have tried to run their anti-gay agenda at a state and local level—below the radar of national politics. By repealing a gay-rights law in Hillsborough, Florida; by putting the Utah legislature on record opposing same-sex marriages; by introducing bills introduced in three states barring gays and lesbians from adopting children, the Right understands it’s easier to get piecemeal changes in city halls and statehouses than sweeping changes on Capitol Hill.
That quieter strategy doesn’t leave much room for Helms. When he stands on the Senate floor waving around 15-year-old documents as evidence of gay promiscuity, he’s not exactly fitting into the Christian Coalition’s game plan. Retired Rear Admiral James “Bud” Nance, Helms’ most trusted adviser, says the senator doesn’t have much patience for the political strategies of his fellow conservatives—if it means giving up fighting homosexuality and abortion. “I’ve heard people ask Jesse, ‘Well, why don’t you just forget about abortion?’ So, he says, ‘Which one of your principles would you like me to give up first, if you want me to give up some of my principles?’ He’s not going to give up on anything if he believes in it,” Nance told Out. “When I came up here, Jesse said, ‘Don’t you ever do any do anything because you think it’s good for me politically. You do what you think is right.’ And that’s what he does.”
No conservative leader will criticize Helms for the record—or even consider publicly the possibility that the senator has become marginalized. “While there are conservatives coming up who are a little more slick, I doubt many of them will survive the test of time the way he has,” says former Reagan aide Bauer.
But these days, one rarely sees Helms in the company of other conservative leaders. When the Christian Coalition unveiled its Contract with the American Family—a document that scrupulously avoids the issue of homosexuality—other senators clamored for spots on the platform, including Phil Gramm, Trent Lott and Dan Coats. Helms was nowhere to be seen. Helms also missed the Christian Coalition’s annual convention last fall; some say the senator wasn’t invited. Mandy Carter, a lesbian activist who attended the convention, says at least one attendee talked at length about how Helms’ race-baiting style stands in the way of building a biracial movement of evangelical conservatives.
“The yuppie conservatives are mortified by him,” says a gay aide to a Southern senator. “He just seems like a dinosaur. He’s looking so old. He is old. His manner is so different from how younger people in the South behave today.”
That’s not to say that Helms has lost his power to harm lesbians and gay men. Even if you take his lowest national approval rating, 13 percent, that’s still a lot of people who believe in what he says. “It’s clear he’s increasingly isolated in the Senate,” says Chip Berlet. “But he’s speaking to that core of people for whom America is under attack by the forces of Satanism and the forces of liberalism—which for many are the same thing. Just because they may not be an electoral force, it doesn’t mean they can’t go around gay-bashing.”
And Helms’ hatefulness has another effect: It pulls the political spectrum to the right by making the Christian Coalition and its ilk seem tolerable in comparison. The new conservatives need the North Carolina senator as a foil. Maybe it’s most accurate to describe Helms as the evil alter-ego to button-down types like Ralph Reed. The moral-issue fire-and-brimstone still plays well with the most committed evangelicals—and Helms knows how to get those folks stirred up and writing checks. “The conservative Republican establishment doesn’t want Helms’ anti-gay stance to be the lead story on the evening news,” says Hastings Wyman, a gay conservative who publishes the Southern Political Report. “But they are willing to give him enough rein to use the issue sporadically to stir up religious right voters.”
HELMS HAS FOUND NEW WAYS to do battle with lesbians and gay men since the Republican takeover of the Senate. He has attacked diversity programs at federal agencies, asserting that they were a back-door way of “intimidating federal employees to accept homosexuality as a legitimate and normal lifestyle.” He forced President Clinton to drop his planned nomination of James Hormel, a gay man, to become ambassador to Fiji. But he’s let other issues pass without comment; for instance, he passed on trying to overturn the District of Columbia’s new domestic-partners legislation. “It was like he forgot to come to work some days,” says the gay Senate aide.
In part, Helms has been distracted by his new role as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But even in that hat, Helms can make life harder for the gay community—and stymie efforts to control AIDS worldwide. As part of his longtime crusade against foreign aid, he has pushed through a bill aimed at decimating the U.S. Agency for International Development—the agency that has spent more than $800 million in AIDS prevention and research. Helms has also held up funds for AIDS programs in developing nations throughout the world, according to government insiders.
This newfound power, especially in the international arena, begs the question of Helms’ upcoming reelection campaign. Two Democrats, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt and retired Glaxo-Wellcome CEO Charlie Sanders, want to end Helms’ Senate career. Helms plans to put up a fight. Instead of raising small contributions from many individuals, as he has in the past, this time he’ll have the support of some wealthy patrons, including the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and millionaires T. Boone Pickens and Roger Milliken. And what if he wins again? Will his colleagues still tolerate his relentless gay-bashing and other acts of intolerance? “At what point do ordinary and decent people say enough?” asks Mark Agrast, the Studds aide. “The last time the Senate refused to turn around and do that was Joe McCarthy. After thousands of lives were ruined, finally someone had the guts to turn on him and say what everyone else had been thinking.”
That person was Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, whose words must echo every day in the labyrinthine office suite where Helms and his staff plan their next crusades to deny civil rights and basic health care to lesbians and gay men. On that day 41 years ago, Welch declared, “Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel….Senator, you’ve done enough. Have you no decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Bosh and Nausea: The Best of Jesse Helms
“I do not hate homosexuals. I do not even know any homosexuals.”
—Senate floor, July 26, 1995
“What goes on at The Washington Post? Is this the result, as many of their journalistic fraternity members are saying, of an inordinate amount of gay sensitivity in the news and editorial departments of The Washington Post? I do not know. I make no charge, but I just suggest that this is what people are saying. They are saying that The Washington Post ought to merge with The Washington Blade.”
—Senate floor, August 4, 1994
“I may be the most radical person you’ve talked to about AIDS, but I think somewhere along the line that we’re going to have to quarantine if we are really going to contain this disease. We did it back with syphilis. We did it with other diseases and nobody even raised a question about it.”
—Raleigh News & Observer, June 15, 1987
On the U.S. Postal Service’s plan to commemorate the Stonewall rebellion with a special postmark: “The homosexuals are in a battle against American values. Their ultimate aim is to have the American people accept the proposition that their perverted lifestyle is as worthy of protection as race, creed and religion. I do not buy that. I say to them, bosh and nausea, and a pox on whomever in the Postal Service made this completely misguided decision.”
—Senate floor, June 23, 1989
On former HUD Assistant Secretary Roberta Achtenberg: “She’s not your garden-variety lesbian. She’s a militant-activist-mean lesbian, working her whole career to advance the homosexual agenda.”
—Associated Press, May 7, 1993
On a safer-sex educational video for gay men: “I wonder if there are any senators present—I think not—who saw just one example yesterday of a videotape produced with federal funds….You could just nod your head. Did it make you sick at your stomach? Let the record show that Mr. Gramm said it made him sick at his stomach.”
—Senate floor, April 28, 1988
“I asked NEA chairman Jane Alexander if just one cockroach in a pot of soup would be enough, too many, or not enough. The dear lady sort of avoided that question. She responded that, as a matter of fact, she and her husband had, on one occasion, found a cockroach in their soup served in a restaurant, and that the manager of the restaurant had quickly not charged them for their meals….Now that is all very interesting, and one can assume that one cockroach is one soup is one cockroach too many. I feel the same way about the National Endowment for the Arts.”
—Senate floor, July 25, 1994
“I despise the use of the once beautiful word ‘gay.’ They are not gay; they are repulsive.”
—Senate floor, February 20, 1992
“You are a great American. God bless you for being the kind of man you are.”
—letter to North Carolina businessman Dick Shoff, a former Ku Klux Klan member and accused child molester