The vast majority of GOP leaders won’t be embracing gay Republicans any time soon. In fact, many of them still think they’re good for an easy laugh.
Originally published in the online edition of Mother Jones.
IN 1972, JAMES WAGSTAFF WAS A POSTER CHILD for the Republican Party—quite literally. Posing with a Dallas Cowboys fullback, the young Texan’s image was plastered all over the South, promoting President Nixon’s ultimately successful reelection campaign against George McGovern. Wagstaff was seven years old at the time, and the heir to a long family tradition of GOP loyalty. “I remember my grandfather’s greeting Richard Nixon at the airport and seeing them in a limousine driving off,” says the 38-year-old consultant, an intense man with a compact build and deeply recessed eyes. He smiles at the decades-old memory, his pride and affection evident.
Growing up in a tight-knit Episcopalian family in Abilene—traditional but not rabid about its values—Wagstaff found the Republican Party a natural fit. His security within the party might have gone unchallenged but for two things: the ascendance of the Moral Majority in the 1980s, and Wagstaff’s own dawning realization that he was gay.
“I remember that year after year, in each of the Young Republican events, there would be more and more of these Religious Rights gaining numbers,” he told me during a Log Cabin Republican reception held in conjunction with this week’s Republican National Convention. “When they would say things, I just turned my ear off. It’s similar to a conservative German in the ’30s listening to a Nazi.”
Even before he graduated college, local party leaders were approaching Wagstaff, asking him to run for public office. “That was based on the idea that I would be married with children and my wife would be in the Junior League,” he says. “I didn’t want to be excluded.” By the time he was ready to enter electoral politics, though, the pull of his sexuality was too strong for him to remain in the closet. At 28 he came out—he’d waited that long to spare his family’s feelings—and shoved aside his electoral ambitions. Eventually he left Texas for New York.
He couldn’t leave the party, though—he never really considered the possibility. Although Wagstaff feels betrayed by the Far Right’s influence on the GOP, particularly its embrace of an amendment banning same-sex marriage, he refuses to give up his family’s birthright, noting that his ancestors belonged to the Republican Party generations before it was coopted by evangelicals.
Thus far, the Log Cabin group has put off making an endorsement in the presidential election. Wagstaff, by contrast, is not coy: He plans to vote for Bush. To him, the incumbent’s Iraq invasion and anti-tax philosophy are such pluses that they outweigh his kowtowing to the Religious Right. “Does he court them too much? Yes. Do they have a lot of money to help him get elected? Yes. Is that part of politics? Yes, and I understand that.” Even Bush’s advocacy of the marriage amendment—a measure that would prevent Wagstaff himself from having a state-sanctioned traditional family—can be written off as necessary political pragmatism, he says. “The amendment will never pass,” he argues. “If someone wants to support something to gain votes, we know that has happened since the Founding Fathers.”
Not everyone at this well-heeled Republican reception is willing to cut the president so much slack. Stephen Rivoli, a 22-year-old cancer researcher and Army veteran, came of age after the influence of the Moral Majority had begun to wane; the first Republicans he remembers are relative moderates like George Bush Sr. and Bob Dole. Their values, favoring limited government and individual responsibility, were consistent with those of his own family in Rochester, N.Y. In the younger Bush, Rivoli assumed he had found another mainstream candidate to support. “It was disappointing to see a president who ran on a platform of compassion acting like a right-wing non-compassionate conservative,” he says. When Bush proposed the marriage amendment, Rivoli felt angry, but by that time he was beyond betrayal. “Bush was already leading us down the dark path: a Medicare bill that didn’t provide the services needed; non-conservative treatment of the environment; lying about the war in Iraq. So it was hard to feel betrayal at the time.”
Whom will Rivoli vote for? “Not President Bush,” he says. Yet he’s not ready to leave the GOP. Like Wagstaff, he doesn’t want to cede the party that once represented his family’s values. “Good politics is good politics,” he says.
Lesbian and gay Republicans, to a large degree, live on hope. This week in New York, they have seen that hope stoked by a handful of inclusive politicians: Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York Governor George Pataki, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld. “There’s a lot of prominence and there’s a lot of prestige behind the gay and lesbian community, and that’s the way it ought to be,” Specter told the Log Cabin crowd last Sunday. But inside Madison Square Garden—and within the ranks of party leaders—the tone has been decidedly hostile to the notion of equality. “I would be very surprised if you ever saw this party [support same-sex marriage],” Alabama Governor Bob Riley told me on the convention floor Monday night. “One of the reasons we are the country we are today us because there are certain things we hold sacred, and marriage is one of them.” Added his wife Patsy: “The Bible has already set up marriage between man and a woman to have babies.”
It should be no surprise that when Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina addressed the convention Tuesday night, one of her most thunderous applause lines was this: “Marriage between a man and a woman isn’t something Republicans invented, but it was something Republicans will defend.” Nor should it be surprising that during an evening of Republican stand-up comedy, the gay-themed jokes got some of the heartiest laughs. “There was so much unity at the Democratic Convention,” joshed Time magazine White House correspondent Matt Cooper to the partisan crowd, “that in the cutaway, there was a shot of Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton making out.” Jokes about New Jersey Governor James McGreevey abounded that night, too.
In other words, Wagstaff and Rivoli, don’t hold your breath. There are a few politicians in your camp. But the vast majority of GOP leaders will not be embracing you any time soon—and many of them still think you’re good for an easy laugh.
More from the 2004 Republican National Convention