Q&Amp;A: Gays And The Gop

Gays have always been more likely to vote Democrat. But as the 2004 White House race shifts into gear--and the issue of same-sex marriage becomes a national talking point--a few Republicans are stepping up their efforts to attract homosexuals into the big tent.

Yet will gay voters ever really feel welcome in a GOP that is backed by a legion of conservative Christians? One of the party organizations trying to make that happen is the Republican Unity Coalition (RUC)--a group of gay and straight party members established more than two years ago in a bid to make sexual orientation a "non-issue" among their supporters.

The RUC was one of several groups that filed an amicus ("friend of the court") brief arguing that the Texas sodomy law, struck down by the Supreme Court last week, was unconstitutional. Describing itself as less a grass-roots movement than one for "grass tops"--Republicans with long-established and often powerful roles in the GOP--the RUC's big-name members include former president Gerald Ford and former Wyoming senator Alan K. Simpson.

Simpson, the group's honorary chairman, spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz this week about gay Republicans, the religious right and the 2004 election. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why did you join the Republican Unity Coalition?

Allan K. Simpson: I don't think there's anyone in America [who] doesn't have someone close to them who's part of the gay or lesbian population. I met the head of the Log Cabin Republicans [a gay GOP group] almost 10 years ago when I was working on immigration [legislation.] They had the same conflicts about abortion, about taxes--there really wasn't much discussion about the gay-lesbian issue. At the end of it I said I had no idea of the kind of anguish that they must go through, none. I said that if I can help turn that tide then I'd be glad to do so ... Then there's my deep regard and affection for Dick and Lynne Cheney and [their gay daughter] Mary, whom I watched grow up.

One of the RUC's goals is to sideline the influence of religious conservatives in the GOP.

We don't have any concept of sidelining anyone. That's not our intent at all.

What about sidelining their agenda?

I'm not into anything but the awareness of tolerance and the importance of an honest appraisal of acceptance. It matters not to me what they do. I don't do those things to sideline anybody. We're not asking for anything special [for gays]--just openness, honesty, tolerance. Even the word acceptance may not be good, because you don't have to accept anybody in life.

This doesn't sound like a traditional Republican speaking.

That's a stereotype. What's always curious to me is how liberal-progressive people are always babbling about how they never stereotype. Well, that's B.S. I don't know what the hell I am--conservative, liberal? You figure it out.

How much is the religious right shaping the GOP's agenda?

I would see people at rallies as I campaigned for [the first President] Bush and [Bob] Dole and the second Bush and I would say: "You apparently are part of the Christian right. What do you believe that's so frightening to the rest of us?" They said: "We believe that the educational system is a failure. We think the entertainment industry is debasing America. We feel that the soaps in the afternoons consist of the horniest people that have ever [roamed] the earth scratching at every orifice. And we believe in God." What's wrong with those people? What is the evil of the "Christian right?" They believe in God and they believe in family values. What is so horrific about that?

I'm not judging their values, just asking the extent to which they are influencing the party?

It is always brought up in a negative way. That's the way it is.

What about their disapproval of gays?

I'm not comfortable with some of their views, especially with regard to homosexuality. My view doesn't match theirs on abortion. But I think the Republicans are getting smart enough now to realize [the value of] what Reagan said--give me a guy who's with me 70 percent of the time instead of some jerk who's against me 100 percent of the time. The 100 percenters in our party are less, thank heavens, because the hundred percenters are the guys you want to stay away from. They're people who seethe. Those are the people who didn't vote [for George Bush in 1992] and gave us Bill Clinton. And if there's ever a group of people who think of the anti-Christ as Bill Clinton, then it's the archconservative right-wing people you and I describe.

Are you saying that because they'll back George W. Bush in 2004 whatever happens, he can start reaching out to moderates like those represented by the RUC.

I'm not saying that at all. I'm just saying that I think there's less chance this time of a flight of those people from the presidential race on the basis of their "agenda." They know that George W. Bush is listening to them.

Is the GOP's big tent getting smaller?

I don't think so. If you want to go and look at the big tent shrinking, go and look at the Democrats. The fabric is unraveling at the edge of their tent because if they nominate Howard Dean, they can kiss half the Congress goodbye.

Can a group like the RUC fit into a Republican Party dominated by Karl Rove?

They are fitting within it, because in it are people Karl Rove is going to count on to help George W. Bush get re-elected--like Jerry Ford and Mary Cheney and [former congressman] Michael Huffington.

So there are no tensions between those in the RUC and those on the right?

I do not see that, because when they surface, they're not getting the acceptance that they have before. Ten years ago, after a decision like this [the Texas sodomy case] in the court, airwaves would have been filled with the horror of the destruction of the family. Now, sure it's out there. But not in any way like it would have been 10 years ago.

Yet less than three months ago, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum caused an uproar by likening homosexual activity to bigamy and incest.

I thought [those comments] were sad. I know Rick and I respect him, but I think that view was a little bit bizarre.

But doesn't that indicate to you how far the nation--and the Republican Party--still has to go toward tolerance for gays?

I don't know. I've been on earth 71 years, and we've come a long way. It takes six to eight years to pass a major piece of legislation. We have a country now that's set on a timetable of immediate gratification. Forget it. All this stuff takes time. But the difference between 10 years ago and today on the gay-lesbian issue in this country is an eon apart. And if we've moved this far in just 10 years, in the next 10 years it will be just as dramatic.

What about Senate leader Bill Frist's support for a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage?

I don't think that's appropriate. I think that minimizes the Constitution.

And your response to Bush's comments this week that such a constitutional ban may not be necessary yet--but that he does support the notion that marriage is between a man and a woman?

I think that's a pretty valid point, I think that most people feel that way. That is the one step that will be difficult--the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Do you see this same-sex marriage becoming a major issue in the 2004 race?

Only if the media continues to enjoy kicking it around [and] stirring it up. That's really what's happening here. Why minimize [the progress that has been made] by zeroing in on one thing?

Do you expect to see any legislation arise from the court decision?

I don't know, but I'll tell you an interesting thing personally. I haven't had a single letter, or e-mail, or comment or phone call about my position since I became involved in this movement.

Republican officials say that more than a million gays voted for President Bush. How many gay votes do you expect the GOP to win in the 2004 presidential race?

It'll be more than that, that's all I know. Because with the Log Cabin Republicans, with the Republican Unity Coalition, [that has contributed to] the new awareness.

After Bush was elected, some media reports noted that while he had shown some leadership on gay issue, his aides didn't advertise it for fear of provoking the conservative wing. Is that likely to change?

He has members of his administration who are openly gay. I haven't seen Karl Rove trying to get rid of them or Jerry Falwell writing nasty letters. If you're doing it right, you don't give a damn whether they're gay or lesbian; you're looking for quality, you're looking for merit. He appoints them. It's always the media that comes back [and reports that they're gay.]

Gay Democrats raised upward of $18 million dollars during the last election cycle. The RUC has said it is dedicated to building a political action committee of similar maturity that would raise $1 million for the RUC PAC by September 2002. How successful has that been?

I think we're doing quite well. But I have no idea of how much has been raised.

Where do you want to see the GOP go from here?

As I see this election coming, it seems that for the first time I see people realizing that these tests of [ideological] purity do nothing at all to help us win [elections]. All they do is energize zealots, [the] 100 percenters. I tell them: "Why don't you forget this one issue [about gays]" and remember that George W. is going to be with you 60, 70, 80 percent of the time. And that whoever is on the other side is not going to be. So let's not cut each other up.