Rhetoric on Gays Rekindles Republican Debate

2000 Presidential Race Factors in Discourse Raises Level of Discourse

by David Lightman, Washington Bureau Chief, Hartford Courant
June 30, 1998 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

When House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey, the House's second most powerful figure, discussed Congress' agenda with reporters recently, something new was on the usual tax-and-scandal menu.

What, the press wanted to know, did Armey, R-Texas, think of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's comments about homosexuality?

It is a sin, Lott had said. "You should try to show them a way to deal with that problem," the Mississippi Republican had told the "Armstrong Williams Show" on June 15, "just like alcohol... or sex addiction... or kleptomania."

Armey was armed for the question, saying he had discussed it earlier that day with his wife.

"The Bible is very clear on this," Armey said. "Now, both myself and Senator Lott believe very strongly in the Bible." He went on to say, "I do not quarrel with the Bible on this subject."

The five-minute exchange was extraordinary: At a routine press conference at the Capitol, a powerful Washington figure had reached into the Bible to defend another powerful Washington figure.

Lott's brimstone -- and Armey's defense of it -- were a vivid reminder that there's a serious split in the Republican Party, one that's now in the open and causing some fiery debate.

A few days after Lott and Armey spoke, Rep. Christopher Shays, R- 4th District, called a press conference, too, and called his colleagues' views "mean-spirited."

At the office of the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation's largest GOP gay and lesbian group, Executive Director Richard Tafel had other worries. "It's wrong," he said, "and it will cost the party if it continues."

The Ambassador Nominee

Three events have triggered the latest outbursts: The race for the 2000 nomination has unofficially begun, and some in the party see questioning gay rights as both useful and important; President Clinton in May issued an order barring government discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; and the Senate is considering the nomination of James C. Hormel, a gay San Francisco businessman, as ambassador to Luxembourg.

Some Republicans saw the Hormel nomination as particularly offensive.

A six-page, annotated fact sheet from the Family Research Council, a pro-family Washington group, explained that because different publications have touted Hormel as a family man, "it is necessary to point out that his family values would not be considered exemplary by most standards.

"After 10 years of 'carrying on clandestine affairs with men while he was married,' he abandoned his wife and children to live the gay lifestyle."

The distaste for Hormel has support on the Republican side of the Senate, where Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles, R-Okla., told "Fox News Sunday" June 21 that Hormel "has promoted a lifestyle and promoted it in a big way, in a way that is very offensive.

"One might have that lifestyle," Nickles said, "but if one promotes it as acceptable behavior, I don't think [that person] should be representative of this country."

Hormel has funded the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Main Library, and the council has a tape of Hormel laughing at the comedy of a troupe of male homosexuals dresssed as Catholic nuns.

"I don't think sexual preference is the issue. It's his aggressiveness," said Sen. Robert C. Smith, R-N.H.

Attempts to reach James Van Buskirk, the center's director, were unsuccessful. But a number of Republicans have protested the Hormel-bashing, notably Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., who urged Lott to schedule a vote on Hormel as soon as possible.

'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Though President Clinton has been sympathetic to expanding homosexual rights, some of his policies have sparked serious rifts.

In 1992, during his first campaign, Clinton promised to end the ban against gay service members. Shortly after taking office, when controversy erupted, he agreed to the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibits homosexual conduct but prevents recruits from being asked if they are gay.

Gay rights advocates consider that an unsatisfactory solution.

But they still have found that Clinton and many Democrats generally set a tolerant tone. In May, for instance, the president signed an executive order barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in the federal civilian workforce.

Contrast that, said Joseph S. Grabarz, Jr., executive director of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, to the tone from the Republican top.

"When Lott and others say the things they do over and over again, it makes it all right in many places to be hateful again," Grabarz said.

Gay rights groups realize Clinton will not put an enormous amount of political weight behind gay rights; it's still a very touchy issue in this country.

"Bill Clinton says the right things," Grabarz said, "but the place where all these people end up is always in the middle."

Angling For 2000

"This is over the top," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn. Equating homosexuality with kleptomania or repeatedly quoting the Bible to condemn it risks offending people's sense of fairness, he said, whether or not they back gay rights.

Many Republicans acknowledge that the views of Lott and others are red meat for the GOP's strong conservative wing -- and pose a serious image problem for the party.

Even so, some presidential candidates are using their views on homosexuality to woo supporters in what is now a wide-open 2000 presidential nominating race.

Gary L. Bauer, the Family Research Council's president, is exploring a White House bid, and is openly critical of homosexuality. Former diplomat Alan Keyes, who is black, has said, "It is wrong to treat sexual orientation like race, where discrimination is concerned." Other possible candidates speak freely of promoting families, though they are careful in answering questions about gay rights.

Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., for instance, said, "I'm not in favor of extending additional rights to homosexuals," but he quickly added, "Homosexuals should have the same rights as others in the culture."

When Congress returns next week, there will be fresh efforts to derail Hormel's nomination. And in the House, a strong coalition of Republicans, including Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, is seeking a vote to bar any money from being spent to implement or enforce Clinton's order.

"Why should someone's sex life be a reason for special status in our government?" he asked.

The party could be in for a nerve- wracking debate. The floor leader for the spending bill that will include DeLay's amendment is Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., the only openly gay Republican in the House. He opposes the amendment.

These kinds of scenarios lead National Republican Party Chairman Jim Nicholson to choose each word on this subject very carefully.

Should gays feel comfortable in the party? "By coming in, we want them to adopt our agenda," he said. "Our agenda is strengthening families, cutting taxes and balancing the budget."

Shays had a different interpretation of all the rhetoric. "This is going to drive people out of the Republican Party," he said.