Coburn reconciles with gay GOP group

Despite differences, he said, they can still work together on issues they agree on.

Jim Myers, World Washington Bureau, Tulsa World
April 30, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

(WASHINGTON, DC) – U.S. Rep. Tom Coburn, demonized by some gay activists, told a gay Republican group Thursday that disagreements on certain issues must not keep them from working together on others.

"We have a common enemy. It is called HIV," said the Oklahoma Republican.

Members of the Log Cabin Republicans agreed and sounded more than willing to look past Coburn's more contentious comments, such as those he made in support of legislation against gay marriages several years ago.

Kevin Ivers, a spokesman for the group, said he was not familiar with Coburn's comments on the Defense of Marriage Act, but he added that gay Republicans know where Coburn stands on such issues and disagree with him on those.

Still, Ivers said, Coburn is breaking the conventional wisdom with his work on AIDS issues.

Clearly both sides – Coburn and the group – viewed his appearance along with several other GOP lawmakers at a congressional briefing as a chance to build a bridge.

When asked about his appearance, Coburn used the word "reconciliation."

"We are fighting a disease – not somebody's lifestyle," he said.

During his brief appearance, the three- term lawmaker, who said he was a virgin when he married, conceded that others could make judgments about other aspects of his life.

"We are all God's children," Coburn said.

He drew applause from the group when he mentioned his request for a government audit of certain federally funded AIDS programs.

If that money is not spent properly, Coburn said, that means someone who needs help will not get it.

He spoke of the great strides being made in the battle against AIDS, adding that no one should allow his or her own prejudices or feelings of persecution keep him or her from doing the right thing.

Despite their differences with him over certain issues, the group gave the Oklahoman a warm welcome.

Executive Director Richard Tafel described Coburn as an "incredible ally" on certain issues and used his introduction of the lawmaker to dispel attempts by other gay activists to paint him as "the Jesse Helms of the House."

Moreover, when the floor was opened up to questions, the first one focused on congressional "perks," a subject Coburn easily can score on because he has refused to participate in the pension plan and has limited himself to three terms.

"I take nothing but a paycheck," he said.

Another member mentioned the difficulty gay activists have in getting into other lawmakers' offices and asked Coburn to intercede with those members.

"I think that's a real good criticism," Coburn said, agreeing to talk to those lawmakers. "There is nobody in my district I don't talk to."

He was asked about his position on needle exchanges to reduce the transmission of HIV, and Coburn again explained that his opposition to such programs is based on studies that suggest that, in the long run, they do not work.

Before Coburn entered the room, a member of the group asked whether Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., chairman of the House Republican Conference, would ever speak to them.

Ivers, when asked about the basis for that question, said Watts, the only black Republican in the House, had indicated that under his leadership the conference would be more inclusive.

Gay Republicans, he said, are still waiting for that dialogue to begin.

Asked for a reaction later, Watts said he would have no problem speaking to the group and that, to his knowledge, he has never turned down an invitation from it.

"I see that just like I do in the ministry," he said.

"It was my responsibility as a church staffer to inform people and to persuade people – not to screen people."

Watts said he does not refuse to meet with certain groups based on their faith, race or sexual orientation.