Is the Tea Party movement really anti-LGBT?

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday April 27, 2010

As national media attention turned to demonstrations that coincided with Tax Day earlier this month, liberal pundits and LGBT advocates remained on high alert for signs of anti-gay or racist rhetoric, validating claims from some the Tea Partiers' ideology ventures far beyond purely fiscal matters. And they were there, albeit not as pronouncedly as some expected.

In Lansing, Mich., "Straight Pride" t-shirts were sold outside a Tea Party Express rally, with 15 percent of proceeds going back to the movement. At a Chicago rally, one demonstrator's sign read "No Tax Dollars To Promote Lesbianism of Ellen Degeneris" [sic]. And, perhaps most flagrantly, in Greenville, S.C., William Gheen, head of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, attempted to out U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.,) saying "you need to come forward and tell people about your alternative lifestyle and your homosexuality."

But some say these stories fail to tell the full truth behind the Tea Party's position on LGBT issues and people. Gay conservatives argue the movement's ambivalence, if acceptance, toward LGBTs could speak to a broader political opportunity as the GOP also shows some signs of moving beyond partisanship on some gay matters.

Bruce Carroll, a blogger for GayPatriot.net, which describes itself as "the Internet home for American gay conservatives" told EDGE that among the Tea Party and GOP events he's attended, he has not seen a specific social dynamic expressed. His blog encouraged LGBT people to attend Tea Party rallies.

"It's a big country, and there will be those kind of outliers present no matter what," said Carroll, acknowledging some of the anti-LGBT sentiment at the rallies. "But the foundational principles that attracted me to the movement is we're worried about debt as a nation. And if you stick to those principles that are really important, the larger group will accept you no matter what other issues you might disagree on.[Anti-gay sentiment's] an undercurrent, and I can't say it's surprising, but I think enough people are saying there are more important things to do and stand behind so that remains only an undercurrent," he added.

Carroll and others point to gay Mass. Lt. Gov. contender Richard Tisei and pro-marriage former Congressman Tom Campbell [R-Calif.,] who is challenging U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, and other Republicans as evidence the GOP itself may have put social conservatism aside while looking toward November.

Support of pro-LGBT legislation, including the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell and the passage of a transgender-inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act, remains a highly partisan concept in Washington. United States Sen. John McCain [R-Ariz.] previously supported the end of DADT, but recoiled when President Obama promised in his State of the Union he would repeal the policy. LGBT activists associated with GetEqual and Equality Across America responded with a sit-in protest at McCain's Phoenix office on Monday, April 26.

But GetEqual has also criticized those on the Left; staging sit-ins in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco and Washington offices to demand action on ENDA. Activists in recent weeks have disrupted the president's speech at a Boxer fundraiser in Los Angeles and chained themselves to the White House fence.

Mark Ciavola, the Las Vegas-based spokesman of Right Pride, maintains anti-gay rhetoric is far from exclusive to either the Tea Party and the Republican Party. Estimating he has attended some 20 GOP events during the last year, he said he and his pro-gay literature have always been "welcomed with open arms." He did not attend the massive rally in Searchlight, Nev., on March 27, but the one place he said he has not found acceptance is among gay Democrats.

"The gay community, in large part, paints us as self-loathing traitors to our community," Ciavola told EDGE. "But how could you paint someone as a traitor who's trying to get our issues on the table in the party where it needs to happen? There's still half of this country where this dialogue needs to be introduced."

Ciavola feels the best strategy LGBT activists can make toward gaining legal equality is to speak directly with those who frequently oppose pro-gay legislation, be it Tea Partiers, the GOP or socially conservative people of faith.

"The best way to gain tolerance from these groups is to have people within those groups working to foster communication," added Ciavola. "These people now have met gay people who aren't parading around with pink boas and makeup on - the typical, outrageous image the media tends to focus on even though not all gay people fit those stereotypes. Now they can have an alternative view."

Charles Moran of Log Cabin Republicans also sees LGBTs are at a turning point in perception from the Right, pointing to the lack of mainstream Republican criticism of Obama's hospital visitation order earlier this month. Moran commended the recent efforts of GetEqual activists. And he sees common ground between GetEqual and the Log Cabin's call for stronger leadership on LGBT-specific legislation in Washington.

"These are committed activists who are really calling out the larger organizations for their lack of advocacy," Moran told EDGE. "These are times when their advocacy work and the things we're doing to increase pressure on the Obama administration can work in concert with each other."

And while Moran added he and other gay conservatives still had a great deal of work ahead of them before the Republican Party could be described as fully LGBT-welcoming, he maintains work needs to be done on both sides of the aisle. He hopes to see more LGBT people opening their minds to Republican perspectives instead of closing their eyes to "Democrat hypocrisy."

"You do have a choice; the gay and lesbian community cannot continue to be subjugated to live and die by one party," said Moran. "The Democrats are driving the bus right now in [D.C.] and we really haven't gotten much of anything from it.We have a long way to go, even with our perceived allies, in order to hold them accountable and get the right people elected to pass the various legislation coming forward, but Obama's [hospital visitation] piecemeal bread crumb will not satiate the gay and lesbian community moving toward the 2010 election."

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to www.joe-erbentraut.com to read more of his work.