GOP Partying Like It’s 1999 :: 2010 Election Marks Open Season on Gays

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 25, 2010

There was a time, as recently as a few months ago, when the gay rights movement appeared to be gaining traction within one particularly unexpected demographic: the heart of the Republican Party. Former RNC chairman Ken Mehlman came out, FOX News pundit Glenn Beck said he didn't much mind same-sex marriage, and Ann Coulter was scheduled to headline a gay (conservative) group's dinner. Meanwhile, poll after poll consistently reported broadening acceptance of LGBT people and accelerating support for their legal equality.

The socially conservative wing of the Republican establishment appeared, then, to have abandoned LGBT issues along with other "hot button" social issues like abortion and immigration to focus on what practically every political figure on both sides of the aisle have agreed to be the highest priority in these economic times: jobs, jobs, jobs. They seemed to be heeding Democrat James Carville's words a decade before: It's all about the economy, and only the economy.

Republican leaders have continually reiterated that social issues are not currently top-of-mind concerns and likely voters seem to agree. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this month that same-sex marriage ranked last among issues on voters' minds heading into the midterm elections --†the first time in nearly 15 years where the matter is not up to vote in any states.

But little more than one week out from those elections, anti-gay rhetoric has returned in a number of tightly-contested statewide races from coast to coast. This represents, admittedly, only the latest development in an election cycle that has been patently bizarre (to put it lightly).

New York, Colorado, Delaware ... Singing the Same Anti-Gay Song

New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino's recent statement that gay men and lesbian attempt to "brainwash" children into thinking gay identity is "an equally valid and successful option" is the most obvious anti-gay screed. He made it in a conversation with Orthodox Jewish leaders and almost immediately was forced to backtrack. Still, he insisted that opponent Andrew Cuomo bringing his daughters to New York Gay Pride march threatened them, and from that he did not backtrack.

Paladino represents perhaps the most high profile example of anti-gay rhetoric. Not only was it pretty far out there in the opinion of nearly all observers, it took place in a solid blue state that is known for its tolerance to gays, among other groups. Still, Paladino's gaffes were far from the only recent anti-gay rhetoric observed this election season.

Colorado senatorial candidate Ken Buck told Meet the Press earlier this month that he felt being gay was a choice akin to alcoholism. South Carolinian senator Jim DeMint proclaimed that gay teachers (as well as any sexually active, unmarried teachers) should be barred from the classroom.

Nevadan senatorial candidate Sharron Angle has voiced her disagreement with same-sex parents adopting children and has told her opponent Harry Reid to "man up."

Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell has previously described homosexuality as a social disorder, opposes Don't Ask Don't Tell repeal and gay baited her primary opponent Mike Castle.

Mother Jones last week reveled Alaskan Senate candidate Joe Miller counts among his payroll an anti-gay activist and "political consultant" Terry Moffitt, whose Family Policy Network labels homosexuality a "destructive lifestyle."

All the above examples have come from Republican candidates, many affiliated with the Tea Party movement. The GOP party platforms of at least two states -- Texas and Montana -- released this year have even went so far as to outline hopes of criminalizing gay sex. Through the lens of the recent spate of attacks against and suicides of LGBT people, such damning pronouncements seem both cringe-worthy and fringe-like.

Anti-Gay Rhetoric vs. Real Progress

With so little time to go before Americans take to the polls in an election on which control of the House and Senate hinges, the return of anti-gay rhetoric to the national political conversation is particularly puzzling as public opinion appears to be heading sharply in the opposite direction.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said she was not surprised by recent comments made by Republican candidates like Paladino and Buck in the home stretch of their campaigns.

"Playing the scapegoat card is a nasty tactic they employ to pander to their hardcore base in order to gin up votes and burnish their anti-LGBT or 'family values' credentials," Carey said. "Most Americans are concerned about bread-and-butter issues like jobs and the economy. And, every day, more and more people join the vast number of Americans who support equality. Still, some of these candidates are only concerned with political expediency, and to them that means beating up on others."

But LGBT people have not been the only minority interest group that has been kicked around by high-profile candidates in recent months. Angle, in particular, has been criticized for a racy television ad depicting dark-skinned "illegals" entering the U.S. and "putting Americans' safety and jobs at risk."

Larry Gross, a professor at the University Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, described this election cycle as ridden with "a kind of extreme rhetoric that we haven't seen for some time" and said other factors are at work than the strategy of conservative politicians simply hoping to rile up the far Right, evangelical, anti-gay vote.

"There's a kind of unhinged quality to it [anti-gay remarks] that's associated in part with the Tea Party phenomenon where rhetorical excess plays well," Gross told EDGE. "This is a period where the level of anger and discontent is having a great deal of influence on voters. People who would otherwise not have been taken seriously as political candidates realize they have a perfect opportunity if they are sufficiently outrageous."

It's an opportunity, Gross says, at least partially spurred by Sarah Palin's success in becoming a top-grossing media personality. As so much media become beholden to the continued spread of YouTube and social networking, seemingly extreme, less experienced "Washington outsider" figures grab buzz often before mainstream media can sink their teeth into their talking points. Whether anti-gay vitriol going viral will translate to success beyond a primary victory for candidates like O'Donnell or Buck, however, remains to be seen.

'These candidates are only concerned with political expediency, and to them that means beating up on others.'

"Under normal circumstances, you'd have to predict they'd lose an actual election, but this is not necessarily a regular election," Gross said. "But I think public homophobia will become a political liability, and it already has in some places."

Bob Witeck agreed that for political candidates with anti-gay views, the realization has arrived that using such rhetoric with the hopes of wooing voters is becoming a strategy that no longer works. Witeck is the co-founder and CEO of Witeck-Combs Communications, a prominent LGBT-centered marketing company. In most cases, he does not see serious candidates leading with an anti-gay stance, even if they are sometimes caught off-guard in taking it on.

Thanks to recent progress made, particularly in the courts, on issues like Don't Ask Don't Tell and same-sex marriage, the issues are at the forefront of political dialogue in a way that is largely unprecedented. That attention presents a tricky scenario for candidates who would rather not address the LGBT community with their campaign messaging in the first place.

"It's losing its appeal as a wedge issue for Republicans and it's not a lead issues for them, but that doesn't mean some of these candidates don't hold unusually odd views on the issue," Witeck told EDGE. "These candidates clearly don't seem to think it matters that they know anything about gay people, but they no longer have the luxury of avoiding the issues in their campaigns."

The proliferation of media sources both on- and offline has also played a role in showcasing candidates' anti-gay remarks more attentively, which carries both positive and negative affects according to Chris Harris, communications and research director for the Media Matters Action Network.

The additional vigilance shown by cable hosts Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Anderson Cooper, in addition to some broadcast network television journalists, has been noteworthy. But Harris said there's been so many questionable statements made that the bar is higher than ever for what is marked as "unacceptable" by mainstream media.

Put simply, it's difficult to surprise an electorate being told by candidates that Hispanic students "look a little Asian" or that Sharia law has already taken over at least two U.S. cities. Both are actual statements from Angle, but are only two examples of some of the outrageous claims being made by those on the right this season.

"If someone had said some of these things back even in 2006, it would have made banner headlines everywhere that someone could be this racist, homophobic or against women," Harris said.

"This year, there seems to be so much hatred out there that I think the media and even news consumers are desensitized a little bit," he continued. "We've almost come to expect that conservative candidates, especially Tea Party candidates, will routinely utter offensive things about pretty much every group that is not them. It's almost sickening how often this is happening now."

How Are Conservative Gay Groups Responding?

In response to the criticism of Paladino and Buck and others' anti-gay moments, some conservatives hope that the LGBT community refrains from painting Republicans with too broad of an anti-gay brush. In the words of Mark Ciavola, spokesman for Right Pride, one of several gay Republican groups: "Bigotry and intolerance are not confined to one political party."

Ciavola added he was thankful for Paladino's apology for his anti-gay comment and said he doesn't think he "speaks for all Americans or all conservatives; he is just one guy running for office in New York." He criticized LGBT activists concerned with the potential Republican takeover of Congress and Senate as too narrowly focused.

"I think the majority of LGBT activists focus on LGBT issues only, which are not representative of the issues facing the majority of Americans in this election cycle," Ciavola said. "They have an irrational fear of everything GOP and create their own nightmare. I think members of the LGBT community who do not have jobs, are losing their homes, are on unemployment or are otherwise suffering from the economy today will have more hope with increased Republican representation in Congress."

But Harris is unconvinced that some of the headline-grabbing statements of Paladino and others should be taken lightly. He hoped the media would continue to hold candidates accountable for making statements aimed at any minority group, the LGBT community included.

"It's extremely important for the media to view these things seriously. These people are running for office and, admittedly, a lot of them have seemed like circus acts, so it's easy to laugh it off, but the reality is these people could end up in Congress," Harris said. "Their feelings are on the extreme Right and, quite honestly, scary."

Gay Out the Vote!

Regardless of which way the LGBT community intends to vote in these midterm elections, Witeck added he hoped voters would not allow the enthusiasm-stymieing recent months of non-progress - including the stalemate of Don't Ask Don't Tell, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and other legislation - to keep them home from the polls.

A recent AP article is claiming exactly this: Gay voters are so dismayed with Obama and the Democratic Party that they are sitting this one out.

Witeck believes that this election is pivotal for progressive voters of all stripes. Several key races in both the Senate and House, including Illinois, California and Washington, remain toss-ups as early voting has begun and campaign days have dwindled into the single digits.

"There's a lot of anger toward the administration and frustration around Don't Ask Don't Tell, but the only message I would send to voters is to not let that distract you from the idea that your votes matter and your votes count," Witeck said. "We have a high obligation to remain engaged."

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