As George Bush’s poll numbers began seriously dwindling, Karl Rove and the White House political strategists decided to reach into their bag of tricks and come up with a good old staple of reactionary politics: homophobia.
The decision to scapegoat gay and lesbian Americans was poll-driven by an antigay backlash that gathered steam in the wake of the Supreme Court’s June 26 decision, in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down laws making gay sex between consenting adults illegal–the so-called sodomy laws. The backlash first surfaced in a July 25-27 Gallup poll. It showed that support for legalizing gay sex had plummeted a dramatic twelve points, to only 48 percent, down from a comfortable 60 percent in favor of legalization in Gallup’s May survey. Those saying “homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle” also slalomed down from 54 to 46 percent; and support for same-sex civil unions dropped from 49 to 40 percent. Two weeks later, a Washington Post poll showed that support for gay civil unions had dropped three points lower than in Gallup’s. Since then, five other national polls have confirmed the antigay trend.
Just two days after Gallup released its poll showing the backlash, Bush unexpectedly used a Rose Garden press conference to announce that he’d assigned lawyers to come up with a plan to stop gay marriage. Bush and the Republicans had been under enormous pressure from the Christian right and social conservatives–including National Review and The Weekly Standard–to support a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, which would ban recognition of any form of marriage between two persons of the same gender. (The FMA would also forbid giving same-sex couples the “legal incidents” of marriage, thus vitiating the civil-union law in Vermont and any other state that followed suit.)
The GOP had already signaled it would respond to that pressure and use gay marriage as a wedge issue against the Democrats in the Congressional elections when, not long before Bush’s Rose Garden declaration, Senate Republican majority leader Bill Frist declared on This Week in June that he would “absolutely” support the FMA. Frist’s declaration was no go-it-aloner’s gaffe: It was made “with no-fingerprints support from the White House,” as Howard Fineman and Debra Rosenberg reported in Newsweek.
Since then, the Republicans have ratcheted up their anti-gay marriage crusade. On July 29 the Senate Republican Policy Committee adopted a twelve-page policy paper declaring that gay marriage was a “threat” to the established social order. Then, Senate Judiciary subcommittee chairman John Cornyn of Texas–declaring that “we must do whatever it takes” to stop same-sex unions–held formal hearings on the gay marriage issue on September 4 (in the House, where the FMA already has eighty-nine co-sponsors, similar hearings are expected this fall). These hearings are being held even though Congress, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, in 1996 passed the antigay Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law (the DOMA denies federal recognition and benefits to same-sex marriages and allows states to deny recognition of such unions performed in other states). However, Cornyn’s staff produced a gaggle of witnesses echoing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which he warned that the majority’s ruling would dismantle “the structure…that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions.” Among those Cornyn called to testify, for example, was former Texas solicitor general Gregory Coleman, who argued that “it is likely” that the US Supreme Court will hold DOMA unconstitutional in the near future. (Another GOP witness, syndicated Murdoch columnist Maggie Gallagher, went so far as to write that “polygamy is not worse than gay marriage, it is better”!) Indeed, many legal scholars have argued forcefully that the federal DOMA violates the “full faith and credit” clause of the Constitution, which provides that states cannot ignore other states’ proceedings but must recognize them and put them into effect. In that context, all the electorally motivated demagogy coming out of the Rose Garden and the Cornyn hearings creates momentum behind the proposed antigay constitutional amendment.
At the state level, too, Republican antigay initiatives are snowballing. In Wisconsin, despite the fact that state law already bans same-sex marriage, forty-nine legislators–saying the existing statute is “too vague”–have introduced a new Defense of Marriage Act with even tougher language, and it took less than a minute for the Wisconsin Assembly’s Judiciary Committee to pass it 6 to 0 on September 11. Michigan Republicans are introducing a similar bill in the State Senate. In Ohio thirty-two Republicans and one Democrat introduced a “super-DOMA” on September 9 that would ban civil unions and domestic partnership benefits for gay couples as well as same-sex marriage. In Colorado, House Republican majority leader Keith King is behind a resolution in favor of the FMA. And in Massachusetts a Republican-sponsored state constitutional amendment banning civil unions and gay marriage is being pushed by a Democrat, powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a social conservative. More gay-bashing legislation is expected to be introduced at the state level soon. Democrats voting against bills like these will find those votes used to try to defeat them; and, given the current climate of backlash, how many from marginal seats will stand up and say no to such measures?
Remember how the Republicans’ subliminal gaybaiting evoked the specter of the “San Francisco Democrats” after the party held its national convention there in 1984? Well, one can expect attacks on the “Boston Democrats” next year if, as many Bay State legal prognosticators believe is likely, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit arguing that banning gay marriage violates the state Constitution (a decision is expected any day–and a similar case is working its way toward the New Jersey Supreme Court). “If the Massachusetts decision goes our way,” says National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Matt Foreman, “there’s no way the right won’t make it a huge issue in ’04–the backlash against such a decision would make gay marriage the defining social issue” in next year’s elections. Already, GOP National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, in a September 23 Washington Times interview, predicted that the party’s platform next year would probably include support for the constitutional amendment. Gillespie turned up the antigay rhetoric, accusing gay activists of “religious bigotry” and “intolerance” in demanding equal marriage rights. And the Denver Post‘s Washington bureau has not been alone in predicting that if the Massachusetts court rules in favor of same-sex unions, Bush will then flat-out endorse the FMA.
Make no mistake: The Bush Administration has been feeling the heat from the conservative ultras. “The far right wants a civil war in the Republican Party,” says Patrick Guerriero, a former Melrose, Massachusetts, mayor who is the new national head of the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), a GOP gay group. “It’s very clear from all the signals coming from the far right that they want to take the GOP back” to the culture wars trumpeted at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Guerriero says, “on gay marriage and other culture issues that appeal to their fundraising base.” The Rev. Jerry Falwell recently announced that he will devote all his time and energy to opposing gay marriage and campaigning for the FMA; the Traditional Values Coalition has been sending out 1.5 million pieces of mail a month on the gay marriage issue; and addicts of Christian and conservative radio have been treated to daily diatribes against gay marriage from the likes of Focus on the Family’s James Dobson, who has more radio listeners than CNN has viewers, and the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, which has 200 affiliated Christian radio stations.
The thirteen states in which “sodomy” laws were struck down by the Supreme Court were all states that Bush carried in his first election. But the Republicans’ decision to embrace political homophobia anew is more than simply a sop to the Christers and the far right–given the antigay backlash, it’s shrewd political strategy. Karl Rove never tires of pointing out that 4 million of the 19 million evangelical Christians didn’t vote in 2000. With 2004 shaping up as another close election, Rove & Co. want to energize the Christian-right base to which Bush is already so heavily indebted (it motored his 2000 primary victories against John McCain) and insure a maximum turnout among the AWOL evangelicals and other Christian traditionalists.
Pushing the antigay hot button is also designed to help the Republicans increase their Congressional majorities. Most of the open or marginal Senate seats are on turf where the gay marriage issue undoubtedly helps Republicans. In Georgia, where nominal Democrat Zell Miller is retiring, a Zogby poll in August showed that two-thirds of the state’s voters oppose same-sex unions. In North and South Carolina, where John Edwards and Fritz Hollings have decided not to seek re-election, a Carolinas Poll of the two states sponsored by the Charlotte Observer and released September 14 showed a 3-to-1 opposition to legal recognition of same-sex unions. Then there’s Alaska, which has already passed, by referendum, a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage; Florida, where Representative Mark Foley was forced to abandon his GOP primary campaign for US Senate because of negative voter reaction to a local newspaper story alleging he was gay; and Illinois, where half the electorate is rural or suburban and the urban areas are heavily Catholic. (Following the Pope’s recent ukase demanding that all Catholics oppose gay marriage and gay civil unions, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on September 10 endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment. No doubt the bishops will follow their counterparts in Canada–where Jean Chrétien’s government is supporting making gay marriage legal–in denouncing progay politicians from the pulpit.) In the House, only sixty Congressional seats are considered in play by the National Committee for an Effective Congress–and almost all of them are in rural, suburban or exurban districts infinitely less gay-friendly than urban areas, districts in which nuclear-family NASCAR Dads and Soccer Moms are susceptible to antigay appeals.
There is evidence of antigay backlash even in California. It has always been a staple of gay political strategy that as more and more gay people came out of the closet to their friends, neighbors and workmates, social acceptance of same-sexers would rise. But despite the fact that California has large numbers of out gays all over the state, a Field Poll released August 29 showed that half the voters there oppose the idea of gay marriage–and 42 percent favor the FMA. Homophobia was already deployed by the GOP in the Big Enchilada’s recall, which was financed by notorious homophobe Representative Darrell Issa. “It’s a major motivating force,” says Geoffrey Kors, executive director of Equality California, the statewide gay lobbying and political action group, adding, “At the recall rallies you’ve seen lots of signs saying Recall Gay Davis.” Davis may be a poster boy for campaign-finance corruption, but he has appointed a raft of out gays to office and just signed a major progay domestic-partners law passed by the legislature.
In many parts of the country, the antigay backlash was fed too by federal court orders to remove the two-and-a-half-ton replica of the Ten Commandments–known as “Roy’s Rock”–from the Alabama Supreme Court. This religious brouhaha is mixed up in the minds of the simple as of a piece with the US Supreme Court’s “sodomy” law decision in an assault on “family values.” A Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans opposed the federal order to remove the monolith. Roy’s Rock “has been a big story throughout the nation,” says veteran Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “I’ve worked in the Deep South for twenty-five years, and the Washington types don’t understand just what an enormous impact all of this together will have. And not just on Christians–it’s a reflection of the states’ rights mentality that plays on distrust of the federal government. Race is no longer the dividing line in this country–it’s religion and region.”
Furthermore, the tens of millions of dollars being raised by the Democrats and labor to register and energize frequently religious black, Hispanic and working-class voters will bring to the polls many who could be swayed by combined antigay and religious appeals (which is why Bush has poured political patronage labeled “faith-based initiatives” into conservative black and Hispanic churches). All the national polls show that the lower down voters are on the education and income scales, the more antigay they are; thus, blacks oppose gay marriage by a whopping 65 to 28 percent, while among Hispanics it’s 54 to 40 percent, according to an August New York Times poll. Former Martin Luther King Jr. aide Rev. Walter Fauntroy is one of the leaders of the antigay Alliance for Marriage, which backs the FMA, and the group’s board is stacked with bishops and pastors from the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The rabid right and its allies in the White House are aware of all of the above–which is why we can expect a relaunch of the antigay culture wars in 2004.