Gay conservatives at the crossroads
Many find the attachment of some gay men and lesbians to the Republican Party-—and to conservatism in general-—anomalous and counterintuitive. On reflection there seem to me to be two sources of the Pink Elephant phenomenon.
1) The grass roots. Exit polling suggests that the Republicans can command somewhere between a quarter and a third of the gay-lesbian vote. This means that several million people are not voting “as they should.” Given the hiddenness of this cohort we can only speculate on the reasons. With some individuals family ties may be the deciding factor. That is the case with Mary Cheney, though she is scarcely typical. The attachment may also develop from experiences in adult life. The small business enterprises in which many gays are engaged engender a natural distrust of big government. These are the people shudder when someone appears with a clipboard, saying: “Hi, I’m with the government. I’m here to help.” Marxists often used to point out a principle they themselves rarely exemplified. That is, that lessons learned in daily life often trump the supposed certainties of theory. Speaking of the left, some of the gay conservatives are of the Tammy Bruce type--people who have been there, and have moved in the other direction.
2) Gay conservatism as theory. Practical politics suggests an ideal of balance: don’t put all your eggs in one basket. There are plenty of gays and lesbians in the Democratic Party to keep them honest-—or so we hope. Prudence suggests that some presence in the Republican Party would be useful. Then there is a broader consideration. We are citizens first and gays second, not the other way around. There are various ways of interpreting the national interest. For some a winning combination is limited government but a strong defense. The hope (since cruelly dissipated) was that the libertarian component would be a major element. In fact the writings of leading gay conservatives, such as Andrew Sullivan and Dale Carpenter, are informed by careful reading of such theorists as Edmund Burke, Michael Oakeshott, and Friedrich Hayek. It is tempting to regard gay conservatism as simply a mistake. Sometimes we are told that the gay conservatives are self-hating. These shallow responses are intellectually lazy. They will do nothing to pry the gaycons away from their allegiances.
Why are gays and lesbians drawn to public service, especially in Washington? The glass ceiling may help account for the place that these individuals end up. Running for office would risk exposing them. By being staffers they can enjoy a share of power by serving as éminences grises.
As to the Pink Elephants in general, probably they start out in category one, without much theory. Then they may read some books, follow Log Cabin, and so forth, thus developing a certain veneer of theory.
As I have shown the hopes of gay conservatives were not altogether irrational. Many rallied to their cause because theirs was a serious analysis. All the same, given the magnitude of the Republican betrayal of hopes, one should now expect massive defections. This should happen, but it may not. The answer probably lies in the motivation of the grass-roots types, who will remain loyal no matter what. Their stance curiously mirrors the stalwarts of the Christian Right, who are sticking with the Republicans no matter what.
In any event, the process of separating oneself from a deeply held political faith is typically long and arduous. One of the best accounts of this process of self-deprogramming comes from Arthur Koestler (1905-1983), the Hungarian Stalinist who became an anti-Communist. Koestler said that to travel from the first inkling that he must leave the Party to the final separation took seven years. One reason for the delay is that one’s friendship network consists mainly of fellow believers. To abandon the faith means to set forth on a lonely path, seeking new associates who may be suspicious because of one’s former allegiance. A recent example, close to home, is that of Mel White. For a good many years White, an evangelical and closeted gay man, served the interests of Jerry Falwell and Oliver North. Then he came out, and formed Soulforce, an organization dedicated to opposing the homophobia of the Christian right
A few years ago when gay liberals and leftists finally deigned to notice the existence of the gay conservatives they did not apply much brainpower to the endeavor. This intellectual deficit is evident in the exposé books of Richard Goldstein and Paul Robinson. Their claim that such individuals are self-hating simply does not hold up. Those I have met are fine human beings. In their view the gay-conservative project was worth trying. . For most, recovery from Pink Elephantism will not be speedy. Doctrinaire liberals chanting “I told you so” will not induce a rush to the exit doors. These individuals have no real understanding of how gay conservatives became conservative.
Still, when all is said and done the experiment has failed. What may have been worth trying in 1996 is not viable in 2006. It is time for all thinking gays and lesbians to get out of the Republican Party. However they cannot be ordered to do so. Real change comes from within.