Change of Guard: Now That Trent Lott's Republicans Are Back in Control, Are Gays and Lesbians Again Going to Be Compared to Kleptomaniacs? (Election 2002 Aftershocks)

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During his first tenure as Senate majority leader, Trent Lott publicly compared homosexuality to kleptomania, blocked the nomination of openly gay philanthropist James Hormel as a U.S. ambassador, and was pilloried for ignoring a surge in antigay hate crimes even after the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard made international news.

But Lott, who first held the powerful leadership post from 1995 to 2001, is poised to regain it now that the GOP has recaptured the Senate. And this time the antigay Mississippi lawmaker has pledged to perform "better than the last time and learn from those experiences."

"I wouldn't be surprised if Trent Lott learned his lesson," says Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay political group. "I'm sure he holds the same views he always did. But if he wants to hold on to his leadership this time, he needs to moderate his image, and toning down the rhetoric on gay rights is a great place to start."

Democrats were less sanguine. "When the senator says he has learned from mistakes, whether Hormel or the lack of response to the Shepard murder, that's a sign of hope," says Chad Johnson, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, a federation of gay Democratic groups. "But when it comes down to it, we want more than gentler rhetoric. What really matters is getting better laws on the books, and I don't see that happening in this Congress."

Indeed, Republican control of Congress and the White House virtually guarantees until 2005 the stalling of the two major pieces of federal gay rights legislation--the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act, a hate-crimes bill that would include sexual orientation in its list of protected characteristics. Less clear is the fate of traditionally bipartisan AIDS-related bills and judicial nominations, on which Democrats likely will attempt to woo moderate Republicans such as Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island in the narrowly divided Senate.

Instead, national gay rights groups appear destined to spend the next two years fending off antigay legislation and amendments promulgated by the newly emboldened House right wing. In that fight, lobbyists are likely to enlist the help of Jim Kolbe, the openly gay Arizona Republican who has a record of deftly outmaneuvering the House right wing on antigay measures. (Another stalwart pro-gay House Republican, Connie Morella of Maryland, lost her reelection bid despite gaining the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign.)

"Clearly, we will work closely with Republican moderates," says Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the openly lesbian Democrat who bucked the GOP trend by winning reelection in a landslide. "There is a real struggle within the GOP about what sort of tactics to use now that they have the presidency and both houses of Congress. One camp realizes that the nation is truly divided and that they have only a razor-thin majority, while the other will try to pass a huge agenda, including an antigay one."

It is difficult to assess the impact of the gay and lesbian vote in this year's election, since Voter News Service, the polling consortium sponsored by the networks and CNN, did not include questions about sexual orientation in exit polling for the first time since 1990. VNS had said in the three previous election years that the gay vote composed between 4% and 5% of the electorate and that gays cast ballots for Democrats at a clip of between 60% and 70%.

But it was clear that in the majority of state and local races, gay-related issues had a much smaller profile than in the recent past. "I don't think there is any question that the Democratic message about civil rights did not get through to the electorate as a whole," Johnson concedes. "President Bush's sweep through key states just before the election and the media coverage the trip generated focused the nation on security and foreign policy. …