Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Why It's Still OK to Be Antigay: The White House's Unqualified Support for Sen. Rick Santorum after His Antigay Rant in April Is Just One More Sign of What Gay Activists Are Up against in Wooing the GOP. (Politics)

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

Why It's Still OK to Be Antigay: The White House's Unqualified Support for Sen. Rick Santorum after His Antigay Rant in April Is Just One More Sign of What Gay Activists Are Up against in Wooing the GOP. (Politics)

Article excerpt

Sen. Rick Santorum was on a roll. After endorsing Texas's antigay sodomy law and comparing homosexuality to incest and polygamy, the Pennsylvania Republican said, "That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be."

The comments surprised many Americans and even "freaked out" the Associated Press reporter who was interviewing the senator. "I'm sorry, I didn't think I was going to talk about 'man on dog' with a United States senator--it's sort of freaking me out," the reporter said.

Yet the combination of outrage and puzzlement that greeted Santorum's bizarre rant didn't seem to freak out Republican Party leaders. In fact, when Democrats demanded that Santorum be stripped of his post as the GOP's convention chairman, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said President George W. Bush felt Santorum was "an inclusive man." Senate majority leader Bill Frist described him as a "voice for inclusion and compassion." Pennsylvania's senior senator, Arlen Specter, said his colleague was "not a bigot" and implied that Santorum's critics were "cannibals." And Marc Racicot, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said nothing.

"It's hard to say what's worse--Santorum's comments or the total denial about them in the party," says Steve Glassman, the openly gay cochair of the Statewide Pennsylvania Rights Coalition.

The senator's diatribe--and the defense of it--not only exposed the GOP's continued coddling of its religious right base. It also laid bare the lack of influence gay activists have within a party that will control the White House and Congress for at least the next two years.

"It comes down to a numbers game," says Hastings Wyman, publisher of Southern Political Report, a nonpartisan biweekly newsletter. "Sure, the GOP would rather not offend gays, but the religious right is calling the shots here."

In fact, religious right activists were jubilant when Santorum articulated what they had been saying for years. Gary Bauer, a religious right leader who won 1% of the vote in the New Hampshire GOP primary in 2000, said that "while some elites may be upset by [Santorum's] comments, they're pretty much in the mainstream of where most of the country is."

Actually, polls indicate that the public is skeptical of sodomy laws. A Harris Interactive/Witeck-Combs Communications poll taken in April showed that 74% of Americans said the laws should be repealed. More than 35 states have scrapped their sodomy laws in the past 40-plus years, and 10 of those (with two others pending) and Washington, D.C., have done so since 1986, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Georgia's sodomy law in the Bowers v. Hardwick decision.

The growing public support for gay rights and glaring acts of hostility like Santorum's undercut the GOP's effort to market itself as a moderate party and underscore its reliance on antigay activists. At a time when the party enjoys sweeping power, observers wonder whether its leaders can muster the willpower to distance themselves from antigay crusaders and whether gay activists can ever apply enough pressure to the party to make that happen.

One Washington insider determined to loosen the far right wing's grip on the GOP is Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the gay group Log Cabin Republicans since January. Guerriero, who abandoned a bid last year to become lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was among those who called on Santorum to apologize.

"Log Cabin Republicans are entering a new chapter," says Guerriero, whose predecessor at Log Cabin, Rich Tafel, was frequently criticized as an apologist for the party's antigay leaders. "We're no longer thrilled simply about getting a meeting at the White House. We're organized enough to demand full equality. I've heard that vibration since I've been in Washington--that people in the party are taking us for granted. …

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