Out, but outside

Why top GOP operative Grover Norquist should make any member of the budding "gay right" movement think twice.

By Joe Conason

Published May 13, 2002 10:13PM (EDT)

Perhaps the most publicized political flavor of the moment is gay conservatism, or what might be called, in homage to the movement for homosexual equality, the "gay right." From Mary Cheney, lesbian daughter of the vice president, from Tory-Catholic-blogger Andrew Sullivan, from the Independent Gay Forum and, until his awful assassination, from the Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, comes the clear message that the liberal left can no longer monopolize the allegiance of gays and lesbians.

They insist that, notwithstanding the cautionary tales of conservative apostate David Brock and such deceased icons as Terry Dolan and Roy Cohn, one need no longer be closeted to be conservative.

The new gay right argues that the libertarian values of the Republican Party reflect the true interests of gays at least as well as the liberal agenda of the Democrats. At the same time, they insist that Republican politicians should be courting gays -- a significant voting bloc with substantial disposable income -- for both pragmatic and principled reasons. Lending prestige to their cause are such renowned Republicans as former President Gerald Ford, former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson and top White House aide Mary Matalin, who have joined with gays in the Republican Unity Coalition to make homosexuality a "non-issue" in their party.

But if gays and lesbians are ever fully integrated into the right, they will ultimately need to be able to work with the likes of Grover Norquist, the GOP's most energetic, dedicated and prominent operative. And that makes Norquist an illustrative example of why gays should think twice about jumping ship to the GOP.

Though he makes his living as a lobbyist for corporate and foreign interests, Norquist will tell anyone who listens that he lives for a more idealistic vocation. His zeal has made him the chief architect and strategist of the "leave-us-alone coalition," whose aim is to gather gun owners, private-school parents, evangelical Christians, small-business owners (and more than a few big-business owners), and all the other myriad adversaries of government into a dominant electoral alignment.

According to Norquist, who has co-hosted Republican Unity Coalition events, gays and lesbians fit quite neatly within this grand coalition because they don't want the government in their bedrooms. But as a recent controversy suggests, his pat theory doesn't always reflect political reality.

Late last month, at the annual convention of the National Rifle Association in Nevada, Norquist encountered the embarrassing contradictions of leave-us-alone conservatism. According to a report on the Gay.com Web site, he and other speakers at the NRA event indulged in nasty gay-baiting that drew appreciative applause and laughter from the audience.

The report quoted Norquist, who serves on the NRA board of directors, complaining that "we don't have annual parades for gun owners so everyone can appreciate that gun ownership is an alternative lifestyle and look at how great we are." He also allegedly quipped that liberals "don't want you" -- meaning the mostly male audience -- "to date girls." Hostile references to gays were reportedly uttered at the same event by conservative pollster Kellyanne Conway and a commentator named Debbie Schlussel, who derided lesbian talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell, an outspoken NRA critic, as a "freak."

Norquist denies making the statements attributed to him: "I recognize each as a bizarre paraphrase of something yanked out of context. The quotes are not accurate and the implication is not accurate. I did not make any anti-gay remarks." He went on to say, "I am disappointed that the author missed the point of my comments -- that all members of the leave-us-alone coalition share a common wish to be left alone by the government. That certainly includes gun owners, taxpayers, property owners, home-schoolers, people of faith and libertarian gays. Left-wing gays who want the state to tell others who they can hire, et cetera, are more comfortable in the statist [Democratic] party."

Regardless of how Norquist spins it, his political pedigree does not suggest sexual tolerance. While he disavows any ideological animus against gays, his frenetic networking has often embraced elements that can only generously be described as severely homophobic.

Among his various pet projects is the Islamic Institute, a Washington group that propagandizes Muslims for the GOP, and which the Protestant Norquist serves as both lobbyist and founding director. On its Web site, the Islamic Institute quite forthrightly declares an anti-gay position as the only political outlook compatible with its members' faith. "Since Islam condemns any practice that contradicts the principles that ensure a prosperous, happy family and community, it requires a high level of moral discipline," the Web site explains. "In this regard, homosexuality, or any other form of sexual behavior that does not support the traditional family unit, is forbidden."

Norquist has also worked closely for many years with the Christian Coalition, which never hesitates to manipulate and exploit the anti-gay prejudices of its voting base.

Several years ago, for example, Norquist appeared in a hysterical anti-gay video produced by Jeremiah Films -- makers of the notorious "Clinton Chronicles" videos -- titled "Gay Rights, Special Rights: Inside the Homosexual Agenda." Warning that gays are "targeting our youth by preying on their vulnerability" and "redefining the family to include all forms of sexual preference and perversion," the Jeremiah video predicted that under gay rights legislation, "your church, business and school will be forced to employ homosexuals, bisexuals, transgenders, or those who practice pedophilia."

Appearing in the video as a "former economist" for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Norquist warned that "special privileges for homosexuals would allow one more reason to file a lawsuit, one more way that a small business could find itself blackmailed politically or economically." The phrases "special privileges" and "special rights" are conservative code for protection of gays against discrimination under federal and state civil rights statutes.

In 1999, Norquist authored an article for the American Enterprise Institute's magazine to explain why the 1998 midterm elections proved the continuing predominance of the Republican right. Proof of that assertion could be found in various state referenda where voters had "endorsed key conservative principles": In both Hawaii and Alaska, he gloated, they "handily voted down" the right of gays to marry.

Norquist doesn't necessarily endorse the backward views of his allies, of course, even when they're paying him. As an ideologically sophisticated right-winger with close ties to the Bush White House and to Republicans on Capitol Hill, he may, if he is sincere, help to guide his friends away from prejudice and its exploitation. That would be a wholesome development not just for Republicans but for the nation as well.

But even assuming Norquist's good faith, he and his comrades have yet to address the difficult issues that divide gays from the Republican Party. He says that he sees Republicans as the "party of individual rights, not group rights" -- a rhetorical distinction that is either meaningless or invidious when applied to matters of social discrimination. Is the right to marry an individual right? If so, would Norquist and the Republicans defend the right of gay individuals to marry? What about the right to serve in the military, or rent a home, or seek employment, or adopt a child? And will they support the movement to enforce those rights by government and judicial action, just as the rights of all other individuals are protected?

Until Norquist, prominent Republicans like Matalin and writers like Sullivan can answer those questions affirmatively, gays and lesbians ought to consider carefully whether they wish to abandon the Democratic Party, which has endorsed their civil liberation for two decades despite incessant vitriol from the likes of Tom DeLay, Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich. The center of opposition to full citizenship for gays is still in the Republican Party, which remains under the control of powerful homophobic politicians. Until that begins to change, joining the gay right will still mean giving up on gay rights.

Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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