For moderate Minnesota Republicans, watching their elected representatives at work in Washington must be a bit like watching a teen slasher movie. You don't really understand why the characters do what they do, but you know they're making very bad choices. Imagine scores of moderates transfixed in front of C-SPAN, screaming, "No, don't open that door!"
Many Republican legislators have managed, once again, to paint themselves as mean-spirited old men by attacking lesbians and gays, and if there's any justice in the world, they'll be facing a major backlash at the polls this fall.
Despite a congressional session notable for its lack of substantive legislation, House Republicans did manage to propose, and in most cases pass, measures designed to hurt lesbians and gays, or at least entice zealots to vote in what's expected to be a low-turnout election. The actions of legislators were carried out on a wave of anti-gay rubbish spewed forth by both politicians and religious leaders.
I'll remember the summer of 1998 with a mixture of outrage and amusement, starting with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's comparison of homosexuality to alcoholism and kleptomania. A coalition of Christian groups followed up by launching a national ad campaign against lesbians and gays. The first salvo in this cultural war was a full-page ad in national newspapers promoting the idea that gay people can convert to heterosexuality if they would only try.
But it was those wacky guys in the U.S. House of Representatives who really made me wonder if GOP members weren't suffering from some El Niño-related collective madness. Not content with last year's passage of the Defense of Marriage Act, this year they felt the need to defend San Francisco, adoptive children of Washington, D.C., and the Executive Branch of the federal government from homosexuality.
House members passed a measure which would deny federal housing funds to San Francisco because of its sweeping domestic-partnership law, along with a second which would eliminate $21 million from housing programs for people with AIDS and transfer it to veterans' programs. Then, in a last-minute vote before their August recess, House members passed an amendment to the D.C. spending bill which would forbid unmarried couples from adopting children in our nation's capitol. Since unmarried heterosexual couples are hardly storming foster homes in search of children to adopt, there is little doubt as to whom this measure targets. The Senate, meanwhile, hasn't moved to act on any of these issues.
The weirdest waste of taxpayer time and money was offered up in the form of an amendment that would have barred the enforcement of President Clinton's executive order banning discrimination against gay and lesbian federal employees. The amendment, which was ultimately rejected, was framed by GOP leadership as a constitutional issue of separation of powers rather than one of gay bashing. A bit disingenuous, this spin, considering that the original executive order was put in place by President Nixon to protect other groups of workers and no one in Congress thought it was unconstitutional until Clinton added the words "sexual orientation" to it.
By the time this amendment came up for debate, murmurs of politically motivated hate-mongering and the specter of a backlash were in the air. House majority leaders limited debate on the amendment to 20 minutes--perhaps out of fear that some of the less smooth Republicans would make outrageously bigoted comments.
After months of thinly veiled gay bashing in the House and in the press, the arrival of genuinely proud homophobes, in the form of the loopy family Phelps, in the Twin Cities was almost a relief. I didn't realize there were hillbillies from Kansas, but you could almost hear the banjo music twanging in the background as they hoisted their "God Hates Fags" picket signs in front of churches during their late-July visit.
To the credit of Twin Citians, the Phelpses were met by scores of locals who took exception to the notion that God is as hate-filled as this crazy family. Rev. Paul Graetz of All God's Children Metropolitan Community Church estimates that more than 1,000 people showed up at his church to stand in solidarity against the Phelpses. Local politicians, ranging from gubernatorial candidates to the mayor of Minneapolis (who declared the day of the clan's visit as a "Say No to Hate Day"), denounced the hate-mongering message of the Phelps family. Graetz says he even fielded phone calls from religious conservatives who, despite their steadfast belief in the "sinfulness" of homosexuality, were quick to distance themselves from Fred Phelps and his ilk.
The reception that greeted the Phelpses shows that Minnesotans have no patience for bigots and leaves me hopeful that the more subtle gay bashing being committed by members of the GOP in Washington, D.C., has no place here either.
Despite the belief voiced to me by a local Republican leader that no one cares about gay issues except gay voters, I like to think Minnesotans will question whether a party which supports discrimination on a federal level is likely to do the same locally.
So I offer this advice to Republican politicians everywhere: Be careful if you feel a little nip in the air this fall. It might be your own words coming back to bite you.
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