Debate over gay rights bill splits Calif. Republicans Moderates face off against the far right

September 24, 1991|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LOS ANGELES -- Tom Larkin never saw much of a conflict in being both gay and Republican.

In California, perceived by many outsiders as a state that takes all things in stride, the 52-year-old commercial real estate agent was able to work for both causes and was proud to carry both banners.

But he is having doubts now about his party, his party is apparently having doubts about people like him, and California is looking anything but progressive amid a raucous, hostile and at times downright vulgar debate over a statewide gay rights bill.

"I believe in what the Republican Party stands for, but what happened this past week is not what it stands for," Mr. Larkin, co-chairman of a Los Angeles gay Republican club, said last week. "I'm ashamed to be associated with some of these people."

The bill, fiercely opposed by conservative Republicans and religious fundamentalists, was passed by the legislature Sept. 13, but not before Republican Assemblyman David Knowles told his colleagues in a televised floor speech that homosexuals commonly urinate on each other and play with each other's feces.

Last weekend, a day after the legislation passed, Republicans at a state party convention called the bill "anti-family" and adopted a resolution demanding that Gov. Pete Wilson veto it. They blamed the "homosexual lifestyle" for the spread of the AIDS virus.

And last week, as the bill lay on the governor's desk -- he has until Oct. 13 to sign or veto it -- religious fundamentalists led by the Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition in Anaheim, kept stoking the fire.

Mr. Sheldon says the bill is an attempt to legitimize aberrant behavior and part of "an agenda to overhaul straight America."

"Homosexuality is not just two men holding hands in the park," he said during an interview. "It's a high-risk behavior. It's a developmental disorder. . . . Heterosexuality produces life; homosexuality produces death. That's just a straight medical fact."

The debate over the bill, which bars employers from discriminating against gays and lesbians, has brought to the forefront a less-publicized side of California -- its far-right side -- which some say is showing itself to be as strong as ever, if not stronger.

Mr. Wilson, a moderate Republican, has already fallen out of grace with the far-right side of his party because of his support for tax increases and abortion rights. Signing the bill would further alienate that segment, which has already taken to calling him "One-term Pete."

Mr. Wilson, who indicated in April he would support the bill, has since expressed concerns about the legislation, which has prompted 70,000 letters and calls to his office, more than any other issue since he took office in January, a spokesman said.

It has led to threats as well. An anonymous caller, claiming to be a member of a gay and lesbian radical group, threatened to "out" -- or make public -- the identities of gay members of the governor's staff if he did not sign the bill. Members of the religious right have promised an end to Mr. Wilson's political career if he does sign it.

"Let's just say, if he signs it, he'll be up to his you-know-what in alligators," said Mr. Sheldon, who said he would press for a referendum to repeal the legislation if Mr. Wilson signed it.

"The governor has tried to bring in a new doctrine that is not in line with the principal beliefs of the rank-and-file Republicans of California," Mr. Sheldon said. "He's brought higher taxes, he's pro-abortion, and he has strong sympathy for homosexual issues."

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