President reaches gay conservatives

Quiet effort has them hoping for fuller role

Bush quietly reaches gay conservatives

April 19, 2001|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Brian Bennett was working on George W. Bush's transition team, some administration hopefuls would nervously approach him with a question: Did they need to hide their homosexuality to get a job?

"I told them you wouldn't plaster across your resume, `I AM GAY,' but if their qualifications included participation in a gay and lesbian organization, then they should list it," says Bennett, one of two openly gay Republicans who advised the Bush staff during the transition.

"When you've been told for such a long time that you're not welcome into the party, people have a little trepidation. But I told them, `You don't have to worry with this administration. You'll be treated fairly. You'll be evaluated on your merits.'"

Many gay and lesbian Republicans think Bush is striking a newly inclusive tone, finally making homosexuals feel welcome in a party they believe has shut them out for decades. Most recently, Republican homosexuals point to the appointment of Scott H. Evertz to head the AIDS policy office - making him the first openly gay person to secure a paying job in a Republican White House - as the strongest sign yet that the GOP establishment is willing to work with them.

But if the Bush administration is making overtures to the gay community, it is doing so with the volume turned down. Evertz was chosen for the job, but Bush did not use the moment to talk about the need for diversity or discuss the appointment as a marker for gay conservatives. Instead, the administration stepped gingerly around the subject.

"Scott Evertz's appointment is based on the president's belief he is the best person for the job," says White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. "The president is committed to working for all Americans. I'll leave it at that."

The Bush team made a similarly muted statement in last year's campaign when it invited Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe to be the first openly gay person to address a Republican National Convention, but then had Kolbe speak solely about free trade.

Similarly, Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, urged tolerance for homosexuals during the campaign but chose not to personalize the issue by mentioning his openly gay daughter, Mary Cheney, even though that could have reinforced his point.

In the minds of gay Republicans, even such seemingly mild gestures and comments are meaningful.

"It's very clear the president is at odds with most of the gay agenda, but that's OK," says Bennett. "In the battlefield of politics, you get in and make your case and try to win people over. At least you're allowed in the arena."

To Bush's Democratic critics, this is not progress. They are accustomed to former President Bill Clinton, whom they credit with appointing more than 150 openly gay and lesbian officials in his two terms.

Many Democratic gay-rights advocates note that Bush has not said whether he will rescind Clinton's executive orders banning discrimination based on sexual preference in government hiring and granting federal security clearances. And they bristle over Bush's failure to state his position on a federal hate-crimes bill aimed at protecting homosexuals. The high-profile Evertz appointment, these activists say, goes only so far.

"From what I've seen already, on a scale of 1 to 10, the Bush administration gets a 2," says David Mixner, a gay-rights activist and former adviser to Clinton. Of gay Republicans supporting Bush, he says, "I hope they don't become apologists. I hope they don't take one small appointment to one office and trumpet it as real progress."

The president is coming under attack from some on the right, too, as religious conservatives accuse him of pandering to gays at the expense of family values. They assail not just the Evertz appointment, but also Bush's earlier decision to name former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci, a supporter of gay rights, as U.S. ambassador to Canada. Lately, conservatives have fumed over the hiring of Stephen Herbits, an openly gay man, as a consultant to screen applications for Defense Department jobs.

"It's not as if homosexuals are a huge GOP constituency compared with, say, evangelical Christians," says Robert Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, a conservative group. "Republicans throw away the idea they're the defenders of traditional morality, they'll destroy their party. The big tent view of the GOP - that's suicide."

Caught between the warring sides, gay Republicans are taking a pragmatic route.

A Bush family friend, Charles Francis, is directing the new Republican Unity Coalition, a group of 100 high-ranking gay and heterosexual party activists attempting to rid the GOP of homophobia. It has mainstream support: Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, who has the ear of the administration, and White House strategist Mary Matalin are among the advisers. The group, which is also starting a political action committee, will promote conservative legislation for gay rights.

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