GOP Shifts Stand On Homosexuality Issues

One group calling for the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is the Log Cabin Republicans — a group working within the GOP on gay and lesbian issues. Rich Tafel is a founder and former chairman of that organization. He tells Linda Wertheimer that despite the current debate, he thinks some issues dealing with homosexuality are not quite the hot button issues for Republicans that they have been in other election seasons.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

One group calling for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is the Log Cabin Republicans - a group working within the Republican Party on gay and lesbian issues. Rich Tafel is the founder and former chairman of that group. He says that despite the current debate, he thinks some issues dealing with homosexuality are not quite the hot buttons for Republicans that they have been in other election seasons.

RICH TAFEL: Right before this election is a really bad time to measure the change in the party. For example, John McCain, who ran in a primary to beat a right wing conservative, has shifted his positions on this. I met with John McCain in 1993 when he told me, this is going to go away in a couple of years. And so when you have somebody like John McCain saying right before the election that he's going to make a big issue of this, I have a feeling Don't Ask, Don't Tell is being brought up by both parties as a way to gin up the base right before the election.

WERTHEIMER: What about gay marriage? There are no anti-gay marriage initiatives on ballots, as far as I know, in this mid-term election season. A CNN opinion research poll last month found that nearly half of all Americans think the constitution does provide same sex couples the right to be married. This is the first time that gay marriage dissenters slipped into the minority in the CNN poll. I wonder about that issue. Do you think that issue is dead?

TAFEL: I think what's fascinating to me - I would have never expected this, because in 1996, for example, I was involved in a series of debates on gay marriage, and the gay community criticized me for pushing an issue that was way before its time. Don't even talk about it. It's a loser. But the Christian right groups I debated at the time, said we really love this issue because this is where we're really sticking our flag. We know we'll never lose on marriage. And so to see the issue shift this dramatically in this short period of time, surprises even me. It's really pretty exciting to watch. Now at the end of the day, politicians are about winning elections, and they can feel the changes taking place in the culture.

WERTHEIMER: Why is the issue going away?

TAFEL: Well, it was a big experiment in the Republican Party for a decade - over a decade, which was the fiscally conservative, less government, free market party was going to become the family value, social conservative party. And it sort of switched identities. And I think, actually, the rise of the Tea Party and the loss of moderates and independents has been a signal to the party that hey, there's a lot of people out there who's issues are fiscal issues, less government, possibly the military issues, and probably pretty libertarian on a lot of social issues. Those folks have been lost and now they're coming back in different ways, they're finding their way back. And I think the social issues folks have lost.

WERTHEIMER: So Glenn Beck says that gay marriage is not a threat to the country. Ann Coulter, who is a conservative political commentator.

TAFEL: Um-hum, um-hum.

WERTHEIMER: Speaks at a gay Republican event; Senator John Cornyn who is a Republican - chairman of the Republican Campaign Committee in the Senate speaking at your fundraiser for the Log Cabin Republicans. It's beginning to sound like you've won.

TAFEL: Well, we're not there yet. I always felt like we were going to win because I spoke to so many young people in the '90s. And when I'd speak to campuses, and in the beginning I was an anomaly, and people would just be like, well what's it like to be gay, and it was just - I had never been a gay person.

By the end of a decade of being in that position, the kids were just totally over it. They had seen "Will and Grace," they'd watched "Ellen," they'd seen "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." Their media and their culture had moved so dramatically. And now they had gay support groups in high school, they had gay role models, celebrities.

Washington political leaders are really not leaders. They're always followers. They always follow the culture. And so they're slowly catching up. So what's interesting, is we'll probably have a more partisan Senate and House this next cycle, because the lessons will have been if you compromise, you lose. But, in there, you think wow, they're dramatically anti-gay stuff going to come up. No, because I think the culture has shifted, and for a lot of fiscal conservatives, the gay issue is simply not an issue.

WERTHEMIER: Rich Tafel is a minister. He's a political consultant, and he is the former executive director and founder of the Log Cabin Republicans. Thank you very much for coming in.

TAFEL: My pleasure, thank you.

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WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION for NPR News.

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