Ritch Colbert, natural-born Republican, begged his puzzled parents a generation ago for a trip to San Francisco to hear his hero Barry Goldwater campaign for President. When the 8-year-old got home, he marched the streets of liberal Marin County, hefting a campaign poster stapled to a broomstick--a one-boy Barry Brigade.
Last week, Colbert led a lonely march of a different stripe when he took to a podium in Palm Desert at the California Republican Party Convention. His task at what he called this "history-making" workshop: to help explain gay and lesbian Republicans to a party that increasingly is defining itself in opposition to them.
If anything, however, the workshop underscored the continuing isolation of gay men and lesbians within the GOP--it attracted little more than a dozen like-minded audience members. Most of the 2,000 conventioneers, who packed into a huge auditorium for Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed's speech the following morning, were oblivious to the workshop.
Social-issue conservatives such as Reed are on a roll within the party. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole--the front-runner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination--has openly turned his back on gay and lesbian support. And Colbert and thousands of Republicans like him are left to confront dual challenges.
Politically, they must persuade an increasingly hostile party to accept them. Meanwhile, they must live in a gay community that often ridicules them as sellouts, an environment that has traditionally been liberal and largely Democratic.
As they face these realities, gay and lesbian Republicans have to answer a question that Gary DePew, 34, a Van Nuys film producer, asks himself a lot these days: "What does the party have to offer me?"
His answer reflects what many say: "I'm not sure at the moment."
"I participate in Republican politics because I think I have a lot to offer them," DePew says. "It's no secret that the Republican Party is kowtowing to the radical right. . . . I'm not so much looking to reconcile myself with the party. I'm hoping to work within the party to help it reconcile with itself."
While political scientists figure that 25% to 33% of gay voters--motivated by economics, by broader ideology or simply by habit--cast their ballots for GOP candidates, gay Republican activists acknowledge that some of their ranks are peeling away from the party and heading off into the hazy world of "independent" and "decline to state."
For many, the struggle to reconcile a gay identity with a Republican ideology has proven impossible. Marvin Liebman--for 30 years part of America's conservative fabric--has found that out the hard way. Liebman, 72, announced his homosexuality in the pages of friend William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review in 1990 and published "Coming Out Conservative" two years later. In 1995, he called it quits; he is a casualty, he says, of the radical right.
"I am conservative, Republican, and Christian," Liebman wrote early this year in the Advocate, the leading magazine serving the gay community. "God knows, I'm gay too. Isn't it possible to be all four, or have I become a living oxymoron? The answer eluded me for some time but is now obvious: No, it is not possible--at least for me--not in today's world."
Five years ago, when Liebman had his public coming out, the conjunction was not yet quite so difficult. The political parties had yet to become so polarized on the issue of gay rights.
Patrick J. Buchanan had not yet mesmerized a wildly applauding 1992 Republican convention by unleashing the "religious war going on in this country for the soul of America." "Family values" had barely entered the nation's cultural conversation. The Democrats had only begun the courtship of gay voters that blossomed with Bill Clinton's promises during the '92 campaign to accelerate the war on AIDS, which he largely fulfilled, and the promise to lift the ban on gays in the military, which he ultimately broke.
These days, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile homosexuality and Republican ideology. Today, prominent Republicans openly compete to be known as the staunchest opponent of what some conservatives label the "gay agenda."
Around the edges of the party, social-conservative groups attack gays with a harsh rhetoric that has otherwise largely disappeared from American politics. And among leaders of the conservative movement, who make at least some effort to woo blacks and women, there is little regret that Republican gays feel increasingly alienated from the party.
"Their votes are welcome," says Robert Maginnis, policy analyst for the conservative Family Research Council. "But to give the state sanction to them is completely contrary to the moral heritage of the nation."
Reactions like that--voiced by the loudest if not the largest segment of the GOP--set gays and lesbians apart from even Republicans who support abortion rights in their isolation and vulnerability within the party that represents them.
In September, seven of the major Republican presidential candidates addressed the annual conference of the powerful Christian Coalition, each struggling to appear more traditional, more conservative, more enamored of the "marriage-based family" than the next guy.
Just days before, Dole had announced that he was returning a $1,000 check to the Log Cabin Republicans because the gay organization's agenda, his campaign staff said, was "100% at odds" with his own.
For gay Republicans, all this merely makes a difficult position harder. "I know some people with views very similar to mine who say they're conservative Democrats," says Carol Newman, vice president of L.A. Log Cabin. "The societal pressure not to be a Log Cabin Republican is so great, they'd rather say they're conservative Democrats."
For politically active lesbians and gays, today's world holds out some slim hopes. In 1991, when the nonpartisan Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund was formed, there were fewer than 50 openly gay elected officials in the United States--out of 511,039 elected public servants. Today, that number has nearly doubled, to 86.
On the other hand, it only takes Kathleen DeBold, Victory Fund deputy director, a single breath to name the Republicans; there are four, she says, including one member of Congress, Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Wis.). Another breath and she names the openly gay Republicans running for office nationwide; there are five.
Ron St. John, 36, is one of this select fraternity, a man whose first job was washing dishes, whose second job was crunching numbers for Paul Laxalt's 1974 Nevada Senate run and who now wants to be the next Republican assemblyman from the 13th District in Tucson.
St. John's proudest moment as a Republican came in 1980 when he was an alternate delegate at the Republican National Convention in Detroit and listened to Ronald Reagan talk about the "shining city on the hill," about hope for tomorrow, about possibility, about optimism.
Reagan "had this ability to bring people together and appeal to the better part of people's nature," says St. John, who at the time was not open about his sexual orientation. "He really didn't stoop to the negative stuff that people use today to get elected, to frighten people."
The darkest moment of St. John's political life came 12 years later. He was out of the closet and out of the country, serving in the Peace Corps when his parents sent him newspaper clippings about the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, including stories about Buchanan's speech. Reading them, he said, "made me wince."
Today as he runs for office, he knows that he has a job ahead of him, a job to bring his party back to the inclusiveness he believes it was founded on, a job to fit into the two worlds in which he walks.
"There's a very small group of Republicans who will not forgive me for being gay," said St. John, who has raised $15,000 and plans to raise $90,000 more. "There's a very small group of gays and lesbians who will not forgive me for being Republican."
While many gay and lesbian Republicans are optimistic about the future of their party and their place in it, to some the idea of not being welcome is intensely painful. Listen to St. John talk about the GOP and why he belongs: "My family has been Republican, God, forever. It's in the genes. . . . I believe in limited government. I believe in the power of individual citizens. I tend to be a fiscal conservative."
Listen to what his party and some of its leaders say about the likes of him:
* "We oppose any legislation or law that legally recognizes same-sex marriages and allows such couples to adopt children or provide foster care." ( Republican Party Platform, 1992 .)
* "Let's overturn President Clinton's unworkable and destructive policy of gays in the military." ( Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, presidential candidate, in a recent address. )
* "Every lesbian spear-chucker in America is hoping I get defeated." ( Rep. Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, presidential candidate, during his 1992 congressional race. )
For many gay Republicans, Dole's very public rejection of the Log Cabin group's contribution was stunning. To Frank Ricchiazzi, a longtime leader of the 18-year-old Log Cabin movement, the moment crystallized the problems facing the Republican Party in its relationship with its gay members. Log Cabin, which claims 10,000 members nationwide and has raised $500,000 for gay and gay-friendly candidates, took the money back, and many outraged members have asked for the return of their personal donations to Dole.
"But mainstream straight Republicans had an opportunity to stand up and make a point" by protesting Dole's action, said Ricchiazzi, assistant director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. "They still didn't do it. Their conscience has to be troubling them."
Ricchiazzi also said that Dole's rebuff notwithstanding, "Log Cabin is going to stay in this party and Log Cabin is going to work in this party."
Colbert, president of Log Cabin's Los Angeles chapter, contends that Dole's move may have been a blunder that will haunt him.
If Dole prevails and becomes the GOP presidential candidate, a Republican win "may not happen in '96," Colbert said.
"The Republicans may have to lose another election in '96 before they wake up to the reality that they have been infected by people who are essentially not Republicans," he says, referring to the party's conservative activists.
Does it really matter so much if gay Republicans abandon the party in the presidential election 13 months from now? Possibly, says Robert Bailey, assistant professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers University.
"If you lose the gay vote, if it's a landslide it's not earth-shattering," says Bailey, who has written extensively on gay voting patterns. "If it's a close race, by 2% to 3% and the gay vote is 4% to 5%, it could make a difference--particularly in those urbanized states that the Democrats have to carry."
In 1992, says Mark Hertzog, author of an upcoming book called "The Lavender Vote," exit polls indicated that 72% of gay voters went for Clinton, 14% for Ross Perot and 14% voted for then-President George Bush. That Bush got even that much surprised some, given that in mid-campaign an openly gay member of Bush's campaign staff sued, saying he had been fired because of pressure from the religious right.
"That's not insignificant," Hertzog says. "It means that 300,000 openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the U.S. voted for George Bush in spite of" the ex-staffer's lawsuit.
But will even that degree of partisan allegiance win out this time if the Republican Party nominates a man who is hostile to gays and lesbians? It depends on whom you talk to.
Los Angeles attorney Dawn Whitney, a former Democrat, turned Republican in 1994; as she grew older, she said, she decided to return to her roots of "nice conservatism." Whitney has never been a Dole fan, never will be. His returning the Log Cabin money left her "enraged, enraged," but she said she never would have voted for him anyway. "He's too mean-spirited," she said.
"I hate voting for independents," Whitney said. "It's a lost vote. If the Republican is someone I don't like, I'll probably vote for Clinton."
Another homosexual Republican activist, however, who asked to remain nameless, contends that the Log Cabin club's position has always been to try to work with the presidential candidate, no matter who he is.
If Dole is nominated, the activist said, "we think that we may be able to soften some of the rhetoric. . . . But what Dole did was so bad."
The activist adds: "It's very difficult to deal with being a Republican these days."
Times staff writer Dave Lesher contributed to this story.