U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona took the podium at the Republican National Convention tonight to stress the importance of international trade.
But there was no question his four-minute speech before hundreds of Republican delegates gathered in Philadelphia had a very different meaning: It was the first time an openly gay member of Congress has addressed a Republican convention.
“He is speaking about trade, but the symbolism here is undeniable,” said Kevin Ivers, a spokesman for the Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s largest and most visible gay and lesbian group in the GOP.
Silent Protest: Heads Bowed in Prayer
And the impact of his speech in the First Union Center, site of the GOP convention, was evident if subtle. Some delegates from Texas, the home state of the presumed Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, bowed their heads in silent prayer, holding their cowboy hats in their hands or over their hearts. One delegate in the crowd held up a sign that read ‘There is a way out.’
“I guess any time is a good time for prayer,” said Texas Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, who placed Bush’s name in nomination on Monday, shrugged off the low-key protest. “He came to talk about an issue that’s important to all of us and that’s trade, so I don’t have a problem with him coming and speaking.”
Since becoming the party’s top choice this spring, the Texas governor has met with several gay Republicans but refused to meet with the party’s more conservative members of a coalition of traditional family groups. It is an interesting time for Republicans and the party’s attitudes toward homosexuality. In addressing the issue, Bush must tread lightly, observers say, as he strives to keep the support of conservatives while appealing to voters from the center.
After meeting with several members of the Log Cabin Republicans, Bush’s choice to draft the party platform, Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, removed language from the 1996 document that opposed civil rights protections for those discriminated against because of their “sexual preference.” The move was considered a positive step forward by gay GOP members, though the language was switched back in the final platform approved on Monday.
“The fact that the language was put back in does not deter me at all,” said Jim McFarland, 35, a lawyer from Milwaukee and a Log Cabin Republican member. “We just have a lot more work to do with the party.”
‘A Problem with Tolerance’
Kolbe, a member of Log Cabin and eight-term representative from Arizona’s Fifth Congressional District, is known more for his positions on trade and defense issues than he is for his sexual orientation. The lawmaker disclosed his sexual orientation in 1996.
But by selecting Kolbe to speak tonight — even though he did not utter a word about being gay or talk about gay issues — political watchers said the party was making a statement about its willingness to open the party up to a more diverse group of Americans. Though the party is still mostly white and predominantly white, according to recent surveys, there has been a show at the convention this week on stage of brown faces.
In an online chat today with ABCNEWS.com viewers, Kolbe addressed the issue of the diversity by saying he thinks Bush’s ‘compassionate conservative’ message of inclusivity “certainly should” extend to gays.