“My political views are obviously different from [conservative] groups, but it is much broader reasons that makes me a Republican — my belief in individual rights and individual responsibilities,” Kolbe said. “In fact, I think my views on homosexual issues are more compatible as a Republican than the religious right, because I am consistent in believing that government should not interfere in our lives in any way.”
But both conservative and liberal-minded critics say they believe the Republicans only asked the congressman to speak because he is gay.
“It is a little slick and I don’t care for it,” said Brannon Howse, a spokesman for the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., which adamantly opposes homosexuality. “We don’t want to play that game. We have a problem with this idea of tolerance and having to value every kind of lifestyle.”
Window Dressing David Elliot, a spokesman for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said agreed that he thought the party was simply changing the “window dressing” for the appearance of tolerance. “To them, ‘compassionate conservatism’ means ‘We will hug you as we deny you your basic humanity,’ ” Elliot said.
Gay Republicans went into this year’s national convention hoping to get more than they have. But considering that in 1992 homosexuals were deemed enemies by onetime GOP presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, now a Reform Party member, in a “culture war,” some gay GOP members said they considered Kolbe’s speech a giant step forward.
“It is not the parade that you might see at the Democratic convention, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a giant step forward,” Ivers said. “The watermark has gone way up.”
But non-GOP members say the step is not so big.
“When we hear a gay person speaking at the podium and talking about being gay, than we will have arrived,” Elliott said.
Symbolic in a Different Way
Judging from the applause and conversations with delegates on the floor, the issue was of little concern to most rank-and-file Republicans. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” said James Potuk, a 53-year-old delegate from Whitman, Miss. “The Republican Party is a big open tent and it’s open to anybody who wants to be a member and believes in the things that we do. I am a Christian and it doesn’t bother me.”
But members of the party’s social conservative segment say they agree the speech by Kolbe tonight was symbolic for the party — but not the kind of symbol they would like to see.
“It wasn’t too many years ago that we would not have been putting any homosexuals on the stage on prime time,” Howse said. “It is a symbol of how far we come and that is not a compliment.”
The Republican leadership, however, is treading a thin line, Howse, and may end up turning off conservatives. “They are trying to walk right up to the line and not step over it,” he said.
In this case, the line drawn for Kolbe was that he could speak — as long as he did not mention homosexuality. Some were hoping that he would.
“Four minutes is enough time to say the word gay, don’t you think?” Elliot asked before the speech.
ABCNEWS.com’s Carter Yang contributed to this report.