Openly Gay Congressman Speaks at Convention

In what gay Republicans described as a symbolic moment, U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican in Congress, has addressed Republicans at their national convention in Philadelphia.

By Julia Campbell Aug. 2 — 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 viewers, Kolbe addressed the issue of the diversity by saying he thinks Bush’s ‘compassionate conservative’ message of inclusivity “certainly should” extend to gays.

“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.