Jan. 8, 2001 -- Many in the gay and lesbian community say they have no illusions about where President-elect George W. Bush stands when it comes to issues of gay civil rights.
His record in Texas is clear. During his 1994 campaign for the governorship, Bush defended the state’s sodomy law, which makes sexual activity between same-sex adults illegal, as a “symbolic gesture of traditional values.”
In 1999, it is commonly believed that Bush derailed a Texas hate crimes bill because it included protections based on sexual orientation. Also that year, Bush supported a measure that banned gay couples from becoming foster parents or from adopting foster children.
But the question remains: What impact will the president-elect have on these issues once he moves into the White House?
“The short answer is that it is unclear,” said David Smith, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. But many, including Smith, say they find Bush’s Texas record and some of his recent picks for his administration’s cabinet, foreboding.
“There is a fear that the administration is going to sit on [the issues] and we won’t see any movement, said Michael Colby, executive director of the National Stonewall Democrats, a gay political organization. “The bigger fear is that they will slowly start picking away at the progress we have made.”
Though Bush says he believes marriage and raising families should be left to heterosexual couples, Bush made a pledge during the campaign to be tolerant.
“I’ve been a tolerant person all my life,” Bush said during a debate in October. “I just happen to believe strongly that marriage is between a man and a woman. I don’t really think it’s any of my concern how you conduct your sex life. That’s a private matter. I support equal rights, but not special rights for people.”
Gays: Cabinet Choices Worrisome
Many leading gay political leaders, in the interesting of trying to work with both parties in the currently high-charged political climate, say they are trying to give Bush the “benefit of the doubt” in the early months of his administration.
Most gay voters are registered Democrats, though Bush did receive 25 percent of the gay vote in this election, according to a survey conducted by Voter News Service for ABCNEWS and other networks. And many Republicans have supported legislation, such as the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or ENDA as it is known, which are considered important measures for protecting the rights of gay people.
And many experts agree that Bush will try to avoid the kind of explosive issue, like the military policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ which landed President Clinton in the hot seat for months in the early part of his administration. Bush says he will adhere to the policy, which was created by then-Army Gen.Colin Powell, who is now Bush’s nominee for secretary of state.
Donald Rumsfeld, the nominee for secretary of defense, said that Bush had not discussed the issue with him, and “certainly, the priorities are in other areas for me.”
However, recent appointments by the president-elect to his cabinet have some in the gay and lesbian community concerned. In particular, gay leaders are concerned about the nomination of former Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., a staunch conservative whose record in the U.S. Senate is considered by gay activists to be “anti-gay.”
When Ashcroft’s nomination was announced, the Human Rights Campaign, one of the nation’s largest gay rights organizations, called it ‘’a frightening halt to the moderate tone’’ of earlier Bush nominations.
Ashcroft was a co-sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law passed in 1996 which bans federal recognition of gay marriages and prohibits spouses in same-sex marriages from receiving federal benefits.
At the time, Ashcroft asserted that unlike race and gender, homosexuality ‘’is clearly a choice—a choice that can be made and unmade,’’ according to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle.
”It is a difficult challenge for the civil rights and gay community because of his record in the Congress,” said Steve Gunderson, a former congressman from Wisconsin who was the first openly gay Republican member of Congress. Gunderson said gay Republicans would like to hear out Ashcroft on the issues, before making a final judgment on whether he will be judicious in dealing with issues that affect gay rights.
But, he said, “in some respects, you can’t change a person’s history. You can’t change his voting history or his public statements. He is going to have to answer to them.”
Other gay rights leaders say find other recent Bush nominations, Gail Norton for Interior Secretary, and Linda Chavez for Labor Secretary, disturbing.
Norton, formally Colorado’s attorney general, strongly defended the voters’ passage of Amendment 2, which denied gays the right to legal protection against discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court through out the new law in 1996, saying it was “born of animosity” toward gays.
Norton continued to defend the law. “Even beyond the issue of sexual orientation, Amendment 2 raised a deep question about civil rights law: Is there a way to step back from the proliferation of special rights conferred on the basis of various characteristics?” she wrote in The Denver Post.
Bush on Gay Rights
The Rev. Michael Piazza, the senior pastor of The Cathedral of Hope, a large Dallas church that welcomes gays and lesbians into his congregation, was sitting in his office in 1999 when he got a call from a Texas state Republican legislator who was upset about a closed-door meeting he had had with Gov. Bush and other leading Republicans.
The meeting was about a highly-publicized hate crimes bill that was being debated just 18 months after James Byrd was killed in a heinous racial murder in Jasper, Texas.
The legislator, according to Piazza, told him that Bush told the Republicans leaders: ‘Do not send me a bill with sexual orientation in it.’ The bill at the time included a clause that protected people against bias because of their sexual orientation.
“It was purely a ploy for him to make sure he got support of the right wing of the party,” Piazza claims.
But Bush has said he simply opposed the legislation because he believes that “all crime is hate crime.”
Gay supporters of Bush say many gay people care more about economic issues, and not whether they will be harassed or discriminated against at work.
“Most gay people are pretty secure in their jobs and not afraid of being victims,” said Kevin Ivers, a spokesman for Log Cabin Republicans, a gay Republican organization. “We’re worried about the economy, worried about spouses getting proper benefits, their inheritance. They are about their children. They want to adopt and they want their children to go to decent schools. These are the kinds of things that gays feel a lot more passionately about.”