Anger from the right, encouragement from the left, as administration broadens overtures toward gays

Saturday, October 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Bit by bit, the evidence accumulates, and some conservatives are dismayed at what they see: a Republican administration sending low-key but clear signals that gays are welcomed in its ranks and respected as a voting bloc.

To many gay activists, the Bush administration's overtures are encouraging, though timid. Among staunch social conservatives _ the so-called pro-family lobby _ there is frustration and a sense of betrayal.

``You'd almost think they were Democrats trying to infiltrate what makes the Republican Party distinctive,'' said Robert Knight, executive director of the Culture and Family Institute. ``The record so far has been pretty bad ... shockingly so, given the support Bush received from evangelical Christians.''

The grievances date back to Bush's cautious openings toward gays during last year's campaign. Since taking office, his administration has:

_Appointed openly gay men as head of the Office of National AIDS Policy and as ambassador to Romania, the highest appointments ever for uncloseted gays in a Republican administration.

_Retained executive orders Bill Clinton issued to ensure equal treatment for gays in the federal work force.

_Decided not to lobby against an amendment approved by the House of Representatives last month that permits domestic partnership benefits for gay employees of the District of Columbia.

Some conservatives were particularly angry that the partner of Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest was acknowledged by Secretary of State Colin Powell during last month's swearing-in ceremony.

Conservative ire also was directed at Scott Evertz, the new AIDS policy director. A former gay activist in Wisconsin, Evertz is also a conservative Roman Catholic opposed to abortion.

``If the president is being battered by the right and the left, it probably means the vast majority of the electorate likes what he's doing,'' Evertz said in a telephone interview.

``The average American isn't at a point where they can endorse gay marriage or domestic partnerships _ the president isn't endorsing those concepts at this point. But does he believe gays and lesbians ought to be treated with dignity and respect? Yes.''

Evertz predicted the Republicans' share of the national gay vote _ estimated at 25 percent for Bush last year _ would grow. He said Bush remains in sync with social conservatives on most issues, including abortion, but was politically wise to move toward the middle on gay-related matters.

Other prominent Republicans also have made overtures to the gay community.

Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon spoke Oct. 6 at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign, a major gay-rights advocacy group. Gays cheered New York Gov. George Pataki when he declared that partners of gays killed in the World Trade Center attack qualify for state assistance.

``Clearly within the Republican Party, there is movement on gay and lesbian issues,'' said Winnie Stachelberg, the Human Rights Campaign's political director.

She wants further action from the White House, such as supporting hate-crimes legislation and tougher curbs on workplace discrimination. But the administration's record so far encourages her.

``Step by step, the administration can signal to voters that they are fair-minded,'' Stachelberg said. ``They're on the right path to getting there.''

Lorri Jean, executive director of National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said Bush has demonstrated a personal acceptance of gays, but hasn't yet shown willingness to push legislation on their behalf.

``I don't think George Bush cares what someone's sexual orientation is, but he is beholden to a right wing in the GOP that does care,'' Jean said.

Some conservatives have wondered aloud if Bush is abandoning their shared principles.

The Christian organization Focus on the Family said Evertz' appointment created ``confusion and frustration for millions of pro-family, social conservatives.''

Kenneth Connor, president of the Family Research Council, complained of Bush's ``implicit endorsement of the homosexual political agenda.''

The Rev. Louis Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, said he still supports Bush overall, but believes the president is getting bad advice from aides.

Sheldon singled out Republican strategist Mary Matalin, a senior adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. ``She has a very pro-homosexual agenda, and she ill-serves the president in pushing that agenda,'' Sheldon said.

Matalin, in a written reply to questions, said her critics' hostility toward gays ``is not even worth addressing.''

``Among the most frequently expressed opinions to me from gays and lesbians is the tedium of having to deal with the 'gay' issue before getting to taxes, defense, education, whatever,'' she said. ``That has been my focus as a conservative: to make a comfortable place for everyone to participate in the process.''

Among the groups seeking to boost gay participation in GOP politics is the Republican Unity Coalition, founded in January by Charles Francis, a gay public relations executive and longtime friend of Bush.

``From Day One, George Bush said he's a uniter, not a divider _ it's turned out to be more than true,'' Francis said. ``For the Family Research Council and others to attack him for being a uniter is to completely miss the point of his presidency.''

The unity coalition _ backed by many straight Republicans _ says it seeks no special privileges for gays. Its goal, Francis says, is to make sexual orientation a ``non-issue'' in the GOP.

Dale Carpenter, a University of Minnesota Law School professor, says gay-rights advocates are accustomed to assailing Republicans and have been thrown off stride by the Bush administration.

``The new reality is that George Bush is doing about as much as he can, given the political constraints in the party, to equalize things for gay Americans,'' said Carpenter, who studies gay politics.

Social conservatives also are in a bind.

``Now there are gay-positive things coming from their own leader, and it's just harder to oppose,'' Carpenter said. ``It's a little like Nixon going to China, or a southerner signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.''