The gay Log Cabin Republicans, backed by such GOP allies as New York Gov. George E. Pataki and Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), said Sunday that the party has been "hijacked by the radical right" and demanded that President Bush square his actions with his rhetoric of inclusiveness or risk losing their endorsement.
At a "Big Tent" rally in a park blocks from Madison Square Garden, about 450 Log Cabin members from across the country -- and some of about 50 openly gay GOP convention delegates and alternates -- hailed Pataki, Specter and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for their pro-gay rights stand, drawing a contrast with the incumbent president.
"When you're talking about gay rights, it is a fundamental civil rights issue, and you ought not to count votes on it," Specter said. "In the long sweep of history, perhaps even in the short sweep of history, those who support gay rights and civil rights will be on the right side of this issue."
For many gay party activists this week, the Big Tent is a place of uncertainty, bitterness and disappointment.
Four years ago, they basked in what many thought was the warmth of compassionate conservatism, meeting with then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in Austin and backing his campaign for president. Now those leaders say they are confronted with stark choices: to stay home in November, switch parties or support a party that wants to codify discrimination against them in the form of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Log Cabin members, who cite exit polls showing that 1 million of 4.2 million gay voters supported Bush in 2000, including 45,000 in Florida, say the president has seriously jeopardized his chances of receiving their support when the group's 25-member national board meets Sept. 7.
This week in New York, gay Republicans say they will take aim at a party platform they regard as outrageous, one that deems homosexuality incompatible with military service and stakes out new ground in opposition to domestic partner laws.
Tensions came to a boil last week when conservative activists defeated an effort by the 12,000-member Log Cabin Republicans and GOP abortion rights supporters to include a "party unity plank" in the national platform, acknowledging differences of opinion on social issues.
Other elected Republicans, such as D.C. Council member David A. Catania (R-At Large), have ruled out voting for Bush this year. In response, D.C. party leaders booted Catania out of the city's convention delegation, prompting the only other citywide elected Republican, council member Carol Schwartz, to boycott the gathering in protest. On Friday, Catania endorsed Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee.
The news last week wasn't all bleak for gay conservatives. Vice President Cheney, who has a gay daughter, broke with Bush and said that all Americans should be free to enter "into any kind of relationship they want to."
Convention organizers this year seem determined not to repeat the experience of Houston in 1992, when prime-time declarations of a culture war came to define the party and damaged the reelection prospects of President George H.W. Bush. This time, the aim seems to be for a more benign, blended message that would not repel swing voters while still using gay marriage as a weapon against Kerry
A few of those onstage Sunday, including Bloomberg and Pataki, hoped to use their crossover appeal to carry that tempered message in speeches. Speakers with the same theme, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, will be onstage Monday night.
Patrick Guerriero, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, blasted party leaders for cynically trying to have it both ways.
"It's time this party made a choice of what party it wants to be and to present to the American people," he said, adding that the group will take the fight "directly to the American people" this fall.
"We are not going to let anybody use gay and lesbians and our families as a wedge issue and then try to dress it up to score points in an election year," Log Cabin political director Chris Barron said. "There is no way to make writing discrimination into the Constitution palatable."
Catania, who raised nearly $80,000 for Bush's reelection and was touted by the campaign as one of its top under-40 fundraisers, said he could not reconcile his personal beliefs with the party's position against gay marriage.
A Republican since he was 16, Catania stopped raising money for Bush in February, when the president announced his support for the amendment. He stopped working for the local party in May after he was stripped of his delegate's seat but is still registered as a Republican. He said he would decide within the next few months whether to change party registration, most likely to independent.
"I stayed in the party with the notion and belief that we have to have our voices at the table when our lives were being discussed," he said in an interview shortly after his split with the local party.
Bush's call for the amendment, he said, "caught me between the eyes and totally knocked me off balance."
Other gay Republicans say they feel conflicted, agreeing as they do with the party tenets of small government, strong national defense and self-sufficiency.
Steve Gunderson, a former member of Congress from Wisconsin who is gay and was active in Bush's 2000 campaign, said, "If the president actively pursues that amendment, no gay Republican with integrity can be supportive of his campaign."
Catania's replacement in the D.C. delegation, his longtime aide Carl Schmid, pointed to Bush's statement this month to CNN in which he repeated his support for an anti-gay marriage amendment but added, "If [states] want to provide legal protections for gays, that's great," and called for the debate to be held "with the greatest respect for people."
"I wasn't very proud to be a gay Republican supporting Bush, but that statement, I have to say, helped me," said Schmid, 44, one of a dozen gay Republican political activists, including Catania and Gunderson, who met with Bush in Austin in 2000.
Chris Bowman, 58, secretary of the San Francisco GOP and veteran Log Cabin leader, told reporters that he would support the president and noted that in 20 years, the number of gay GOP delegates has grown from six. But he also said that after 1964 presidential nominee Barry M. Goldwater came out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the GOP's share of African American support for president plummeted from 23 percent in 1960 to 8 percent in 1964.
"And it never recovered," Bowman said.