Dear Civilities: I’m a gay Republican, and am often confronted by my gay friends during election season. They wonder how I could be part of a political party that, in their eyes, condemns homosexuality. I’ve alienated myself from a lot of friends over this topic and it’s hurt a lot of my relationships. What’s the best way for me to explain that my conservative views on small government, low taxation and a strong national defense outweigh anything else? Also, how do I explain that gay marriage should be supported by true conservatives, and that religious fanatics don’t represent true conservatism? — Joe R. City and state withheld
A: Your friends are not the only ones who consider the phrase “gay Republican” to be a mystery, if not an oxymoron. I can certainly understand why they’d challenge your membership in a political party that as late as 2012 resoundingly approved a party platform banning same-sex marriage. But politics often makes strange bedfellows. If you and your friends are willing to engage in civil debate about this, I think you can find common ground.
For starters, remind them of Ted Olson, the attorney who successfully represented George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore before the Supreme Court, and then went on to become Bush’s solicitor general. Today Olson is widely heralded as the Republican architect of the successful fight to overturn California’s Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
Olson, who is straight, has no problem reconciling his conservative politics with his pro-marriage stance. As he told NPR in 2010: “If you are a conservative, how could you be against a relationship in which people who love one another want to publicly state their vows . . . and engage in a household in which they are committed to one another and become part of the community and accepted like other people?”
Of course, there’s more to this issue than support for marriage equality, and nearly all of the hundreds of gay men and women who posted on my Facebook page in response to your question acknowledged feelings similar to those of your alienated friends. Wrote one, summing up the antipathy directed at the GOP: “I could never reconcile the [Republican] party’s basic disregard for human rights, and especially towards me as a gay man. That, my friend, is the common decency that ‘outweighed all others’ for me. I can’t be part of a group who cannot understand freedom for all.”
For some perspective I called Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Brian Sims, the first out LGBT state legislator in Pennsylvania, who acknowledged that it’s really easy for that vitriolic point of view to be among the first responses. But he also cited several Republicans who support LGBT issues, notably Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) Last year at Sims’s urging Toomey voted in favor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a cornerstone of LGBT civil rights legislation. Sims praised the senator in a statement: “Senator Toomey’s vote in support of ENDA shows that a conservative ideology and support for LGBT equality are not mutually exclusive.”
Sims also noted in the interview with me that the tide is turning among young Republicans. According to a recent Pew Study, 61 percent of young Republicans now support same-sex marriage. Let your friends know that, too.
But how you tell them makes all the difference. Saying your support of small government, low taxation and a strong national defense “outweighs anything else” is needlessly insensitive and combative. How could you expect them to respond civilly to such a polarizing shot across the bow? Instead, why not say first that you believe in a government that protects the rights of all people, and that we need members of both parties to support LGBT equality? Explain how you’re helping to make that change happen within the GOP. Don’t forget to remind them of instances in which Democrats have also failed LGBT people. (After all, it was Bill Clinton who signed the Defense of Marriage Act and implemented the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy.)
Humor goes a long way in these situations as well. According to Gregory Angelo, the executive director of Log Cabin Republicans (which states its mission is to “advance the interests of the gay and lesbian community within the Republican Party”): “The difference between deriding someone for their political beliefs and merely teasing them is often all it takes to turn a disintegrating friendship into a long-lasting one.” In other words, try responding to a friend’s challenge with a smile, not a slam.
When I asked Angelo how he preserves his gay friendships outside the party, he laughed and said: “Often what allows my friends from the other side of the aisle and I to get along is to focus on anything but politics when we’re together. It is possible. Even in Washington.”
If it’s possible for the head of the Log Cabin Republicans, it’s possible for you, too.
Friendship and politics can be like oil and water. What’s your take?
E-mail questions to Civilities at firstname.lastname@example.org (unfortunately not all questions can be answered). You can reach him on Facebook at facebook.com/stevenpetrow and on Twitter @stevenpetrow. Join him for a chat online at washingtonpost.com on Oct. 7.