The story gave me a profound sense of déjà vu.
It was a New York Times item about a tiny group of African-Americans in Chicago who call themselves the Frederick Douglass Crusaders. They meet on most Saturday mornings at Izola's restaurant, on the city's south side, to discuss politics and a wider role for blacks in the Republican Party. They worry that the party has little left of the spirit of Lincoln, let alone their contingent's namesake, Frederick Douglass, the fiery black abolitionist and party stalwart.
The group's white-haired leader is 72-year-old Charles Gaines, a Republican most of his life. "This is our party, too. We've been Republicans as long as there's been a Republican party," he said. "We're Frederick Douglass Republicans, and we're trying to revive his principles in the party: justice and equality for all." According to Gaines, "The party isn't anti-black. They [GOP leaders] don't even have us on their minds. And, that's the real problem. We're invisible to them."
I can remember the times I sat around with other gay Republicans -- not over Izola's hash, rice, and hot sauce, but over glasses of chilled white wine -- and discussed the place of gays in the GOP. The talk was similar. What had happened to the party of Lincoln? Can it be revived? What was our place, our strategy? Like the Crusaders, we felt invisible and pledged to bring back the good old days, to secure a place in the increasingly hard-right party of Jesse Helms, Pat Robertson, Bob Dornan, and Pat Buchanan. After all, we were Republicans too.
I finally lost my stomach for this pointless battle, as I'm guessing many of Gaines' companions have, too. Opting to shed all labels and maintain independence from any political party, I now give my support, without regard to party affiliation, to any candidate who publicly accepts gay people as vital contributors to every sector of American life and welcomes their backing. And, despite my aversion to labels, I am prone to endorsing "out" lesbians and gay men courageous enough to run for public office.
Few such candidates call the Republican party home, and it's little wonder why. Like African-American elected officials, 95 percent of whom are Democrats, gays and lesbians have found scant backing in the GOP. At their most restrained, Republicans manage to resist public displays of blatant racism or anti-gay bigotry. But their politics speak for them. Deliberately heedless to the few voices of diversity in their own ranks, they rely on resistance to even modest reforms put forward by gay people to communicate their hostility.
The issue of gay marriage is a case in point. Republicans in state legislatures across the country, still reveling in their mid-term election conquests, have declared war on the state of Hawaii. A court ruling there has paved the way for same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses, although a final ruling in the case may be many months away. If the courts in Hawaii decide as expected, other states, according to the United States Constitution's "full faith and credit" clause, would be obligated to respect marriage contracts entered into in Hawaii. Bent on limiting access to legal marriage, however, conservative state legislators are bidding aloha to the spirit and the letter of this constitutional guarantee.
Republicans, in a Faustian pact with their Christian-right allies, have fenced themselves in to opposing homosexual Americans in their hopes for equal rights. Battles over same-sex marriage are just the latest episodes to underscore this dynamic. Republicans are leading the charge for anti-gay marriage legislation in 14 state chambers; nearly every legislature that has already approved such a ban is controlled by Republicans; Republican governors - in Utah, South Dakota, and Idaho - have been the only ones so far to sign marriage bans into law. Now GOP members of the U.S. Senate, prodded by right-wing strategists, are preparing a "Defense of Marriage Act" to define marriage in federal policies and acts of Congress "as the legal union of one man and one woman capable of procreation."
As explosive as the issue of gay marriage has become, it does have a precedent. A generation ago, political battles broke out over miscegenation and laws banning inter-racial marriages. While segregationist Democrats were in the forefront of enacting such laws, it is a further indication of how far the Republican Party has strayed from the path of Lincoln and Douglass that it now warrants comparisons with those segregationist pillars of prejudice. A prime example is Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who left the Democrat party after finding the GOP more receptive to his racist views.
Like anti-miscegenation laws, which the Supreme Court struck down in Loving v. Virginia in 1967, the matter of same-sex marriage will likely make its way onto the high court's docket. In the meantime, more bigotry, falsehoods, and slander will be leveled at gay people seeking the benefits of civil marriage, which include the right to hold joint parental custody, obtain family insurance and health benefits, file joint tax returns, inherit property automatically, and visit a spouse or a child in a hospital.
This has nothing to do with God or the Bible. It is a civil procedure. But to many Republicans, such distinctions mean as little as their commitment to the Constitution. To those of us now outside the GOP, so does the party's lip service to its great legacy which began with Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.