Despite disparate platforms, both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole converge on one point: their increasingly desperate quest for the middle ground. For Bob Dole, this means softening the hard-edged conservatism he voiced during the primary season, when returned a contribution from a gay GOP group. Bill Clinton seems to believe that wooing moderate voters means keeping at arm's length liberal activist groups, including those pushing for an end to state-sponsored sex discrimination in the issuing of marriage licenses.
The fall Presidential campaign promises to leave gays and lesbians feeling snubbed. Gay political leaders may resort to acting jilted and extracting promises for the future. But it would be foolish for our community to focus primarily on the Presidential candidates. As we learned in 1993, after the gays- in-the-military debacle, promises, made in the course of a Presidential campaign, may quickly prove negotiable amidst the political crosswinds of the Oval Office. Instead, with control of Congress and numerous state legislatures hanging in the balance this November, gays and lesbians -especially those eager to secure the right to marry - should devote our efforts to the series of House, Senate, and state legislative races where our impact could be pivotal.
Some of the most vociferous foes of the gay community - and same-sex marriage - are among the vulnerable this election year. In the House, they include two first-termers from Oklahoma. During recent House debate on the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, Rep. Tom Coburn said, "The real debate is about homosexuality and whether or not we sanction homosexuality in this country...Homosexuality is immoral...it is based on perversion, it is based on lust." Likewise, Coburn's colleague, former NFL wide receiver Steve Largent, said, "No culture that has ever embraced homosexuality has ever survived." Both airy orators could see gays help trim their sails this fall. Coburn's district sent a gay-friendly moderate, Mike Synar, to Congress for fifteen years and could send another one in Coburn's stead this fall. Largent's district gave Bill Clinton a twenty-point edge over Bush in 1992. With turnout heightened this November, it may once again prove hospitable to a gay-friendly candidate to replace Largent.
One particularly sweet victory for supporters of gay rights and same-sex marriage would be the defeat of Rep. Bob Dornan, the eccentric Californian who has made a career out of gay-bashing. Dornan's opponent this fall, Loretta Sanchez, is a strong candidate in a district that has become less conservative even as Dornan has become more so. As in Oklahoma, vigorous work by the gay community in California could provide the edge for Sanchez. It may also help oust anti-gay Sonny Bono, Chastity's father, who is opposed by Anita Rufus. Mobilized, the strength of the gay community in Palm Springs can be pivotal to Bono's defeat and the election of gay-friendly Rufus.
The Senate has its own share of big-name gay rights foes in precarious situations this fall. They include Jesse Helms in North Carolina, engaged in a bitter rematch with his nemesis from 1990, Harvey Gantt; and 93-year-old Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, long a pillar of segregation as well as homophobia, facing a strong challenge from Elliott Close. Other stalwarts from the upper chamber with imposing anti-gay credentials who are girding for unusually hard-fought reelection contests this fall include Bob Smith of New Hampshire, a leader of 1994 drives to muzzle discussion of gay issues in schools; Phil Gramm of Texas, who, during his failed Presidential bid, addressed a rally and wrote a fundraising letter for The Report, a virulently anti-gay organization; and Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who pursued claims by anti-gay activists that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had an "anti-Christian bias."
As far as state-level representation is concerned, gays and lesbians should take particular note of votes in several state legislatures this spring on bills to ban same-sex marriage. This will provide community-based gay and lesbian groups targets for this fall's elections. By using such votes to mobilize the ranks of gay rights supporters, we will be heeding the example of our political opponents. The Christian Coalition, and other homophobic groups, have made state and local candidates sweat for fear of seeing their votes and statements framed unfavorably in "voter guides," which the groups widely distribute just before Election Day. Gay and lesbian groups should take full advantage of this year's roll call votes on gay marriage to make opponents of gay rights and same-sex marriage pay dearly at the voting booth this fall. With folks in 41 states still lacking protection from anti-gay discrimination, the gay community has a huge stake in securing friendlier representation in state capitols nationwide.
As the Presidential campaign gains steam from last month's conventions, gays and lesbians should not expect courting from either camp. Rather than pressing for gestures of support from the top candidates, we would be advised to focus on House, Senate, and state legislative races where we can have a more direct impact. The community can debate ad nauseam, for instance, whether President Clinton should have taken a hostile stance to same-sex marriage as early as he did. But if gays and lesbians had helped elect a Congress more inclined to support the practice than to squash it, the President would be singing a different tune. And, this month as we turn off convention coverage and go to work for local candidates, so would we.