PALM SPRINGS — The country's best known group of gay Republicans opened its three-day national convention here, and as expected, virtually all issues took a back seat to one: same-sex marriage.
The gathering of the Log Cabin Republicans — as clean-cut and mostly white as an old-fashioned chamber of commerce — drew triple the number of attendees that the meeting attracted in the past.
Organizers attributed the jump, to some 300 participants, to President Bush's Feb. 24 endorsement of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. For many gay Republicans — who thought Bush's promise of "compassionate conservatism" would ensure them room in the GOP tent — the proposal was a slap in the face. They are now facing a difficult decision: Should they withhold their endorsement from Bush to make a point?
The group will wrestle with the endorsement question in an open session today.
"What we have here today is a sign that there is a culture war going on between us and the radical right," said Patrick Guerriero, Log Cabin executive director. "And this convention sends a message back to Washington, D.C., and to Republican leaders: We're here to stay, we're gonna win this battle and we're on the right side of history. We're a very conservative group on just about every issue, except we're not going to be treated as second-class citizens."
Former Rep. Michael Huffington, who disclosed his bisexuality in 1998 and has donated $100,000 to Log Cabin's million-dollar ad campaign against the same-sex marriage ban, is slated to take part in the discussion.
Although the group may delay a decision until closer to the Republican National Convention in late summer, plenty of questions need airing, said Guerriero. "What does the president stand for? To be against gay marriage is one thing. Well, what actually does he support?"
Although Log Cabin's national membership is about 10,000, club officials believe their endorsement matters.
"We know our voice on this is going to matter," said the group's political director, Christopher Barron. Citing exit polling of voters, he said, "One million gays and lesbians voted for Bush in 2000 — 60,000 alone in the state of Florida."
Bush won in Florida with a 537-vote margin over Vice President Al Gore.
Bush campaign spokesman Danny Diaz would not specifically address the endorsement issue. "This is a closely divided electorate, and every vote matters," he said. As for the issue that has galvanized the group, Diaz said, "the president's decision was based on principle, not politics, and the president strongly believes that marriage should be between a man and woman."
At the convention's morning session, a middle-aged couple who were plaintiffs in the landmark Massachusetts court decision allowing gay marriage in that state spoke at length about their decision to fight for the right to marry. Businessman David Wilson and dentist Rob Compton said they were motivated to seek the right to marry after being denied visitation rights while one was in a hospital emergency room.
The men, who were both previously married to women and have children, said they hoped to be first in line for a marriage license on May 17, when same-sex marriages are scheduled to begin in their home state.
Not all Log Cabin members support the current emphasis on gay marriage. Chris Bowman, a 58-year-old political consultant from San Francisco, said he was dismayed by the way that marriage had supplanted other issues of importance to gays, such as AIDS, gays in the military and the passage of employment and housing nondiscrimination laws.
"If you want change," he said, "you're going to have to change the hearts and minds of individuals. If people work on these other issues, then gay marriage will take care of itself."
But Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer who has argued in favor of gay marriage for 15 years, said in a lunchtime speech that,when it came to civil rights, activists didn't have the luxury of choosing their moments.
"Movements accelerate just when you don't expect them to," Sullivan said. "They put you on the spot."
The British-born Sullivan — in remarks that were part pep talk and part defense of marriage for gays — acknowledged the difficulties of being gay and Republican in a world where most gays are liberal and most conservatives are heterosexual.
"I know the ridicule that many of you have faced," said Sullivan. "I know the marginalization within the gay world that you experience, and I know the marginalization within the conservative world that hurts and stings and wounds on a daily basis."
Like many Log Cabin members, Sullivan is a fierce defender of Bush's decision to invade Iraq and found parallels between the current state of that conflict and the fight for gay marriage.
"Don't get disheartened by the possibility of backlash," he said. "Backlash is a good sign. You can see it today in Iraq
where the closer progress comes, the forces whose power will be eroded fight back with a ferocity that one never expected. But their ferocity is the ferocity of fear and weakness and beleaguerment, because they know they're losing."
As Sullivan spoke, two fathers sat in the ballroom of the Wyndham Palm Springs Hotel, holding their young sons on their laps. Daniel Gri, 40, and his partner, James Abbott, 45, had brought 6-year-old Caleb and 4-year-old Alfred with them from Los Angeles. Gri is a revenue agent manager for the IRS and Abbott is an attorney with the Department of Defense.
Gri said that although he voted for Bush in 2000, he would not vote for him in November. "He's just treaded too much on my family," he said, "and this is not acceptable."
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