- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The big losers in the 2004 election were Democrats and gays. Constitutional bans against gay marriage in 11 states have set back gay rights across the country. Gay leaders bet the ranch and lost. What went wrong and why? How can the gay-rights movement find smarter strategies, tactics and timing that will get better results?

Two years ago gay marriage was a low priority. The slight drop in George Bush’s 2004 percentage of the gay vote, from 26 percent to 23 percent, indicates that for grass-roots gay voters marriage remains a low priority. Had Mr. Bush said gays should not be allowed to teach in public schools, or work for the federal government, his gay vote would have fallen to single digits.

Where gays have the right to marry, e.g. Canada, few have married. Indeed, straight couples are choosing marriage less often: Divorce is costly and traumatic; couples have fewer children; women work in careers; and people live longer and opt for broader experience over lifelong security. Straights are becoming more like gays; only self-hating gays think this is a bad trend.

So why was it necessary to wave a red flag before religious conservatives and give ammunition to the far right by backing a sensational split decision from one of our most liberal state courts? Timing is everything in politics: In America in 2004, gay marriage was not an idea whose time had come.

The gay movement’s haphazard embrace of gay marriage seems reactive and media driven. Too often gay-rights groups measure their success in volume of newsprint and minutes on prime time, rather than in numbers of openly gay people at the tables where decisions are made.

Instead of gay marriage, our strategic priorities for 2004 should have been: 1) allowing gays to serve in the military without hiding who they are; 2) eliminating employment glass ceilings for gay people; 3) getting our place at the table, which means openly gay representation in government and both parties in rough proportion to our numbers and talents; 4) civil unions.

While our strategy has been adrift and ill-timed, our ham-handed tactics have frequently played into our enemies hands.

We must stop blaming religion and learn to use it to help secure our rights. Mankind’s great religions deserve our respect; gay people need religion and are religious as often as straights. “All men are created equal” and the 14th Amendment are political manifestations of the teachings of Jesus and Hillel. The rights we have and will gain, we owe and will owe in large part to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Instead of demonizing conservative politicians, we should work with them so that they know and better understand gay people, and, equally important, so that we understand them. Mr. Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum, Republican from Pennsylvania, play as legitimate a role in representing voters as Sens. John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. This rule should instill tactical restraint: Where we succeed in educating the voters, politicians must adapt or lose.

Tactical skill will require leadership that is in touch with and reflects the rich diversity of gay America. We may love true-blue Massachusetts, New York and California, but why recruit all our leaders from there? Baby blue states and pink states also grow gays — why not gay leaders? Even in fire engine red Oklahoma lesbians flourish, some say.

Public recognition has been slow, but our achievements are, nonetheless, real and growing. Gay people fight in every war, pay every tax and contribute to every profession and industry. Each election sees more gay candidates and winners. Media coverage of gay people is becoming more thoughtful, complete and fair. AIDS activism, led by gays, has produced great advances not just against AIDS, but in changing attitudes toward all life- threatening diseases.

When our political actions demonstrate broad concerns and display our full humanity, when we seek first participation, contribution, and achievement, then our struggle will resonate with increasing numbers of our fellow countrymen who will realize that it is unethical and un-American to deny us equal rights.

James Driscoll served as an AIDS policy adviser to Log Cabin Republicans and a Bush appointee to the Presidential Advisory Council for HIV-AIDS .

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