It's Not Easy Being a Gay Republican Operative

Being a Republican politician often requires denouncing homosexuality as a threat to the existence to the American family, but staffing a campaign requires hiring gay staffers. That's when the trouble begins.

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Being a Republican politician often requires denouncing homosexuality as a threat to the existence to the American family, but staffing a campaign requires hiring gay staffers. That's when the trouble begins. Kicking up the gay bashing a notch is "one of the places the party goes when it’s in trouble," as an anonymous gay Republican staffer told The New York Times in 2006. And that was the basic interpretation of Rick Perry's anti-gay campaign commercial "Strong." But, as the Huffington Post's Sam Stein revealed, Perry's own pollster Tony Fabrizio argued strongly against airing the ad in which Perry says, "There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school." Stein's post noted Fabrizio's extensive work with gay conservative causes, and GOProud's Chris Barron and Jimmy LaSalvia condemned the pollster as a gay hypocrite working for anti-gay causes. Some confusion ensued -- Fabrizio does not publicly identify himself as a gay man, and now everyone is walking back the claims that he is or, as the Log Cabin Republicans did, condemning the outing. For his part LaSalvia told Slate's Dave Weigel, "I did not know that Tony Fabrizio's sexual orientation was in question." The messy episode, though, illustrates how reality and rhetoric conflict in Republican politics. Just like in every profession, there are gay men and women who work as Republican political consultants. And just like in every profession, that's no big deal. Except when the candidates they work for try to proffer homosexuality as one of the vague scary things that Fox News viewers should fear. Here are some gay Republicans who've had to do some strange things for their bosses:

Brian Bennett, former chief of staff for Rep. Bob Dornan
As strange as Perry's gays-versus-Christmas ad is, things have gotten much, much better for gay Republicans in the last 25 years. On September 19, 1988, The Orange County Register ran a story that began like this:

US Rep. Bob Dornan's attempt at a friendly public meeting Sunday in Garden Grove erupted into an explosive verbal debate in which the Republican congressman's wife shouted, "Shut up, fag," to a gay activist, only to reveal during an emotional apology that one of her brothers is dying of AIDS.

"No one goes away from a Bob Dornan town-hall meeting bored or uninformed," Bennett told the newspaper afterward. Eight years later, in 1996, he came out to Dornan, who had routinely referred to gays as "sodomites." He told the Los Angeles Times on May 8, 1997, "I was in the mind-set of working for Bob Dornan for so long that I was a horrible, horrible person... I felt my family wouldn't love me if I told them. I was terrified to tell my friends in politics. I thought all of my years in politics would be wiped off the screen and all they'd see is Brian Bennett, the homosexual." His coming out seems heart-warming at first, with Bennett remembering, "There was a pause that seemed like an hour and then he reached over, put his arm around me and kissed me on the cheek and said, 'I've loved you like a son for 20 years. Did you think this would make any difference?' " Dornan told the Times, "The love will be there forever. But the debate he wants to enter into about homosexuality is a debate he cannot win." And he said of Bennett, "You know he has no future in the Republican Party in Orange County."
Ken Mehlman, former Republican National Committee chair
Mehlman managed George W. Bush presidential campaign in 2004, the year the Republican Party put anti-gay marriage constitutional amendments on state ballots to boost voter turnout. Mehlman told Marc Ambinder last year that while Bush "was no homophobe," he "really wished" he'd accepted his sexuality earlier "so I could have worked against [the Federal Marriage Amendment]." He told Ambinder that he couldn't go against the party, and that he knew Karl Rove wanted anti-gay measures on state ballots in 2004 and 2006. "I can't change the fact that I wasn't in this place personally when I was in politics, and I genuinely regret that. It was very hard, personally."
Robert Traynham, former communications aide to Sen. Rick Santorum
The New York TimesMark Leibovich explained in 2006 that Traynham was openly gay, but that wasn't well-known among his colleagues until his boss gave a fateful interview to the Associated Press in 2003. In explaining why he didn't want the Supreme Court to overturn a Texas anti-sodomy law, Santorum said, "In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That's not to pick on homosexuality. It's not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be." Gay rights activists then outed Traynham, and Santorum issued a statement saying he was "an exemplary staffer" and that "I regret that this effort on behalf of people who oppose me has made him a target of bigotry in their eyes."
Now in his second presidential campaign, Santorum said in August that he was right about how legalizing gay sex would be a slippery slope toward having sex with animals and whatnot. And Traynham still speaks highly of him, writing in late October that his former boss is "the only Catholic in the race and the only candidate who champions himself as the 'defender of the family.' ... Santorum's niche is that he's the only champion who speaks up for the traditional family unit and is not afraid to challenge his fellow conservative presidential hopefuls for not speaking about the family."
Tracey St. Pierre, former chief of staff to Rep. Charles Canady
St. Pierre quit very publicly in August 1997 to work for a gay rights group after two years with Canday, who pushed hard for the Defense of Marriage Act. She told newspapers at the time she wanted "to be more honest and open about my sexuality in a place where it won't be an issue." (A "nervous Republican staffer" told The New Republic: "Everybody's looking at everybody else waiting for the next bomb.") St. Pierre told The Washington Post, "There are scores of gay people in the Republican Party who are looking for safe passage out of the closet." But it didn't change her former boss's mind. He told the Post: "My views on this were not arrived at lightly, without a lot of thought ... We have a different view on the issue."
David Duncan, former top aide to Rep. Bob Ney
"My boss's public position didn't bother me at all... If that's the sacrifice that I have to make to keep my party in power, so be it," Duncan told the Washington Post in 2006 of his former boss, whose campaign once sent an email to supporters noting that his Democratic opponent had been interviewed by Rachel Maddow, a lesbian.“You have to separate the marketing from the reality. The reality is, these members are not homophobic. For the most part, they’re using this marketing to play to our base and stay in power. They have to turn out the votes." Surely Rick Perry would agree with that.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.