I'm gay and I (kinda) like Bush

Orange County's Charter Review Commission isn't used to an audience, much less applause. Its meetings are long, tedious and usually devoid of spectators. The issues -- what to call the county chairman, what to do if a commissioner is called to war or dies, whether or not to have partisan elections, etc. -- aren't sexy.

March 22 was sexy, though. That night the county commission chambers were packed, with the crowd waiting for the one agenda item: "Discussion of amendment to charter regarding equal opportunity in employment, housing and public accommodation."

That innocuous phrase would do for Orange County what Chapter 57 did for Orlando: extend equal protection rights to homosexuals. The process would be a little different; instead of being decided by the city council, any charter changes will be voted on by county residents in November. But the result would be similar.

Before the issue can go on a ballot, the charter review commission has to give its OK. After weeks of lobbying, the 30 or so gay-rights activists in the room knew they had six of the necessary seven votes (of 13 present members). But the board's staff attorney, Alison Yurko, plainly felt that amending the charter was unnecessary. And board chairman Tom Wilkes, a former county attorney himself, was reluctant.

When the voice vote came after a half-hour of discussion, the yeas and nays reached an equal volume. Wilkes ordered a roll call. By an 8 to 5 count, the proposal passed. It was a minor victory, as the proposed changes still have to endure two public hearings -- the first on April 26 -- which will likely be dominated by the same nasty rhetoric that defined that Chapter 57 debate two years ago. And that's just to make the November ballot.

For now, however, it was time to cheer. The gay-rights activists jumped to their feet, loudly applauding the charter commission and Leecie Doyle, their biggest supporter on the panel. Doyle smiled, and almost blushed.

In no small part, the victory came thanks to Sam Odom's Orlando Anti-Discrimination Ordinance Committee, the gay-rights group that was the chief proponent of Chapter 57.

Seated next to Odom was Patrick Howell, a young lawyer who will take center stage in the county's coming equal-rights battle as head of the Log Cabin Republicans Orlando, the local chapter of the largest gay Republican group in the country.

In the year since Howell re-formed the group -- an earlier version fizzled in the mid-'90s -- it has become a force to be reckoned with within the gay community and in the Republican Party itself. Already, it claims at least 35 dues-paying members. And Howell also convinced Orange County chairman Rich Crotty to extend equal protections to the county's gay and lesbian employees last year, a precursor of the charter amendment.

The LCRs, as they're known, see themselves as having a dual role: bringing a sense of moderation to their party, and trying to sell gays and lesbians on the GOP.

Neither one of those tasks got any easier when President Bush announced his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in February. Many gay Republicans took it as a slap in the face, and some prominent LCRs declared they would no longer support Bush's re-election.

Locally, too, the issue weighs on the minds of Howell and other LCRs.

"What I'm battling with is his support for the constitutional amendment over other things he's done that I see as being great," Howell says. "I'm struggling with [whether or not to vote for Bush], obviously. I'm a loyal Republican, but [the amendment] is a hard issue for me, and a hard issue for our membership."

Gay and Republican

Howell has boyish features, and a softness that makes him look younger than his 33 years (he turns 34 April 12). He speaks earnestly and articulately. One day, he's going to make a great politician.

Two years ago, the local Republican Party thought so too. It faced a dilemma: Rep. Allen Trovillion -- the legislator who in 2001 told gay high-school students they were going to hell -- was retiring, and redistricting had all but guaranteed that he'd be replaced by a Democrat, since only 32 percent of registered voters in the new district were Republicans. Because 20 percent of the newly carved district's residents were gay or lesbian, the Republicans figured their best shot came from attracting someone who could reach out to that community. They needed Patrick Howell.

The state party dumped $100,000 into his campaign, and for the most part, Republicans across Central Florida lined up in Howell's corner, despite his sexual orientation. "When the Republican Party came to me and said it wanted me to run for a [state House of Representatives] seat, there was a lot of pressure on me and my partner, Scott," Howell says.

There was one notable exception: Trovillion endorsed Sheri McInvale, his Democratic opponent. "I'm a Christian and I have to meet my Lord someday when I die," Trovillion told the Associated Press. "I don't want to face him when I've endorsed someone that my Scripture says in so many places that I'm not to."

The real nastiness didn't come from the right, however. It came from the left. Doug Head, chair of the local Democratic Party, slammed Howell, and equated gays voting for him with a "Jew voting for Hitler." He also called Howell's candidacy an attempt to confuse gay voters, and said, "It's impossible for a gay candidate to run in a Republican Party that advances the agenda of the Republican Party of today."

Patty Sheehan, Orlando's first openly gay commissioner, accused Howell of trying to play to both sides, touting his gay credentials to gays but hiding his sexuality from Republican peers. She pointed out that his website featured a picture of Howell with his female campaign manager and his son from a previous marriage. There was no picture of Howell's boyfriend. (Howell said his partner hadn't yet come out to co-workers.)

"Patty Sheehan promised to work (for me) behind the scenes," Howell says. "She did an about-face, and began to work against me."

"Unfortunately, we have people in the gay community who at every opportunity will slam Patrick," says John Sullivan, a staff reporter at the gay newspaper Watermark. "[Sheehan] has made it her personal vendetta to slam him."

Sheehan says that when Howell approached her for support, she was ready to give it. "I said, Ã?Cool, I'm tired of being the only openly gay elected official [in central Florida].'" That ended when in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Howell, a gay father, refused to take a stand on gay adoption, and later told Watermark he didn't want to out his partner. Howell says the Sentinel screwed up. Sheehan took it personally, and endorsed McInvale, who backed gay adoptions.

"If you're not going to have the guts to stand up, you shouldn't be running for office," she says. "It doesn't work that way. This is public life."

In the end, McInvale beat Howell 50 percent to 42 percent, with Libertarian candidate John F. Kennedy taking the remaining 8 percent. But during his failed bid to become the state's first openly gay legislator, the idea for re-forming the local Log Cabin Republicans took shape.

"So many gays and lesbians handed me a $20 check and said, Ã?What you're talking about is right on where I am too.'"

The amendment

Nationally, the Log Cabin Republicans formed 27 years ago to successfully fight a ballot initiative in California that would have prevented gays and lesbians from being public-school teachers. The name is an homage to Abraham Lincoln, a Republican who fought for the rights of minorities. Today, it claims more than 100,000 members and is the largest gay Republican group in the country.

As its website observes, "The mere existence of our organization recognizes the fact that the Republican Party still has a long way to go on issues affecting gay and lesbian civil rights. In recent years, the GOP has made important strides toward inclusion, however much more must be done. Too many people in the party remain hostile to gay and lesbian civil rights."

Gay-rights groups have traditionally aligned themselves with the Democratic Party, if for no other reason than the Democrats aren't the party of choice for the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition or other groups that see homosexuality as an abomination.

"Gays are a class which has long been discriminated against," says local party chair Head. "Like any other class, they have been welcomed by the Democrats and treated hostilely by the Republicans. Republicans are always opposed to the new, the different."

But for LCRs like Howell, who is hawkish on foreign policy, fiscally conservative and pro-gun rights, voting for Democrats is equally conflicting. In fact, according to The New York Times, 25 percent of self-identified gay voters backed Bush in 2000, equaling more than one million votes.

Bush's relationship with the LCRs has been shaky. During the 2000 campaign, he refused to meet with them -- the group endorsed John McCain -- and opposed some anti-discrimination legislation. His appearance at the ultra-conservative Bob Jones University didn't help.

Once elected, however, Bush's tune changed somewhat. He didn't overturn President Clinton's executive orders barring discrimination against gay federal employees. He appointed an openly gay man, Scott Evertz, as his director of the White House office of national AIDS policy, and another, Michael Guest, to an ambassadorship in Romania, over the objections of the Christian right. Conservatives became even more incensed when Bush allowed Guest to report to Bucharest with his male partner. Bush also invited 12 prominent gay Republicans to his ranch in Austin -- the group was thereafter known as the Austin 12 -- and used them as a sounding board on gay issues.

"I think President Bush has done a lot of things that have pleased gay Republicans," Howell says. "The president has a lot of time to sway the other way [before the election]."

As for the constitutional amendment, while he sees it as unfortunate, Howell also believes it's not likely to pass. "Quite honestly, I understand the pressure he was under [from the religious right]," he says. "I know why it happened. I don't understand why he relented to it."

Still, the move was a slap in the face, and even if the gay-marriage ban is never enshrined in the constitution, Bush will go down in history as the first president to try to place anti-gay discrimination into the founding document. More importantly, it was a signal from the White House that gays were political pawns, used to ratchet up anti-gay furor and energize the GOP's religious base. If you're a gay Republican, that's not an easy thing to sidestep.

"Personally, I'm going to have to think longer and harder about where I'm throwing my support this year," says Brad Much, a Log Cabin Republican.

"I think it just showed a lack of sensitivity to a portion of the electorate that should be wooed and not repelled," Howell says. "I think I was, No. 1, very disappointed because I felt he had let down a constituency that, before that, he had done a good job of attracting; No. 2, not enough analysis went into how [this amendment] was going to make gays and lesbians feel, and that disappointed me. Third, I think it hurt [the party's] chances. It wasn't thought out. The sensitivity of the matter wasn't thought out."

After Bush's announcement, the national LCRs declared that he had jeopardized their endorsement. The LCRs also pumped $1 million into an ad campaign touting Vice President Dick Cheney's statement during the 2000 campaign that gay marriage should be left to the states.

"We agree. Don't amend the constitution," the ad reads.

Despite the disagreement between the LCRs and the party, Orange County Republican Executive Committee chairman Lew Oliver expects gay Republicans to join Team Bush, even if they don't like it.

"Even though the opinions within the club are not that monolithic at all, we expect them to be conveyed within the Republican Party family privately," he says. "We do not comment and it's not our role to comment on criticisms of Republican elected officials. And they're not going to do that either. We expect that activity to be private. "

Oliver's "keep it in the family" expectations aside, younger party activists don't feel the need to agree with their forefathers on every issue.

"I don't think there are many of us so entwined in the party stance that we can't think for ourselves," says John Newstreet, president of the Orange County Young Republicans Club, a group that, like the LCRs, is chartered by the local GOP. "I think the younger generation is certainly more open to [gay-rights issues]."

Family values groups aren't terribly thrilled by that possibility. "I think conservatives will react strongly to the efforts of the Log Cabin Republicans," says Matthew Staver, president of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, a conservative group that fought the Chapter 57 changes and will battle the Orange County charter amendment as well. "[The family-values plank of the GOP platform] needs to be there. It is a strong point of the political fabric. There's more than just fiscal issues that separate the Republican Party from the Democratic Party."

If the GOP becomes more gay-tolerant, Staver believes, social conservatives would either become apathetic or would bolt the party altogether.

Amendment or not, some gay Republicans think activists pushed the marriage issue too hard, too fast, and that many middle-class Americans just weren't ready for it. I ask Howell if he thought Florida should be required to recognize a gay marriage if it was performed in a state that allowed them. "I was against [the Defense of Marriage Act, which said that states don't have to acknowledge gay unions from other states]," he says. A moment later, "There's a part of me that says Florida isn't ready for gay marriage. There's a natural progress of things. Gay marriage is a natural progression."

If things move too quickly, he adds, there will be backlash. "A lot of gay activists don't look at the big picture."

"Because things are ingrained the way they are, it must be done in small steps," says Newstreet. "If you take small steps, it'll happen."

Scrapping for gay voters

There is some discord between the LCRs and the Rainbow Democratic Coalition, the gay Democratic group. The conflict crystallized last year, when Howell tipped off city council candidate Tom Langford to a planning meeting Sheehan was having with gay-rights activists at City Hall. The two candidates exchanged words, and Langford took off, but the confrontation left a bitter aftertaste.

"It created some problems for the people at that meeting," says Carol Bartsch, president of the Rainbow Democrats.

Bartsch also criticizes Howell for not supporting any Democrats, and for muting any criticisms he may have of Bush. "I don't think I've ever seen Patrick say anything nice about a Democrat," she says. "It hurts his credibility within the gay community."

Asked why gays should join the Democratic fold, Bartsch says, "I don't know what more the Democratic Party can offer than the welcome we have. We don't have the problems with our candidates that they have."

Despite the Rainbow Democrats' differences with Howell's group, Bartsch acknowledges that having to compete for gay votes is a good thing.

"Of course it was easier when we didn't have to fight for gay votes," she says. "I honestly think that it's good for the community. There's always been gay Republicans. They didn't have a spokesman. Now they have Patrick Howell."

Howell thinks gay Democrats have become complacent, and that Log Cabin Republicans are an antidote. "What have the gay Democrats done? Nothing. They've rolled over. We've shown a lot more courage."

When John Kerry said he supported amending Massachusetts's constitution to ban gay marriage, "The response from the [gay Democratic group] Stonewall Democrats and Democratic political organizations in general was a big thud," Howell says. "There was no outcry, no million-dollar campaign, no two-dollar campaign to force Kerry to retreat from that position. We're doing everything we can."

Whatever success gay Republicans have had convincing fellow gays to convert -- Bartsch says that, for a while, switching to the GOP was a fad in the gay community, but the trend has cooled -- perhaps the LCRs' greatest legacy will be the work it does among members of its own party.

Times they are a-changing

After Howell's campaign, he says, a number of gays, both Republican and Democrat, approached him about recreating the LCRs, which had died out a few years earlier because of a lack of interest. Log Cabin chapters in South Florida and Tampa Bay had enthusiastically supported his campaign, as had the national group, which raised more than $5,000 for him, he says. So he e-mailed his supporters, and asked if they'd be interested.

Overwhelmingly, the answer was yes.

"The difference between then [the original LCR group] and now was the milestone of an openly gay Republican [running for office]," says Much. "It got more gay Republicans open about their political beliefs."

In March, 2003, Howell held his first organizational meeting, and 45 people showed up. At Gay Days events and a gay-pride parade in June, he says, the group picked up dozens of new supporters. "A lot of people got really excited," he says. "I have my own presence in the gay community. We have a presence at every event."

"I count Patrick as someone who has really gone out there and done a lot in the community," says Watermark's Sullivan, a Democrat.

Last year, while the LCRs hosted a hole at a Young Republicans' golf tournament, Howell approached Crotty about extending equal protections to gay county employees. "He said, Ã?I don't think that's going to be a problem at all,'" Howell says. Not long after that, and without any of the fanfare that marred Chapter 57, Crotty did just that.

Other than its missionary work, Howell says, his group's other purpose is to "advise Republican office-holders and [party] members of issues of importance to the gay community. Some in the Republican Party don't understand the issues. They're not hostile, they just don't understand it. The anti-discrimination policy, that was something that was important to me. Because of my relationship to Crotty, it was important to him. But for my relationship with him, that wouldn't have been the case."

The same holds true, Howell says, for the proposed charter amendment.

And if you accept the idea that social conservatives' opposition to homosexuals stems from ignorance -- when you don't know any gay people, it's easy to stereotype them -- then a strong gay Republican group might, over time, water that hostility down.

For the foreseeable future, there will be resistance to this new guard. "I hope [the LCRs] never become a tangible force in the party," says Staver of the Liberty Counsel, who predicts that even if the charter amendment reaches the ballot, social conservatives will defeat it.

Already, Howell says, the Young Republicans are more accepting than their older peers. Newstreet, the director of the Young Republicans Club, agrees: "We are the future of the party. When we come into our own, we will take a greater step in the right direction toward human rights."

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