What is it about house music that makes gay men want to buy underpants? The regular whump, whump from the street-level sound system of the Universal Gear store pulses up through the floor of the Washington headquarters of the Log Cabin Republicans, the largest gay and lesbian organinsation in the GOP.
As someone who can still barely comprehend the concept of Jewish conservatives, despite their shaming and undeniable existence, I know I am a naïve throwback to a time when both visible and invisible minorities allied themselves with progressive politics. Having only just arrived in D.C. on an overcast day in October 2003 for my first direct encounter with gay Republicans, I am a veritable Darwin in the Galápagos. Indeed I am slack-jawed in the presence of this confounding genus, a creature that seems to invite its own devouring; the cow helpfully outlining its tastiest cuts on its side with chalk, while happily pouring the A-1 sauce over its own head.
Mark Mead, director of public affairs, is familiar with my particular brand of astonishment. "I’ve heard it all. Everything from ‘You guys are like Jewish Nazis’ to ‘What are you, the syrup lobby?’" What the Log Cabin Republicans really are, he informs me, is a band of political renegades, 10,000 strong. "We’re the cutting edge of the gay civil rights movement."
I almost respond with a hearty "And I am Marie of Romania!" And then I see that he is not joking.
Mead and I are sitting in his office, located on the second floor of a low brick building on Seventeenth Street near Dupont Circle, D.C.’s gay neighborhood. Out of keeping with the area, certainly worlds away from the ecstasy-fueled dance-club soundtrack downstairs, this suite is one of the least homosexual places I have ever been. With its mismatched laminate furniture, patterned industrial-strength nylon carpet, overhead fluorescent lighting, and scattered computer terminals, it could pass for any middling place of business: a paper supplier, an insurance broker. The walls are largely bare, save for a photo of super-butch, mustachioed Teddy Roosevelt, the ultimate Village People cop, along with a framed copy of the Gettysburg Address, a document absolutely central to the mythology of the Log Cabinites.
Their name stems from the rough-hewn structure in which Honest Abe was born. The group’s very identity as Republicans depends at least in part upon the belief that the party of Lincoln is at heart still, well, the party of Lincoln; an inclusive party, the Big Tent party. "Big Tent" is invoked in almost every conversation I have, a mantra about as descriptively apt as the wishful four-year-old at Halloween who announces "I’m a scary monster!" to every grown-up proffering candy.
I have arrived during strange and accelerated days for those toiling in gay rights. The Supreme Court overturned Texas’s long-standing ban on sodomy in June 2003, and over the course of a few short months, the debate has graduated from the right to engage in private consensual sex to an open, although not necessarily civil, discussion of the freedom for gays and lesbians to marry.
If anyone can be credited with firing the first shot in the battle, it would have to be Justice Antonin Scalia, whose minority dissent darkly augured that the June decision could spell the end of all morals-based legislation in the country. The republic had been forcibly bound into a pair of buttered skis and was perched at the top of a slippery slope, at the bottom of which lay a land overrun by gay and lesbian weddings.
An initiative called Marriage Protection Week concluded just prior to my arrival in town. Spearheaded by a loose coalition of far-right organisations, it consisted of little more than an official proclamation – signed by George W Bush – which stated unequivocally in its third sentence that "Marriage is a union between a man and a woman". That can’t have made gay Republicans feel terribly well liked under the Big Tent.
"I’m not in politics to be liked, I’m in politics to make change," says Mead.
A Mississippi native, Mead is a clean-cut, boyish man of 42, with a broad face and a ready smile, projecting suburban Dad stability, and a kind of "Kiss the Cook" barbecue-apron-wearing good humour. He worked for a long time with Equality Georgia, a gay rights organisation that lobbied for, and helped secure, domestic partnership benefits at large Georgia corporations like Coca-Cola. His best friend is a liberal Democrat who works for County Welfare in Los Angeles, although he admits they don’t really talk politics.
Despite his assertions to the contrary, he is a very likable guy, except for an odd moment in the first hour of our meeting, when he tells me about his life partner, who works at the EPA. The confirmation of the new head of the agency was being held up at that very moment by, among others, junior senator from New York Hillary Clinton, who was taking exception to the agency’s obfuscation of the environmental dangers posed to rescue and salvage workers by the air at Ground Zero.
Mead echoes the Administration’s party line to me. "Everyone knew the air was bad. They had respirators, but you know, cops and firemen can be real macho cowboys, ‘We don’t need respirators…’" he says. Oh right, I think, suddenly brought back to reality. You’re a Republican.
Mead works in concert with Log Cabin’s executive director, a man named Patrick Guerriero. Guerriero is 36 years old, a good-looking, swarthy, supersmart man. When we first meet, he has only been in Washington for 10 months and is not yet a victim of that town’s widespread disease, the scourge that obliterates the personal style of all who move there. There is still some smoulder beneath the broadcloth.
Elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives at age 25, he left in his third term to serve as the mayor of Melrose, the Boston suburb of 30,000 where he grew up. He was reelected with more than 80 per cent of the vote but stepped down to become the deputy chief of staff for then governor of Massachusetts Jane Swift. She tapped him as her running mate for the following election. Guerriero would have been the nation’s first openly gay lieutenant governor, but Swift withdrew from the race. He took over at Log Cabin in January 2003.
We go to lunch together at a nearby Mexican restaurant. The only two people in the place on this grey day, we sit underneath strings of chili-pepper lights. It makes for a very sad fiesta. Perhaps abjection is in the air as I can’t help wondering why someone would take a blowtorch to such a promising political résumé. With the exception of that Jai Rodriguez fellow – the Culture expert on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy – Patrick Guerriero might just have the worst gay job in America.
"I had to wrestle with myself for three months before taking it," Guerriero says. In a nation divided almost equally between Democrat and Republican, he sees the Log Cabin presence in the party as a duty, unpleasant though it may be at times. Any significant legislation that is drafted and passed in this country requires bipartisan support, he says.
"No one has ever given me the model to change America without doing what we’re doing as a part of it. You can’t get there by completely abandoning one American political party, you just can’t. How do I keep my personal integrity and remain Republican? I wonder about that at least once a day, and I check my gut, and the response to my gut check is: ‘You need to stay and fight this battle. If you leave, who’s going to do it?’"
Who indeed? The amount of snickering and downright hostility that must go on behind his back among his supposed allies beggars the imagination. I remember a grim old joke about bigotry. "What’s the definition of a kike?" I ask him. "A Jewish gentleman who has just left the room."
"I’m sure that happens. But I also bet when I leave the room on a number of occasions, the interaction of debate and dialogue will have changed some minds and some attitudes."
This is an edited extract from David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable (Scribe). Rakoff will be in town for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, which opens tonight.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.