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The Riviera Resort in Palm Springs was packed this past weekend, chock-full of vacationing families, sunning Marines and even a klatch of debutante-ball girls. In one corner of the hotel, however, a group of about 60 people, mostly middle-aged white men, met for the Log Cabin Republicans’ (LCR) annual state conference. In general the Log Cabin guys are a pretty relaxed and genial bunch, considering gay Republicans have had a tough go of it over the past decade in California. Attacked on the right for being dangerous perverts, they also had to take it in the rear (and not in the good way) from Democrats and progressives for being self-loathing apologists for bad GOP behavior. But after years of disastrous party losses and embarrassing far-right missteps, the Log Cabin Republicans think their time in the sun may be returning.
Time was, gay Republicans in California were seen as a small but respected wing of the party. The national LCR started here, thanks to opposition to the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which sought to ban gays and lesbians from teaching in California’s public schools.
Traditional conservative values like low taxes and limited government appealed to a set of neatly dressed, well-behaved gay boys, many of whom fell for Reagan Republicanism. “In the ’80s we were such a part of the party in the state,” said Frank Ricchiazzi, a longtime member and emeritus chairman of the board of directors. But according to Ricchiazzi, in 1992 the Central Republican Assembly, dominated by social conservatives who took a dim view of everything from abortion to anti-discrimination laws, basically assumed day-to-day party operations and told more moderate Republican groups to get with their program.
“It isn’t just the Log Cabin Republicans,” he explained. “A lot of the groups — the Republican Women’s Federated, the county central committees — people started pulling back.”
LCR argues that the death of moderate party leadership led to a decade of catastrophic Republican losses that culminated in 2002’s almost total Democratic dominance in California. Last summer the split between the state party and the LCR came to a head when gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, bowing to far-right pressure, apologized and denied signing the group’s questionnaire, which asked about such hot-button issues as domestic-partner benefits for state employees and signing a gay-pride-day proclamation. Instead of sitting down quietly, the LCR went on a loud offensive, publicly bashing Simon and going so far as to put his signed questionnaire on their Web site. “It made a very clear statement to the Republican Party that if you talk out of both sides of your mouth, LCR isn’t afraid to share it with the voters of this state,” Ricchiazzi added.
“Unfortunately there are people in the party who would rather lose than have the quote-unquote wrong candidate win the primary, and the result is we keep losing in November,” said Jeff Bissiri, the LCR’s new state president. “The number-one goal of a political party is to win elections, and how many do you have to lose to figure out you’re not winning this way?”
Bissiri took a step toward getting his voice heard by running last year for the Assembly in a heavily Democratic district no other Republican wanted to touch. He lost, but his candidacy won him an automatic state central-committee vote, giving him a voice at the GOP table. Besides listening to party activists like Bissiri, the anti-gay GOP flank also has to hear from San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, who beat a fellow Republican in a close election where lesbian-baiting got ugly. “She’s our Sheila Kuehl,” Bissiri explained of the woman who has become one of the most prominent elected Republicans in California. “I can’t tell you how incredibly wonderful it is to be in a roomful of gay Republicans,” Dumanis gushed at the conference. If the LCR has its way, there will be plenty more rooms in California with gay Republicans in them.