Scott Walker thought he was playing a deft game. For a while the Wisconsin governor, running for the GOP nomination for the presidency, has been engaging in his own version of dog-whistling to homophobes, as he and the GOP struggle with the reality that the base of their party is still in the Stone Age on LGBT rights, while most Americans support equality. But this week it blew up in spectacular fashion as Walker stepped on the Ben Carson third rail and blatantly implied gay men are predators who can't be trusted around children.
Responding to a question about the Boy Scouts moving to lift the ban on adults serving as scoutmasters Walker said he was opposed because the ban "protected children." The implication was that gays are predators, the ugly lie that hate groups like the Family Research Council have promulgated for decades. You'd think in 2015 this kind of blatant defamation would be banished from politics. After much outrage, even from some conservatives who support equal rights for gays, like Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, Walker ridiculously tried to walk back the comments without admitting to and apologizing for hideous, defamatory remarks.
His campaign and later he himself claimed he didn't mean "physical protection" but rather protection from the political debate itself and the controversy. And yet, when Rubin had asked his spokesperson if Walker believed children needed protecting from gay men, the spokesperson had no comment. Moreover, if he truly doesn't believe gay men are dangerous to children, and really wants the political debate to stop being a distraction for scouts, Walker would simply support allowing gay adults in the Boy Scouts.
The entire scenario seemed like part of Walker and his campaign's attempt to whip up support from anti-gay extremists, particularly in Iowa, while they've been aware of not wanting to alienate the mainstream. Walker has trotted out his sons to say they favor marriage equality, even as Walker claims he does not. And his wife, Tonette Walker, has played a sort of motherly moderator role, saying she is "torn" on the Supreme Court's decision. The thinking of his campaign seemed to be that conservatives will respect family differences and Walker's love of his family -- family first, of course -- while seeing that he's standing his ground himself on the issue.
It's an attempt to dog whistle to homophobes while still also attempting to tell moderates that he has modern people surrounding him. Walker also went to a gay relative's wedding reception, you might recall, but then said he didn't go to the actual ceremony. And after the Supreme Court's marriage equality decision, he came out for an amendment that allow states to ban marriage for gays, even as his family disagrees.
It has never been clear that this strategy would actually work with the far right, who don't want to hear that even a candidate's family might be supportive of LGBT rights. Already, Rick Santorum was attacking Walker and his wife, saying that "spouses matter," and that the fact that Walker's wife is "torn" and not on board the anti-gay agenda might sway Walker in his convictions.
So, this has been a questionable strategy from the beginning. And now, as he's trying to fire up Iowa GOP voters further, it completely came unhinged. Uttering the "protected children" term was beyond the dog whistle, and it was heard loud and clear across the political landscape and the media, bringing us back to Ben Carson's meltdowns, in which he's compared gays to pedophiles, only to backtrack but then make more anti-gay remarks.
Ever since Jeb Bush used the words "safeguard religious liberty" in response to marriage equality in Florida, we knew that gay-bashing was going to be a mainstay of GOP presidential candidates, though it would be in code words. It's encouraging to see Walker's overt pandering to bigots blew up. But when Bush used "safeguard religious liberty" in the same breadth in which he said we have to respect gay couples and the "rule of law", even though he still is opposed marriage equality, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay group, praised him for supposedly supporting gay couples yet didn't criticize him for the "religious liberty" code. The group rightly has been lambasting Scott Walker and his blatantly defamatory comments.
But it's the dog- whistling, like that of Bush -- and which there will surely be much more of moving forward -- that is far more dangerous. And we need to just as forcefully call it out.
Michelangelo Signorile's new book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.