The High Cost of Political Gay-Bashing

I'm not exactly ready to say we've reached the end of the line for political gay-bashing in presidential election campaigns. But Rick Perry's widely-ridiculed "Strong" ad, in which he attacks the idea of gays serving openly in the military, surely shows we're getting there.

The ad has over 650,000 "dislikes" on YouTube as opposed to just under 21,000 "likes" and has been parodied mercilessly - and often hilariously. George Takei pointed to Perry's wearing the same jacket as Heath Ledger in "Brokeback Mountain," and the Harvard Political Review notes the music was inspired by or lifted from gay composer Aaron Copland. The ad only seems to show how much gays are woven into the fabric of American culture even as Perry laughably seeks to marginalize them. It's a "fail" on all counts.

Whatever uptick Perry may get in the polls among the evangelical base, the question is: Was it worth the high cost of political gay-bashing in 2011? The answer is clearly no. Rifts erupted in his campaign over the ad - with Perry's own top pollster calling the ad "nuts" - causing a distraction in the media. Perry got heckled by activists at an event in Iowa and there's likely to be more. The usually highly accommodating gay Republican group, GOProud, whirled itself into a tornado of rage, demanding that Perry's top pollster, Tony Fabrizio - the one who called the ad "nuts" - step down, claiming he's a gay sell out. This was somewhat ludicrous coming from a group that only a few weeks ago said it would support Michele Bachmann if she won the nomination. But that only underscored the anger that the ad inspired.

When conservative activist Andrew Breitbart quit the GOProud board in response to the supposed outing (yes, more irony, watching Breitbart expressing concern about revelations that might harm political figures' careers), it only brought more attention to the issue: Even named Fabrizio.

It might now dawn on some evangelical voters to ask: If Rick Perry truly believes open gays shouldn't serve in the military why does he appear to believe they can serve so close to him in his own campaign? And it's not like he's the only choice for the hard-core antigay crowd, as true believers Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum are vying for their votes as well. It's true that evangelicals have been stereotyped as being driven by one issue, and, like everyone else, the economy appears to be a driving factor in their election decisions too. No candidate is going to get by on "family values" alone.

But it's also true that the gay issue is no longer as potent for GOP politicians because more and more GOP moderates and independents aren't willing to go along with the antigay line. A few years ago the same kind of political gay-bashing Perry has engaged in worked like a charm for the GOP. When George W. Bush, ramping up for the 2004 election, pushed a federal marriage amendment - claiming we needed to "protect" marriage - it brought in the religious right crowd while obviously not disgusting moderates in the party enough to scare them off.

But now, Ken Mehlman, the man who orchestrated that strategy as both chair of the Republican National Committee and head of Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, is out of the closet and working in the party to gain support for marriage equality.

The majority of Americans opposed marriage equality in 2004 and even in 2008, unlike today when in most polls a slim majority favors it. And on "don't ask, don't' tell," - one of the issues that Perry decided to stake his campaign on - almost 80% favored repeal last year when Congress voted on it.

Back in October, weeks before the "Strong" ad, I wrote an essay for The Advocate in which I noted how the decades-long antigay strategy in the GOP could finally come back to haunt the party this year. In 2011 all the candidates in fact steered clear of LGBT issues until they were either called on it (Santorum was actually questioned by Chris Mathews on "Hardball" earlier in the summer about why he wasn't bringing up gay marriage) or got desperate, as in the case of Bachmann and now Perry.

Once they see that whatever help it gets them in the polls isn't worth the high cost of gay-bashing today, GOP politicians and their strategists may drop this ugly strategy once and for all.