Jim West may have overcompensated for his closeted sexual identity by voting against gay rights legislation. But how are his fellow Republicans dealing with the news that the powerful conservative has admitted to sexual relationships with barely legal teenage men? Aside from allegations of molestation and illegal use of office, the debate over whether a gay person can be an effective conservative leader continues within the Republican Party. Some say a gay Republican is a contradiction in terms; others believe that as long as an official toes the line of his or her constituents, their personal life is no one's business. Still others think there's nothing anti-gay about the Republican Party.
"This is not a debate going on in the Republican Party," says Chris Vance, chairman for the Washington State Republican Party. Vance denies there is anti-gay sentiment from Republicans, saying just because the party is against same-sex marriage doesn't make it against gays. "We do not have a litmus test saying you can't be gay and be a Republican," Vance says. "What bothers me is that it plays into the ridiculous stereotypes about the Republican Party. There are all sorts of types of Republicans, just like there are all types of Democrats. The gay marriage issue is not a referendum on the entire issue of homosexuals in America."
Vance vehemently denies that there is an "anti-gay" faction of Republicans, but others disagree.
"There are essentially two groups of Republicans," says Shaun Cross, a Spokane lawyer and conservative Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the 5th District's congressional seat last year. "Both groups are conservative on economic issues, and one group -- which is quite large and represents the majority -- is conservative on social issues as well. The other is more laissez-faire in regard to personal lifestyle issues."
Though Vance denies the debate within the Republican Party, both Cross, who is a Christian and thinks homosexuality is a sin, and Dave Kaplan, an openly gay Republican and the president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Washington State, a gay organization that lobbies for gay rights within the Republican Party, acknowledge the ongoing debate.
"There are a certain segment of theocrats [in the Republican Party] who believe homosexuality is wrong," says Kaplan. "I think the debate is occurring, yes. One of the difficult things is for the theocrats to understand we live under a Constitution as a basis for our laws, not a religious document."
Cross says although he's morally against homosexuality, he takes issue with the fundamentalists and "anti-gays" who are judgmental and hateful toward gay people. "I think it would be a terrible mistake for the Christian constituency to come off as anti-gay," Cross says. "The whole party should stand for the proposition that everyone has dignity in the eyes of God and we don't have lesser classes of people; but yet that's what seems to be happening. Unfortunately, there are Christian Republicans who give that [anti-gay] impression. We bring it on ourselves."
Vance, however, claims Republicans are the victims of stereotyping. "It is the liberal media that takes things and says 'you're anti-gay,'" he says. "The Republican Party is not anti-gay. The Christian right wing is not anti-gay. The Vice President's daughter is gay. There are prominent Republicans who are homosexual. We don't drum them out of the party."
But Cross is hesitant to support gay Republican leadership.
"Whether an openly gay Republican can lead the party, well, that's very problematic," he says. "I don't know that it's impossible, but it's very, very, very difficult. Christians represent a large percentage of most Republican constituencies around the country, particularly in Washington state."
Despite Vance's denial, gay leadership is part of an ongoing debate within the party -- one that makes it all the more scandalous every time a Republican leader is outed. And there have been many of them. Last fall, Daniel Gurley, the national field director and deputy political director for the Republican National Committee, was outed after an online media outlet found his profile on Gay.com, where he was reportedly seeking group sex. Jeff Gannon, the White House "reporter" who turned out to have been hired by a Republican-backed news organization, also turned out to have once been a gay male escort. The reactionary Republican congressman from Virginia, Ed Schrock, ended his re-election campaign after being involuntarily outed when he was discovered looking for sex in a gay chat room. And California's staunch Republican congressman, David Dreier, who votes consistently against gay rights, was outed last fall, as was Ken Mehlman, who ran George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, with a platform against same-sex marriage; he is now the chairman of the Republican Party. And there's more: Michael Huffington, Robert Bauman, Arthur Finkelstein, Paul Koering, Jim Kolby -- all Republican congressman, staffers, columnists and campaign strategists, most of whom have taken vehement positions against gay rights legislation. But is this hypocrisy? Again, that's being debated vehemently within the ranks. Case in point: Jim West's consistent voting record against gay rights legislation during his career as Senate Majority Leader.
"I disagree with Mayor West, obviously," says Kaplan. "But while I disagree with a lot of his positions on the issues, I believe he shouldn't have to adhere to a political orthodoxy." Cross, however, thinks West's voting record juxtaposed to his private life, reveals a hypocrisy that erodes public trust.
"It's true that one person's private life should remain [so], but there are certain exceptions and one of them should be hypocrisy. He's been against all gay rights across the board while living a very different lifestyle. I think when you have that kind of stark contrast, it's a huge issue of public trust and goes to the heart of credibility."
While Vance says the situation regarding West doesn't apply, because it is between the citizens of Spokane and their mayor, not the Republican Party, he does say that what some see as hypocritical others say are just diverse view points. "You can be gay and still not necessarily support legislation that the leadership of the gay community supports," he says.
Kaplan, who represents gay Republicans, says he thinks there would be less debate if gay conservatives were more open with their sexuality: "My hope is other gay Republicans who are closeted will figure out that it's better to come out on their own terms than have things blow up in their face."