Johnny Ryan
Liberals are staring into the red belly of this country with incomprehension and fear. They are wondering how one even begins to talk to the huge percentage of voters who told exit pollsters last Tuesday that "moral values" guided them in choosing president Bush. Among straight liberals there is a sudden feeling that it is desperately urgent to reach out to these people, that the straight liberal way of life may depend on it.

Welcome to our world.

We gay Americans have been wondering how to engage these people for years, and not just in an abstract, political-strategizing sort of way. For too many gay Americans, the homophobic wing of the "moral values" voting bloc includes mom and dad, the ones who disowned their child simply for being queer. These kids, and those of us who befriend them in their urban exile, have long known that a vast swath of red America would like nothing better than to push us first out of their territory, and then from our coastal enclaves straight into the sea. So the wounded contempt generated by the new map of divided America isn't new to us.

And here is what we have learned about the religious fundamentalists who hide their ignorance and fear behind a cloak of "moral values," and who, through the cynical attentions of the Republican Party, have now become political kingmakers: First, you cannot compromise with them. As the Republicans themselves frequently remind us in another context, to compromise with a religious fundamentalist is to establish a moral equivalence between his or her core convictions and your own; it is, in other words, to cede far too much ground. You do not change a homophobe by suggesting that he is correct, just as you do not change an Islamic fundamentalist by allowing that perhaps nonbelievers should be killed. There will be a temptation among Democrats to do this, however, to pander to America's evangelical fundamentalist voters by aping Bush's strategy of pretending to be one of them. Don't do it. It is inimical to the core values of liberalism, it is a step toward quasi-theocracy, and it would only embolden the bigots, the anti-choice control freaks, and the God-appointed totalitarians.

It is also a waste of time, which bring us to the second lesson gay people have learned in dealing with America's homophobic "moral values" voters: A certain percentage of these religious fundamentalists simply cannot be swayed from their beliefs. There is no debate with them, no appeal to rationality or even common humanity. God has told them what's right, and they're not changing. The gay children of people like this generally have to cut off or greatly circumscribe contact with their parents in order to maintain their own dignity. It is a painful process, but ultimately it creates the reward fundamentalists deserve: estrangement from the open-minded world and a lonely death. The Democrats should do likewise: give up on the fundamentalists who simply won't change, and let them die estranged from our culture.

The fear, looking at the electoral map, is that we simply can't do this now because there seems to be more of them than us, meaning they're not dying off fast enough, or if they are, they're being rapidly replaced by new true believers. Don't buy this, it's too simple. As gay children of religious parents know, there are a good number of nominal religious fundamentalists who are, in fact, open to new ideas. Some voters, like some parents, can change. If you stand up to them, and persistently but politely call them on their pseudo-moral bullshit, these people will eventually come around--if not to acceptance, then to grudging respect, or at least a respectful détente. Great is the number of families with gay children (think of the Cheneys) who discover an elasticity in their supposedly unchanging "values" when someone they know challenges them in the right way.

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Paradoxically, just as straight liberals are finding themselves to be on the same cultural island as gay Americans, a good number of gay Americans appear to be under the delusion that they are welcome in the sea of red. How else to explain the fact that exit polls showed 23 percent of gay American voters chose Bush, down only 2 percent from 2000?

While straight liberals need to figure out how to deal with the evangelical fundamentalist problem better, gay liberals need to figure out how to better deal with this problem: In an election where Republicans deliberately used homophobia to rally their base, the lesson the gay community taught them was, "Go right ahead, we'll vote for you anyway." It appears the Republicans are on their way to doing with some gay Americans what they have so successfully done with the poor and the uneducated. They are turning a good number of us into a reliable constituency that can be counted on to vote against its own interests.

If for no other reason than our own self-interest, liberal gays need to find these conservative gays and beat some sense into them. The pressure on the Democratic Party to move more into the "mainstream" (i.e., away from gay rights) is already huge. If we can't reward with our votes the Democrats who stick their necks out to support us, then we gay Americans are being willing accomplices in our own destruction.