Conundrums: Michael Steele and missed opportunities

By Ove Overmyer
When newly elected Republican National Committee (RNC) Chair Michael Steele spoke about gay people and relationship recognition in a way that no previous party chair has done before, I thought, wow– this will not sit very well with conservatives in his party.

The interview in GQ magazine (The Reconstructionist, March 11, 2209) marked the first time the leader of the Republican Party has gone on record in such an honest way, staking out mainstream positions about equality that probably put him at odds with the far right of the GOP.

Granted, Mr. Steele is off to a very rocky start, being more of a talking head press hound rather than doing the behind-the scenes rebuilding and organizing of his wounded Party. Because of some hugely embarrassing foibles, Steele has become a punching bag of sorts, the fodder for pundits of MSNBC and the blogosphere wannabees waiting to pounce on his every word.

In his first six weeks in office, Steele has failed to hire a chief of staff and a communications director. He has flip-flopped on civil unions and the abortion issue, made offensive comments about “one-armed midgets,” apologized to Rush Limbaugh, sought to give the hip-hop generation a place in right-wing party politics and has threatened to withhold GOP funds from certain moderate and conservative GOP senators.

The party of “NO” (GOP) has become so irrelevant these days, the Washington press core and Democratic National Committee are hysterically laughing at them over cosmos and apple martinis in every watering hole in the District of Columbia.

When asked in the GQ interview if being gay is a choice, Steele said, “Oh, no. I don’t think I’ve ever really subscribed to that view… ‘Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being gay.’ It’s like saying, ‘Tomorrow morning I’m gonna stop being black.’”

Steele also affirmed his opposition to amending the U.S. Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage stating, “I don’t like mucking around with the Constitution. I’m sorry, I just don’t.” He even went so far as to voice support for legal protections for gay couples. He stopped short of endorsing gay marriage.

Consequently, Michael Steele might be on his way out. It appears that forces within the GOP are rising up against him. His stance on gay issues just might be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Mr. Steele’s problems are pretty much self-inflicted, too. He holds the world record for the least amount of time between making a public statement on an issue and then publicly apologizing for making the comment. His political spine not only bends, it is now broken and needs traction.

However, I have to give him credit for one thing. He gives much more interesting interviews than GOP leaders of the past. His unpredictability has become a genuine source of info-tainment. I always thought that the political life of a black Republican must be fairly contradictory and difficult, but I never imagined that so many of the black RNC members would turn on him so quickly.

This guy is getting flack from all sides these days. In a way, I have sympathy for him—how ironic this squabble of soft bigotry of lowered expectations is playing itself out with the RNC and GOP.

More importantly, what I found peculiar about the reaction to Steele’s amiable take on gay rights is that the gay leadership of the nation’s top LGBT advocacy organizations has basically said nothing about his comments in GQ. I know these groups raise a risk by praising him—the result may irk the GOP to the breaking point and that’s not what the Democrats want.

Additionally, all the same leading LGBT groups were quick to slam Steele a few weeks ago when, on a talk radio show, he said that the GOP was not likely to officially endorse passing civil unions legislation. That’s not his personal view.

When that hit the press loop, the Log Cabin Republican gay group fired off a news release attacking Steele and Human Rights Campaign’s Joe Solmonese penned an opinion piece in Politico forcefully condemning Steele as having “more style than substance.”

HRC’s “attack mode” response to the Steele comment was predictable, and it was six days before the GQ interview. Who knows, next week the RNC Chair might be singing a different tune. Some have said that the HRC’s leadership appears too comfortable in the role as primary servant for the Democratic Party. In some cases, I have to agree. Why not praise Steele’s message as progress and not highlight the messenger?

For as many years as I can remember, the Log Cabin folks and HRC have repeatedly said that the Republican Party must become more inclusive and modernize its positions on gay issues. Neither organization flinches about attacking the GOP when they feel the urge, while at the same time refusing to hold Democratic leaders accountable for their failures to pass any meaningful gay-related legislation. See the conundrum here? Please, someone send up a flare if I am wrong here.

Unfortunately, and more disturbingly, the tactics and language of gay leadership have become way more divisive and punishing. If you aren’t supporting equality efforts all the way, you aren’t just against gay people — you are labeled a bigot and other colorful stuff. Any polished legislator will tell you that enacting bills and getting legislation passed is more nuanced than throwing epitaphs at people who reside on the other side of the political continuum. We should be reaching out to the moveable middle and staying clear of the loud mouth right-winged rhetoric.

While this approach may feel good for the moment, it is destructive to the long-term efforts to build a national community where sexual orientation no longer is a big deal. Some leaders of the gay community are forgetting the hard work of changing hearts and minds. By not doing so, they are missing opportunities to build future allies.

We should be jumping at the chance to praise Steele’s comments in the GQ interview, but it seems that political posturing was more important that speaking out on the bigger ultimate goal of equality for all Americans. After all, it’s much easier and a hell of a lot more fun to trash a Republican.

It is time for the current national political gay leadership to refocus. Now, more than ever, we need to be asking the tough questions about who is speaking for us and who is responsible for staking out the strategy to achieve equality. If any of you self-proclaimed national leaders are reading this, please, let’s have no more missed opportunities. They are too far and few between.

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