Skip to main content

To Be Gay and Conservative

Tue, 06/11/2024 - 20:41
Neil J. Young

“Coming Out Republican”
Neil J. Young
University of Chicago Press, $30

Through what eyes does a person see the world? Most if not all of us have options. When it comes to optics, does one view the world as an American? As a female, male, or nonbinary being? As a Catholic? As an Irish Catholic? As a social worker? A millionaire? I could go on, but you get the idea. It's almost never likely to be that simple.

That is certainly one of the underpinnings of Neil J. Young's "Coming Out Republican: A History of the Gay Right." Mr. Young has given us a nuanced work that examines the roles gay people — almost exclusively white males — have played in conservative American politics from the 1920s to the Biden administration.

The author is not afraid to acknowledge the potential elephant in the room: the popular wonderment of how a gay person could be a Republican. "For many, the example of Caitlyn Jenner raises the question I have often been asked in the years I have spent researching and writing this book," he notes in the introduction. "Why would any LGBTQ person support the Republican Party? That question reflects one of the most strongly held beliefs about contemporary American politics: in our two-party political system, the Democrats are the party of LGBTQ rights, while the GOP is anti-LGBTQ."

In the 340 pages of text that follow (plus an additional 71 pages of notes), Mr. Young demonstrates how Ms. Jenner, who came out as transgender in 2015 and expressed the hope that she could help make the Republican Party more supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, was neither political aberration nor anomaly.

This book is at once a detailed history of nearly a century of conservative American politics and a series of accounts of what it was like to be gay in America during different eras of the last 100 years. The accounts are portrayed through the lives of numerous people who figured in that history. If there is a common thread to the stories of those individuals, it is that, for at least a time, they led "double lives," keeping their sexuality under wraps (other than to carefully selected intimates) in order to avoid persecution, prosecution, and disapproval.

Some names are familiar, others not. Mr. Young introduces us to Dorr Legg, scion of an old California Republican family (much of gay conservative politics has been centered in California). Beginning in the 1920s, Legg took part in the homophile movement, forerunner of the Lincoln Republican Club of California, which evolved into the Log Cabin Republicans. In 1958, Legg was connected to a significant court case in which, for the first time, it was ruled that several gay publications could operate freely, without threat of being shut down through the enforcement of obscenity statutes.

The thrust of early gay organizations was not about gay rights as they are thought of today, but rather about the right of gay individuals to be left alone to lead their private lives free of government persecution. It is not a huge jump from such a libertarian orientation to certain prominent elements of the 20th-century Republican Party.

We encounter Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a runaway Mexican-American teen who sought the bright lights of Hollywood and found shelter in Los Angeles in the 1960s. He turned activist when he found out that the police had begun spying on the activity in a certain men's room at the May Company department store in San Diego; the men's room was a well-known gay cruising spot. Appalled at the entrapment and arrest of several gay men, Murray-Ramirez began picketing the store, carrying a sign imprinted with the slogan "I like gay company, not the May Company." No one ever said protest couldn't be witty.

In 1975, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Leonard Matlovich became, for a time, the most famous gay man in America. A decorated Vietnam veteran, Matlovich was the first gay military man in this country to purposely out himself, in protest of the military's ban on homosexuals. After he was discharged, Matlovich's lawsuit to be reinstated became a national cause célèbre.

What the public did not know about Matlovich was that the motivation for his lawsuit was more than political. He loved the Air Force and was a super-patriotic American. Moreover, Mr. Young tells us, he had toyed with joining both the Ku Klux Klan and the ultraconservative John Birch Society. Certainly, this did not square with the image that liberal supporters of L.G.B.T.Q. rights would have favored.

Other portraits reveal how complex it was to be gay and conservative. Each is another piece to the puzzle of understanding how a person could be both things at once, and each reflects how attitudes toward L.G.B.T.Q. people changed over time. 

What also changed was the ethos of the Republican Party, which for some years expressed openness toward gay rights and acceptance of L.G.B.T.Q. people as part of the mainstream of American life. The tide turned, however, as the religious right began exerting increasing influence in G.O.P. politics. Even then, some gay men remained active. In 2008, Republican presidential primary candidate Mitt Romney awkwardly downplayed his pro-L.G.B.T.Q. record during his campaign.

Today, the Log Cabin Republicans group has been at least partially eclipsed by GOProud, L.G.B.T.Q. Republicans who prefer to focus on "Republican issues" and avoid gay ones as much as possible. And there is the curious logic to the argument, proffered by some, that same-sex marriage should be supported by political conservatives. 

Proper historian that he is, Mr. Young reports rather than judges. His final conclusion, however, is frank. Gay Republicans, he states, "have reminded us how much of their political activism has depended upon and sought to advance the privileges of white maleness in this country. Tellingly, they have assumed that the GOP's attacks on trans rights are a contained phenomenon that has no bearing on them."

"History, however, has shown that gay Republicans might need to prepare themselves for other possibilities."

This book is clear, interesting, and well written. The depth of detail, and perhaps the very subject matter, however, keep it from being a breezy read. (That it is published by the esteemed University of Chicago Press attests to its gravitas.) Although interested people may not all read it cover to cover, there is little doubt that Mr. Young's fine work will be abundantly cited by scholars and other writers for a very long time to come. 

Jim Lader, who owned a weekend home in East Hampton for many years, has reviewed books for The Star since 2009.

Neil J. Young is the author of "We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics." He lives in Los Angeles and East Hampton.

Your support for The East Hampton Star helps us deliver the news, arts, and community information you need. Whether you are an online subscriber, get the paper in the mail, delivered to your door in Manhattan, or are just passing through, every reader counts. We value you for being part of The Star family.

Your subscription to The Star does more than get you great arts, news, sports, and outdoors stories. It makes everything we do possible.