“Reparative therapy” for gay people has been legally proscribed for minors in California and New Jersey. But apparently the political activists in the Texas GOP know better.
The state’s Republican Party has adopted into its 2014 platform a passage endorsing the practice, which, as marketed by the rapidly shrinking “ex-gay” movement, seeks to “convert” homosexuals into heterosexuals. The American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and a host of other professional bodies have condemned reparative therapy as damaging to the health of those people unfortunate enough to be subjected to its quack treatment regimens, which range from repeatedly beating a pillow with a tennis racket to “prolonged hugs” intended to let the recipient “feel the strength of another man”—in a totally non-sexual manner, of course.
The party’s decision to insert such extreme language into its platform will have ripple effects far beyond the Lone Star State. Dallas is one of four cities left in the running to host the 2016 Republican National Convention, and as the gay-rights movement gains steam across the country, winning victories seemingly every day, choosing a state where the ruling party deems gays to be sick will send an divisive message. (In a sign of just how desperate the situation is for gay rights in Texas, one gay Republican told me that he considered the platform fight a draw because his colleagues were able to get the party to eliminate decades-old language declaring that “homosexuality tears at the fabric of society.”)
It’s not exactly a surprise that the Texas Republican Party, one of the reddest of the red state party organizations in the country, would oppose gay marriage. After all, only a bare majority of Americans support it. But suggesting conversion therapy for gays, aside from being a bizarre preoccupation for a political party, is culturally tone-deaf on a massive scale.
That’s primarily because the ex-gay movement, or what’s left of it, is just a shell of its former self. Last year, Exodus International, at the time the largest ex-gay ministry in the world, dissolved. (The vast majority of such organizations are explicitly religious in tone, with only a handful, such as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, attempting to maintain a veneer of pseudo-secular, psychiatric respectability.) Citing the untold “hurt” his organization had caused over a near 40-year run, former Exodus president Alan Chambers apologized to the countless men, women, girls, and boys who had been subjected to its message: “The opposite of homosexuality isn’t heterosexuality. It’s holiness.”
For Rich Tafel, the news from Texas brings a feeling of déjà vu. In 1998, Tafel was the leader of the Log Cabin Republicans, then and now the country’s largest and most respected group representing gay GOP-ers. That year, some 50 members of its Texas chapter had been elected as delegates and alternates to the state convention, but the party refused the chapter an exhibition booth alongside other Republican and conservative groups—the only organization to face such a ban. State party spokesman Robert Black went so far as to compare Log Cabin to the Ku Klux Klan and pedophiles, and slandered it as a “hate group.”
Not all Texas Republicans shared the views of the majority, and Log Cabin could count on some influential straight allies, foremost among them then-Gov. George W. Bush, who issued a statement opposing the organization’s exclusion. “While he differs with the Log Cabin Republicans on issues such as gay marriage, he does not condone name calling,” Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said. Two years later, Texas Republicans would make national news again for their homophobia when, at the 2000 Republican National Convention that nominated Bush, some of them bowed their heads in silent prayer, holding their cowboy hats over their hearts, when openly gay Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) addressed the crowd—about free trade.
“The Texas GOP has been taken over by the most extreme elements in the GOP,” Tafel told me this week. “Sixteen years ago, their behavior toward Log Cabin Republicans forced an apology from the state party director to Log Cabin. Today they have only moved further to the right and are so outside the norm of American society that the national party is too embarrassed to hold the national convention in Texas in 2016 because of this behavior.”
If there’s any “sickness” in the debate over homosexuality, it’s homophobia. A short documentary about the 1998 controversy, On the Front Lines, provides a chilling reminder of the virulence of its Texas strain. It depicts Tafel and a series of other courageous Log Cabin members addressing a “Rally for Liberty” outside the convention hall as counter-protesters shout abuse and wave signs bearing slogans such as “There’s no such thing as a Christian fag.” One particularly angry man can be seen screaming: “Never! Never! Never! You cannot have my son! You cannot have my daughter!” Tafel, an ordained minister, calmly replies to the haters that their words and actions make him “ashamed as a Christian.” And then, using the language of the pious against them, he declares, “We know that God is on our side.”
Whether or not there is a God, Tafel was right to be optimistic. Less than 20 years later, gay marriage, which barely registered on most people’s minds at the time, is now a reality in states ranging from California to Iowa to Massachusetts. Gays can serve openly in the military. An openly gay man has just joined the NFL. The president of the United States has formally incorporated gay rights into his foreign policy agenda.
But as America moves forward, Texas Republicans remain mired in the past. The draft 2014 platform invokes a series of straw men, including the hoary old claim that legal equality for gays is tantamount to the creation of “special legal entitlements or special status for homosexual behavior.” It also condemns “criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values,” as if the fearsome gay lobby is out to imprison ministers or pundits for their rhetoric.
The longer Texas Republicans keep acting like Neanderthals, the greater the chances that the politically unthinkable might happen. “As state after state embraces marriage equality, the Texas GOP resembles the George Wallace Democrats’ response to racial equality in the 1960s, grabbing harder onto their bigotry based in the fear of America’s growing inclusion,” Tafel says. “Their right-wing bigotry is single-handedly doing what Democrats have been unable to do—move Texas from a red state to a blue state.”