Onward Christian Gay-Bashers

For 20 minutes on Nov. 7, anyone who accidentally entered the Hyatt Long Beach's Regency Ballroom would have mistaken the Christian Coalition meeting for a funky New Age convention. Even though there was no burning incense, karma talk or ocean-wave recordings, the atmosphere seemed anything but traditional. The crowd sat transfixed in the darkness as psychedelic pastel images flashed on a screen and a hypnotic synthesizer dirge drowned out a religious testimonial that ended with a call for electoral action. The plea brought some 200 cheering attendees to their feet. Their enthusiasm belied the fact that most had been born during the Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge presidencies, a point driven home when the glitzy ceiling lights came back on. An obese woman wearing a pink polyester jump suit and scuffed, tiny white sneakers turned to me, smiled and said, "That was real nice, wasn't it?" When the feel-good video segment finished, the Christian Coalition's two-day "Road to Victory" conference for followers of the 700 Club's televangelist Pat Robertson resumed the business at hand: extolling the "virtues" of talk radio and Republicans, verbally bashing gays and feminists "because we love them," challenging President Bill Clinton's faith and sex life, and ascribing the worst worldly woes to "degenerate, immoral, godless Democrats."

According to Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a 30-year-old Republican strategist: "It's hip to be moral again. People have stopped apologizing for their faith." The audience immediately took the point to heart, hissing and booing after Sara Hardman, the coalition's state coordinator, announced that she had invited Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer to speak. "You would have been polite," Hardman said to derisive laugher. No such laughter greeted state Treasurer Matt Fong--one of Boxer's Republican challengers--when he announced, straight-faced, that "criminal behavior is the root cause of crime." In a day full of diatribes, each more calculated than the next to raise the fear and alarm of gullible retirees, scapegoating won out over rhetorical finesse. Although conference topics included "Protecting America's heritage," "Grassroots organizing," "Importance of the Catholic vote" and "The compassionate conservative in 1998," there is no doubt who the Christian Coalition will cast as one of America's primary villains in the upcoming elections: gays and lesbians. There are few scenes unpleasanter than watching a bunch of 70-year-olds get riled up about a "homosexual threat." Attendees were told that these "abominable perverts" are controlling entire governments; "infiltrating" corporations, churches and public schools; teaching youngsters how to become homosexual; and encouraging "boys to make out with boys in school bathrooms."

I stopped counting the anti-gay remarks when they topped two dozen during the conference's initial hours. The crowd rewarded speakers with energetic applause after each attack, in which the term homosexual was invariably prefaced with "radical and militant." Apparently, closeted homosexuals--like those throughout GOP ranks--are no problem.Garden Grove's Rob Hurtt, the Republican minority leader of the California Senate, received a hearty ovation when he reported that state Democrats are controlled by lesbians and that his Wednesday Bible-study group of politicians blocked all of their "homosexual bills" this year. Attorney General Dan Lungren, a candidate for governor, said there should be no separation of church and state and--while careful not to specifically mention gays--promised to end the assault on "traditional families" if elected. Others who addressed the conference included The Orange County Register's movie critic Holly McClure, who has criticized Hollywood movie studios for mocking homophobia, and two radio talk-show hosts from Costa Mesa's KBRT, a station embroiled in controversy for suggesting that gays should be rounded up by police and executed. At the national level, the Republican Party ran away from the rabid homophobia and extremism of its 1992 presidential convention in Houston, but in Orange County, there has been no retreat. Ex-Congressman Bob Dornan and the far-Right wing of the local GOP continually manufacture images of evil, plotting gays to raise contributions and influence elections. That theme played out, oddly enough, in races such as the 1996 election for the Saddleback community-college board and this month's school-board race in Orange. More evidence that the strategy is unlikely to die soon is that Christian Coalition founder Ralph Reed--who is now a private campaign consultant--has agreed to work for Republican Bob Zemel, an Anaheim city councilman, in his effort to defeat Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove). Gay political groups are likely to support Sanchez because she rid Congress of its chief bigot, Dornan. In recent weeks, a Christian Coalition activist with ties to Dornan created a Web site that called Sanchez a "communist" and her husband, Stephen Brixey, a "fagot" (sic)."

The world is beginning to understand there is a huge difference between intolerance in the form of bigotry and intolerance in the form of conviction," said Jim Garlow, a San Diego pastor who describes the Christian Coalition as an "underground resistance movement in a hostile world." Garlow went on to say that it is a "myth that we are out to win elections. The fact is that goal is way too small for us. It is our compassion that compels us."

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