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Gary Younge
Gay is the new black

The same can not be said for lesbians and gay men. Six months after senator Trent Lott was forced to resign after suggesting that America would have been a better place if a segregationist had won the presidency in the 40s, his colleagues appear free to spout homophobia at will and whim.

Most recent was the decision by the US justice department - where attorney general John Ashcroft holds prayer meetings every morning - to ban its employees from holding a lesbian and gay pride event (this is gay pride month). Such was the furore that by the end of last week the decision had been partly reversed - the event can go ahead but this time without government funding. More shocking was Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum - number three in the nation's upper chamber - who in April ranked homosexuality alongside polygamy, incest, adultery and bestiality.

After some initial dithering, to gauge the public mood, Lott was dumped. After similar prevarication, Santorum was defended. "[He] took a very courageous and moral position based upon principles and his world view," said Tom DeLay, the house majority leader.

Republican strategist, Rich Galen, summed up the contradiction thus: "In America in 2003, you can't say bad things about African-Americans, but you can still say bad things about gays. That's where we are."

That is is not quite true. Racism in America's public discourse is certainly more subtle than homophobia, but no less pervasive. Whenever politicians refer to welfare, crime, inner-city deprivation, teenage pregnancy or affirmative action - which is often - they are talking about race, and rarely in terms supportive of minorities.

While racism has been employed to galvanise the white Republican base in past elections - most notably by president George Bush's father in 1988 and Newt Gingrich in 1994 - homophobia may yet become the rallying cry for the next one. When it comes to finding a signifier for the indulgent excesses of liberal Democrats and the Republicans' no-nonsense adherence to the values of middle America, gay is the new black.

"Candidate Bush said in the second [presidential] debate that he felt marriage was a sacred covenant, limited to a man and a woman," said Kenneth Connor, president of the rightwing Family Research Council. "That was not a huge issue in 2000. Mark it down. It will be a big, big issue in 2004."

This is not President Bush's wish. He would rather the whole issue just went away. Since he came to office he has appointed an openly gay ambassador and Aids tsar. But all his judicial appointments so far have been hostile to gay rights, and his refusal to reprimand Santorum indicates that he is all too willing to tolerate intolerance in his ranks.

For Bush this is not a matter of moral principle but political calculation. He has made enough of an impact on restricting abortion rights to keep the faithful happy and provide a lightning rod for Democrats and women's groups. He does not need any more enemies. As the standard-bearer of compassionate conservatism he has no wish to be seen as isolating a relatively small group for special opprobrium - unless of course they are Arab immigrants, in which case he can hide behind national security. The order to allow the justice department's gay pride event to go ahead after all is widely believed to have come from the White House.

Moreover, the ramifications of scapegoating lesbians and gays would go way beyond the actual gay voters - who according to the gay advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, comprise just 5% of the electorate. A Republican party that is mean to a few is widely regarded as having the potential to be mean to the many. The issue of sexual orientation may not be as explosive a touchstone as race, but a homophobic campaign would attract few new voters and repel many - particularly among moderates, women and the young. The issue of gay marriage is incredibly divisive. Polls show that while most Americans (51%) are against it, more than a third - a large proportion of whom are women - support it.

The response to last weekend's lingering televised kiss between Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, two gay winners of the Tony awards, also suggests political culture is lagging way behind popular culture. "I love this man," said Shaiman. "We're not allowed to get married in this world ... But I'd like to declare, in front of all these people, I love you and I'd like to live with you the rest of my life." The audience cheered. Of the 8 million viewers there were just 10 phone calls and 68 emails containing negative feedback.

Despite this, some of Bush's most fervent and active supporters are still keen to bring the issue to the fore. Conservative Christians, who used to exert pressure from outside, now form an influential base within the party. Today they exercise either "strong" or "moderate" influence in 44 Republican state committees, compared with 31 in 1994, according to a study in Washington magazine Campaigns and Elections. The man who used to run the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, is now the head of the Georgia Republican party.

The conservative right have been increasingly irritated with what they regard as Bush's ambivalent attitude towards gay rights. After Marc Racicot, the Republican national chairman, met with the HRC, Connor asked whether he was fit to run Bush's campaign, claiming he was "out of touch with Bush's most loyal and committed voters".

Whether the evangelical right can deliver on their threats is another matter. As fundamentalists, compromise does not come easily to conservative Christians - particularly on social issues. But with Bush enjoying more than 90% approval ratings among Republicans, the president could call their bluff. He knows they won't vote Democrat, though he fears they might stay at home.

And even if Bush could persuade his own side to bury the subject, the courts could resurrect it. A supreme court ruling on a law in Texas which criminalises sexual practices between same-sex couples that are lawful when performed by heterosexuals, is expected by the end of today. The Massachusetts supreme court should rule on the legality of same-sex marriages by mid-July.

The most that conservatives can hope from either judgment is a confirmation of the status quo. More likely, however, is that one or both will extend the rights of lesbians and gay men, sending the Christian right into a frenzy and demanding that Bush make a stand. Under pressure from his own side he would be forced to show us where the conservatism ends and compassion really starts.

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