“Don’t give up on the Republican Party. Not yet, anyway.”
That was about the tamest comment of the day from former U.S. Senator Alan Simpson, who on Friday delivered a speech filled with compassion and humor – and riddled with references to the “cuckoos” and “zealots” of the far right who, working within Lincoln’s Grand Old Party, have aggressively attempted to marginalize gays and lesbians.
Simpson was speaking to some 200 gay and lesbian Log Cabin Republicans gathered for their national conference in Denver this weekend – a mostly white crowd whose hero is Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement and whose ideals embraced individual freedom, the right to privacy – and of staying out of peoples’ bedrooms. Simpson, 75, a three-term senator from Wyoming, left Washington in 1997 after nearly two decades in the Senate and went on to serve for several years as Director of the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
During his speech he recalled his acquaintance with Goldwater, along with a vivid recollection of many years ago, when Jerry Falwell made some comment along the lines that, “Every good Christian should do something or other…”
Responded Goldwater: “Every good Christian should kick Jerry Falwell’s ass.”
Simpson, 75, calls it the “creeping maturity” – the strides that gays and lesbians have made toward equality, just in his lifetime. While he cannot possibly understand the pain, hurt and anguish of growing up gay, the evolution of the level of acceptance of gays in society has been “astonishing,” he said. And he talked of the work still to do.
“You have come light years, wearing seven-league boots. But progress is slow.”
Simpson spoke of growing up in Cody, Wyoming in the 1940s, and of a boy named Jimmy March, who was different and kept to himself and endured cruel and insensitive comments and, ultimately, committed suicide. Simpson talked of a congressman who had taken on McCarthy and whose son had been caught soliciting a male prostitute who was actually an undercover cop. The congressman was told to withdraw from a reelection campaign; he shot himself through the head instead. Simpson talked about Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming college student who in 1998 was beaten and tied to a fence and left to die.
He spoke of Fred Phelps, of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, of God Hates Fags fame, who has accused Simpson of being a “senile old fag lover” and has called for his head and who, Simpson said, is a “really sick bastard.”
The former senator spoke with frustration, over members of his own Republican Party, whose focus on Terry Schiavo and gay marriage and opposition to stem cell research, he says, all contributed to GOP losses in November. Those fringe issues, Simpson says, “don’t settle well with regular Republican or Democratic voters.” For that matter, “What the hell is [supporting criminalizing abortion] doing in our platform?” he asked.
Though Republicans lost the majority last November, the election was actually a good thing, as it resulted in “shaking some of the goofies and the zanies out of the tree,” he said.
His mom, Simpson said, always said that hatred corrodes the containers it comes in. And “those people,” he said of the religious right, are filled with gas and body odor and heartburn.
“They smell bad,” Simpson said, drawing laughter and applause and ultimately, a extended standing ovation from the group.
“Go forth and multiply,” he said.
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential, and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at email@example.com