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'We failed': Gay Republicans who fought for acceptance in Texas GOP see little progress

The party adopted a platform at its convention in Houston last month declaring that “homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice.”

DALLAS — In June 1998, a group of gay and lesbian conservatives, pushing for greater representation at the Texas Republican Party convention in Fort Worth, found themselves in a frightening clash with members of their own party.

Members of the Log Cabin Republicans were protesting at the gathering of party faithful after a state GOP official made offensive comments comparing the group to the Ku Klux Klan and pedophiles, the Texas Tribune reports.

Editor's note: The story above originally aired on June 30.

The group was also protesting the rejection of their request to host a booth at the convention — the second time in a row they’d been denied — where they hoped to share information about their organization.

Counterprotesters surrounded the Log Cabin members, wielding signs with homophobic slurs and phrases like “The Gay Life = AIDS Then Hell.” They pushed and spat and shoved their fingers in the faces of the gay Republicans.

Richard Tafel, the former executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans which bills itself as the “nation’s largest Republican organization dedicated to representing LGBT conservatives and allies,” attended the Texas convention that year and recalls thinking he was in serious danger as they advocated for respect from members of their own party.

“We’re here to draw the line,” Tafel declared at the protest. “No more hatred, no more hatred in the name of God. And we won’t be silenced.”

Credit: Dale Carpenter via Texas Tribune
Richard Tafel speaks at the Rally for Liberty outside the GOP convention in June 1998.

'I think the party got worse'

Gay Republicans who have fought for acceptance within the Texas GOP over the past three decades told The Texas Tribune progress has been excruciatingly slow. Many of them have left the party, even as the number of Log Cabin Republicans in Texas continues to grow.

“I do not believe that we made any progress. In fact, I think the party got worse,” Carpenter, who is no longer involved in party politics, said of his time as the state’s Log Cabin president.

Since the group’s inception in 1989, the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas have been denied a booth at the state convention. And this year’s convention was no different. Booths are granted to all sorts of conservative interest groups, advocating for issues related to gun rights, anti-abortion issues and freedom from vaccines. A booth, in many ways, is symbolic of a seat at the table.

“Getting a booth also became a signal of party approval,” Carpenter said. “You have ‘arrived’ and are accepted in the GOP.”

Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order this year equating allowing minors to receive transgender care with child abuse. The Legislature also passed a bill last year banning transgender children from playing on public school sports teams that align with their gender identity.    

And conservatives nationwide are taking aim at same-sex marriage. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said on his podcast last week that he believes the U.S. Supreme Court was “clearly wrong” when it legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. A majority of U.S. House Republicans last week voted against protecting the right to same-sex marriage. Only one Texas Republican voted for the measure.

State legislatures across the country have proposed more than 300 anti-LGBTQ bills this year, many of which target transgender youth.

“It saddens me that in a state where our biggest issues are infrastructure, development and education, we have child poverty everywhere, school shootings that are happening, that we're so focused on issues trying to limit the access to opportunities for trans youth,” said Christopher Busby, a former Log Cabin member who left the party in 2016.

Credit: AP
Demonstrators gather on the steps to the State Capitol to speak against transgender-related legislation bills being considered in the Texas Senate and Texas House, May 20, 2021, in Austin.

'No comment'

The Texas GOP declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to the party platform. 

The Tribune reached out to prominent Texas Republican leaders for comment on the state party’s latest anti-LGBTQ platform plank. Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan declined to comment. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn did not answer when asked about the party platform, instead deflecting to discuss the congressional action this week on marriage equality. Cruz said the party platform “is not rhetoric or language that I use” and that “the decisions of consenting adults concerning matters of sexuality are choices for individuals to make.”

All of them attended the convention with the exception of Abbott, who held a reception associated with the event.

Current Log Cabin members in Texas have admonished the party for the language in its platform. But they emphasize the party apparatus is not representative of all or even most Republicans, while pointing to incremental gains they’ve made within the state party.

“There are over 270 planks in the GOP platform,” said Michael Cargill, the president of the Austin Log Cabin chapter who recently resigned as acting chair of the state organization for reasons he said are unrelated to the recent platform. “There are only four planks that we disagree on.”

Notably, the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas, which included about 350 dues-paying members in 2021, endorsed the Legislature’s bill targeting trans youth playing school sports. That position represents what earlier members describe as a shift within the group and a schism between current and former Log Cabin members.

Carpenter recalled that in the ’90s, the primary mission was to achieve acceptance of gay members within the state party. But after decades of nearly stagnant progress on that front, he thinks the group has shifted toward prioritizing common ground.

“We asked ourselves from time to time, are you gay first and Republican second, or are you Republican first and gay second?” he said. “I think in recent years, the mission may have shifted to primarily promoting the Republican party among LGBT people to help win elections. Current leadership seems [to be] ‘Republican first.’”

'I sort of lost hope'

In 1990, the GOP party platform called homosexuality “biologically and morally unsound” and compared same-sex relationships to “necrophilia, pedophilia, bestiality, or incest.”

Paul von Wupperfeld, a gay man who lived in Austin at the time, considered himself politically right of center and in favor of limited government. Gay Republicans were hard to come by back then — many had become disillusioned with the Republican Party due in part to President Ronald Reagan’s handling of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.

Inspired by other Log Cabin chapters that had formed more than a decade earlier, von Wupperfeld and others thought they could change the Texas GOP. He would serve as the first president of the Log Cabin Republicans of Texas. Today, he considers the effort an utter failure.

“We failed to moderate the Republican party,” said von Wupperfeld, now a 56-year-old Democrat who has not voted Republican since 2000. “I’m glad we tried, and I think we did the right thing by trying. We’re actually going the other way, faster and faster.”

Early on, the group had glimmers of optimism. In 1990, the Travis County GOP Convention was opened by a gay men’s chorus. Some of the GOP groups in major cities showed support for the Log Cabin Republicans.

But for every step forward, there was another fall backward.

Republicans started emphasizing social issues as religious conservatives took over the party. The Travis County GOP added language in its 1994 platform opposing “homosexual education” in public schools, according to a news article published after the change. The Galveston County GOP called for all HIV patients to be quarantined, a decision Log Cabin members said was intended to target gay people, who were disproportionately affected by the virus. The Houston Post wrote in a 1994 article that “The GOP — particularly in Texas — has become increasingly socially conservative, with the Christian right in firm control of the party apparatus.”

“We stand with [President George H.W. Bush] against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women,” Buchanan said.

In 1995, von Wupperfeld had enough. He resigned as president of the statewide group.

“I didn’t believe it could succeed anymore,” von Wupperfeld said. “I sort of lost hope and got tired of the drama and the fighting internally and the fighting within the party.”

After von Wupperfeld left, Carpenter would take over the leadership role. He held the position for two years until 1997, until he too lost hope as his party was swallowed by social conservatives.

“We were just a few people in a few cities,” Carpenter said. “And we were up against thousands and thousands of very organized activists who really only cared about two things: abortion and homosexuality.”

The battle for a booth

The battle for a booth at the Texas Republican Party convention every two years has turned into a proxy war for acceptance within the state party.

To get a booth, a group submits an application to the party and then a committee of party officials votes on whether to approve the request. This year, Log Cabin came up short by one vote. Party chair Matt Rinaldi voted “present,” which meant he did not vote in favor or against, said Marco Roberts, the former state chair for Log Cabin who resigned in May.

Booths in the convention’s exhibit hall give interest groups and some elected officials a chance to meet with other politicians, delegates and members to advocate on issues. At this year’s convention, there were more than 75 booths at the exhibit hall, including ones for Texans for Vaccine Freedom and the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life.

Efforts to get a booth began in the 1990s, and the group came especially close in 1996. Kelton Dillard, a longtime treasurer for the state organization, had submitted a check to the state party to register for a booth. It cleared. But the party chair revoked the approval because they said the group was advocating for the practice of sodomy, which was illegal at the time.

The group sued the party. Days before the convention, a district judge ruled in favor of Log Cabin, ordering the state party to give the group a booth and print its advertisement in the convention handbook.

But the Texas GOP appealed to the state Supreme Court. In a ruling the day before the convention was set to begin, the court ruled the group could not have a booth at the convention.

The associate justice of the state Supreme Court who delivered the opinion was Greg Abbott.

He wrote that the decision to deny the group a booth was “an internal party affair rather than an integral part of the election process” and the Log Cabin group could not “maintain its state constitutional claims against the Party.”

Busby, the former Log Cabin member who left in 2016, said the party’s repeated refusal to grant a booth is “disheartening.”

Busby became involved in GOP politics in Texas in the 2000s. He helped reestablish the Log Cabin Republicans of Houston — after it previously had gone defunct — then became a precinct chair in Harris County and was the president of Houston Young Republicans.

“We are human, and humans have a need to feel welcomed into the social groups with which we identify,” said Busby, 33. “And for a long enough time you're told you are not welcome, most people will hear those words and leave no matter how strongly they might want to identify with a group, no matter how strongly their values align. When you're told you're not part of the group, over and over again, eventually you reassign your identity values.”

Victories and losses

In more recent years, the Texas GOP has softened some of its homophobic language.

By 2012, the Texas GOP had abandoned a platform condemning sodomy. The Supreme Court had legalized sodomy nine years earlier, superceding Texas’ law banning it, which has still not been repealed.

In 2016, it removed its explicit endorsement of “reparative therapy,” a debunked and harmful treatment that claims to turn gay people straight, but still made a point of citing its availability "for self-motivated youth and adults." The state party also retained the official position that said “homosexuality is a chosen behavior that is contrary to the fundamental unchanging truths that has been ordained by God in the Bible.”

Roberts, the first openly gay person on the Texas GOP platform committee, led the charge to remove the language in 2018. Texas Values, a conservative Christian organization, initially worked against him to preserve the plank.

Ultimately, the party delegates voted to soften the language while retaining the opposition to same-sex marriage — even as the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage three years earlier.

It was seen as a win — a sign that the party was slowly but surely moving forward on the issue. That optimism evaporated this year.

As the platform committee was wrapping up its work, Matt Patrick, the committee’s chairman, proposed an amendment to add the language that “homosexuality is an abnormal lifestyle choice.” Patrick did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Houston resident Jason Vaughn, a member of the platform committee who is gay, immediately objected to the change.

“This is meant to be insulting language, it does nothing for policy,” Vaughn, 38, said to the committee.

Vaughn’s objections were unsuccessful. The committee approved the change 17-14.

Two days later, the entire floor of delegates voted on the platform. One member of the platform committee, David Gebhart, called to remove the language, saying the Texas GOP “is not the Westboro Baptist Church.” He was booed. The platform plank passed overwhelmingly.

Roberts, who is now the interim chair of the Texas Conservative Liberty Forum, said he thinks this year’s change happened because Log Cabin wasn’t as involved in the platform process.

But he also sees some Republicans hardening their anti-LGBTQ stances, as anti-trans rhetoric becomes mainstreamed in the Texas GOP.

Roberts is hopeful the party will remove the language at its next convention. Vaughn is less optimistic.

“There’s been a lot of progress if you get down with people actually having conversations,” Vaughn said. “If you want to talk about basic rhetoric, no, there’s not been a lot of progress.”

Dillard, the longtime treasurer of the state Log Cabin group, said there was some progress in his time with the group. He helped run the group’s political action committee and said that funding helped stop anti-gay legislation. He’s still a Republican but doesn’t support Trump.

He’s not too worried about the state of gay rights in the country. But he acknowledged the state party’s executive committee “has kind of gone back to being almost as nutty as they've ever been.”

Carpenter agreed that the Texas GOP’s views on LGBTQ issues are wildly out of touch.

“[The party’s] views have not changed, but the wider cultures have. That’s a very striking thing to me,” Carpenter said. “They are like a fossil from another age. And it’s on everything. I don’t believe they support a single thing that’s happened over the last 25 years.”

This story is from the Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.  

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