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US Politics: Capital Letters

A Gay Ol' Time in Dixie

Hastings Wyman | November 5, 2003

Jim Roth The South is the nation's most conservative region, especially when it comes to such social issues as gay rights. In part, this is a reflection of the region's religious roots - studies show more Southerners belong to a church and attend services regularly than do Americans in other parts of the country. Given its conservative values, it is not surprising that the South lags in such developments as passage of gay rights laws and election of openly gay officials - the 13-state South accounts for some 33 percent of the nation's population, but only has about 15 percent of the openly gay people elected to public office.

Gay candidates, however, are continuing to make progress in the region, as attested to by several recent events.

In Louisiana, in the Oct. 4 nonpartisan primary for a state legislative seat in New Orleans, openly gay attorney Randy Evans made the runoff. He came in second in a field of eight, with 27 percent to 35 percent for the frontrunner, Cheryl Gray (D). Evans is unusual among gay politicos in that he is a Republican. If he wins in the runoff on Nov. 15, he will be the first openly gay elected official in Louisiana and only the fourth elected to a Southern state legislature. The other three are: Glenn Maxey (D), who served in Texas from 1991-2000; Karla Drenner (D), elected in Georgia in 2000; and Adam Ebbin (D), who has no opposition in his Virginia race on Nov. 4.

Also, last month in Kentucky, state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone (D) announced publicly that he is gay, making him the first and only openly gay official in the Bluegrass State. The revelation - which was not a surprise to the state's political insiders - did not create a major stir.

In addition, last year Jim Roth was elected to the Oklahoma City county council, making him the first openly gay officeholder in the Sooner State. Roth's victory is instructive. To understand the electorate that put him in office, consider that a 2001 public opinion survey found that 90 percent of Oklahomans believe Jesus was bodily resurrected and 91 percent believe in hell. Moreover, both of Roth's opponents - a prior incumbent in the primary and the incumbent in the general election - used his sexual orientation against him. In the November election, there were antigay hecklers at public forums, church groups distributing antigay campaign literature, and anonymous e-mails touting gay-related charges, such as that Roth was only running to get health insurance for a partner with AIDS. Despite Oklahoma voters' religious and political conservatism, the antigay charges backfired, and Roth beat the Republican incumbent by 11 percentage points.

Since the election, says Roth, "It's almost like the issue has gone away... People are focused on the work product and are being supportive." He also notes that gay-related issues "are not a typical part of a typical day" at the county commission, which maintains roads, administers elections, and handles other governing chores. However, when the opportunity arises, Roth does not shy away from helping gay causes - he recently served as the grand marshal for the city's AIDS walk.

Several factors are contributing to the continuing progress of gay candidates in the South. One is that before there were gay winners, there were gay pioneers in Kentucky, Louisiana, and Oklahoma who took the brave step of running and losing in a hostile environment. Thus, seeing a gay person on the ballot is not the shock today that it was in the past. Another factor is that the national cultural climate, which is moving toward greater acceptance of gay people - via television, for example - influences Southerners as well as the rest of the country.

Hastings Wyman publishes Southern Political Report, a nonpartisan biweekly political newsletter.

Previous editions
Wesley Clark Garners Gay Support
Republicans Make Gay Marriage an Issue in 2004 Presidential Campaign
Federal Marriage Amendment Faces Major Obstacles



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