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Antigay bigotry is tainting the GOP

IN THE current debate over gay rights, conservatives have often protested the tendency to brand all opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or hateful. I agree that such labels are unfair, just as its unfair to brand anyone who opposes abortion or supports a traditional division of male and female roles in marriage a misogynist. Gender arrangements, traditional and modern, are a complex issue on which intelligent, honest, and nonbigoted people can disagree.

But there's also a lot of outright, unmistakable hate and bigotry out there, and it must be recognized and confronted.

Take, for instance, Gerald Allen, a Republican representative in the Alabama Legislature. Buoyed by the election results and by the success of the referendums against same-sex marriage, Allen has recently submitted a bill to prohibit the use of public funds to purchase textbooks or library materials that "recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle."

At a press conference, Allen made it clear that his proposal targets much more than pro-gay rights political literature: literary works with gay characters and themes would have to be banished from library shelves as well. (It's a vast blacklist that would include the play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" by Tennessee Williams, the novels of Iris Murdoch, the poems of Sappho and Walt Whitman, and Plato's "Symposium.") As he put it, "I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them." If this guy didn't exist, a left-wing journalist would have to invent him as a walking stereotype of a "red-state" bigot.

One hopes that even in ultraconservative Alabama, this hateful and ludicrous attempt at book-banning won't pass -- or, if it passes, will be struck down by the state Supreme Court. But regardless of the fate of Allen's freakish brainchild, what's genuinely troubling is the influence his ilk have in the Republican Party today, on the national level. In an interview published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, last week, Allen bragged about a scheduled meeting with President Bush at the White House -- a meeting that he said was going to be his fifth. (In 1999, Allen was one of a group of Alabama Republican Party leaders who wrote to George W. Bush urging him to run for the presidency.)

Both political parties have their unsavory extremists. The 2004 Democratic convention featured Michael Moore as a guest of honor and racial agitator Al Sharpton as a prime-time speaker. John Kerry has been criticized, and rightly so, for not taking the opportunity to distance himself -- and the Democratic Party mainstream -- from that crowd. President Bush has tried to convey an image of moderation and tolerance by speaking in support of civil unions on national television a few days before the election, and voicing disagreement with the Republican platform plank that would deny not only marriage but all legal protections to same-sex couples (a position supported by only 37 percent of voters in the CNN exit poll). But he has not explicitly repudiated the bigotry and gay-baiting in his party's ranks.

Meanwhile, existing legal protections for same-sex couples are clearly under assault from the backlash against gay marriage. In Michigan, where an amendment banning same-sex marriage was approved by the voters on Nov. 2, Governor Jennifer Granholm -- a rising star in the Democratic Party -- has agreed, under conservative pressure, to remove same-sex domestic partner benefits from an already negotiated contract for public employees, due to take effect next year.

What's particularly galling is that the backers of the amendment made repeated assurances that the measure would not deprive anyone of benefits and was only about protecting the special cultural status of traditional marriage. Republican state Senator Alan Cropsey, who proposed the amendment, explained the bait-and-switch to the Flint Journal: apparently, what he and his fellow activists meant was that "existing" benefits would not be affected. But including them in future benefit packages, or even renewing them after current contracts expire, would be a no-no.

The attempt to legalize same-sex marriage through judicial fiat and civil disobedience was, it is increasingly clear, a bad idea. However, if conservatives want to show that it's possible to be against same-sex marriage but also against intolerance and discrimination, they're not doing a very good job so far.

In the meantime, Gerald Allen's book-burning -- excuse me, book-burying -- proposal seems like a perfect occasion for Laura Bush, a former librarian and the head of a foundation to help America's libraries, to speak out against intolerance. Such a statement by the first lady would undoubtedly upset some people in the president's base. But one wants to hope that those people do not have veto power in the Republican Party.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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