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Being Gay And Republican In The Nation's Capital

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Ward 5 candidate Tim Day talks with voter Clarencetta Jelks while campaigning.
Heather Caygle
Ward 5 candidate Tim Day talks with voter Clarencetta Jelks while campaigning.

Local accountant and activist Tim Day is one of 12 candidates running for Harry Thomas Jr.'s Ward 5 seat in the District. And he's doing something nearly every political candidate has to do: knocking on doors, and talking to voters.

Day is on the porch of Clarencetta Jelks, a retired public school librarian who lives in D.C.'s Brookland neighborhood. With her wind chime clanging in the background, Jelks tells Day what she thinks are Ward 5's biggest problems: public corruption, school bureaucracy, and no place to buy fresh vegetables.

"Why couldn't we have gotten a Wegmans in the District?" asks Jelks. "We don't have a Wegmans in the District."

The two talk for another half an hour, and after Day secures Jelks' vote, he gets back in his car. That's when Day realizes in their half hour talk, his sexual orientation never came up.

"She said she'd Googled me, she knew exactly who I was," he says. "So she clearly knows that I'm the gay black Republican. A lot of people don't care, you know? A lot of them don't care."

Of course, there are many who do. The issue of gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, is still a dicey one for some Washingtonians. But Day says he gets much less grief from voters for being gay than he does from gays for being a Republican.

"Coming out as a Republican is harder than coming out as a gay man," he says. "I just had this conversation the other day with a large group of people. I'm like 'Oh, I feel like I'm coming out of the closet again.'"

The Republican Party is loathed by many within the gay community, and maybe not without reason. None of the major candidates who ran for the Republican nomination for president supported legalizing same-sex marriage. And last week, an openly gay advisor to Mitt Romney resigned after less than two weeks on the job. Anti-gay Republican activists had reportedly attacked the Romney campaign for hiring him.

Things like this make life really difficult for Clarke Cooper, leader of the gay conservative group Log Cabin Republicans.

"It is a challenge within the LGBT community," says Cooper.

He says the actions of those at the top of the Republican Party are hiding a generational sea change among the rank and file.

"There's been, actually, a shift within party circles," he says. "The younger the conservative, the more likely they're either agnostic or supportive on issues that would be defined as gay rights issues."

But because the GOP still outwardly rejects much of the gay rights movement, many gays reject all Republicans. Cooper says this has forced some gay Republicans into a different kind of closet. He says some Log Cabin members who own small businesses in gay neighborhoods have to keep their politics hidden for fear of alienating their customers.

"There are a number of members in our 44 chapters in the United States that are engaged politically, but kind of engaged on the down low, in the sense that they're very openly gay, but they're not openly Republican," says Cooper.

One person who's definitely not a secret Log Cabin member is Dan Savage, sex advice columnist, gay rights activist and liberal pundit. Savage says the party's opposition to nearly every major gay rights issue proves that its leaders are bigots. And he says to hide that bigotry, the GOP is using groups like Log Cabin as mere window dressing. Or as Savage calls it, "pinkwashing."

"I have a problem with gay people who are carrying water for the GOP," says Savage. "To identify as a gay Republican right now I think is very nearly impossible."

We asked the Republican National Committee what it's doing to win over gay voters. An RNC spokesman responded that this fall's election will be about the economy.

Tim Day says he's fed up with his party on the issue of gay rights.

"I think that the National Republican Party should be ashamed of themselves for their behavior," he says. "I'm really looking at Obama as a better option."

It might not be surprising that Day is considering voting Democratic given that he's running in a ward where more than 96 percent of the votes went for Barack Obama in 2008. It's a ward where having an R next to your name is probably more of a liability than whatever your sexual orientation may be.

But Day's confident. He says he'll win if he can just meet enough Ward 5 voters.

"It's that 30-second interaction that you have to have with them," he says. "You have to convince them that you're not a Republican monster, that you're not this horrible gay person, and that if you're talking to a gay person, that you're not a bad person because you're a Republican."

In other words, Day is trying to come out to the voters and show them who he really is.

[Music: "What I Am (In the Style of Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians)" by The Karaoke Channel from The Karaoke Channel: In the Style of Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians, Vol. 1]

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