On the surface, the sorry state of LGBT rights in Georgia looks like the local Republican Party at its fossilized worst. Alabama and South Carolina beat us to marriage equality. GOP legislators are again pushing LGBT-rights-backlash “religious freedom” bills. And pro-equality dissenting voices within the party, such as the Log Cabin Republicans, are muted.

Yet Jeff Graham, Georgia Equality's executive director, is among the political observers telling Project Q a “quiet but dramatic shift” in Georgia GOP attitudes on LGBT rights is underway. Some of that’s overt, like the unprecedented 17 Republicans cosponsoring an LGBT anti-discrimination bill at the Gold Dome. Or former Attorney General Mike Bowers, the Republican who once infamously defended homophobia all the way to the Supreme Court, stunning observers by coming out this week to oppose "religious freedom" bills.

There’s also the deafening silence of GOP leaders not speaking up to support the marriage ban – a big difference from when voters approved it a decade ago amid the wildest homophobic rants.

“The party’s been fairly silent on gay issues. That’s not a bad thing,” says Jamie Ensley (top photo), president of the gay Georgia Log Cabin Republicans. 

“It certainly signals attitudes have begun to change,” says Graham, adding, “We need to create a space where people can evolve on the issue.” 

In fact, Georgia Equality will soon launch a new marriage-equality education program to seize that momentum. Graham says the group will reach out to conservatives who support marriage equality and help gay-friendly locals stage town halls on the subject in rural areas.

Some national trends help, especially the marriage-equality tide sweeping the country, and a new generation of young Republicans who have grown up embracing LGBT rights. But where it really matters – the ballot box – gay-friendly Georgia Republicans still face a dilemma. On the one hand, the old-school Christian Right base will reject them. On the other, LGBT voters may reject them, too.

Christopher Deraney (second photo) last year campaigned unsuccessfully for a Georgia House seat – the Deep South’s first openly gay Republican ever to make such a run. He says he was nervous about how the GOP would react to him, but that it was his fellow queers he should have been worried about. Rather than offer support, LGBT detractors went online to rant that he's a masochist or worse for being Republican.

“That’s where I got the least amount of support,” Deraney says. “For a community that fights for equality, that’s awfully hypocritical…We want to be a broad umbrella and invite everybody under, but we’re pushing some people out in the rain.”

'The nastiness came from' fellow gays

 

The perplexing status of the GOP’s progress on LGBT issues mirrors that of an organization devoted to making that progress happen: the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans. Last month, Ensley was elected chair of the national LCR. That makes him one of the country’s most prominent gay GOP activists, and the LCR’s first chair to hail from the Deep South.

But here at home, GLCR’s activities essentially consist of Ensley’s Twitter and Facebook reposts of national LGBT and GOP news. It doesn’t stage activist campaigns and has largely refrained from directly criticizing Republican officials supporting the marriage ban and "religious freedom" bills. GLCR sometimes endorses candidates, but often sees those thumbs-up spun as liabilities by Republican and Democratic homophobes alike.

In part, that’s because GLCR is deliberately low-key in its activities, Ensley says. Ensley believes bigger forces will ultimately secure LGBT rights: the U.S. Supreme Court will resolve marriage equality, and LGBT-friendly big business will stave off the “religious freedom” laws, though Ensley and GLCR denounced the proposals this week a day after Bowers did. He focuses on staying friendly behind the scenes with key “allies who won’t let anti-gay legislation through.”

Ensley and Graham agree that the personal touch is the most important lever in shifting old-school religious conservatives on LGBT issues. Seeing friends, relatives and coworkers coming out is often more convincing than purely political activism, Graham says.

But politics are important, too, and GLCR has organizing challenges. Graham notes that resources for any LGBT organizing in the South have always been thin. By the same token, activist team-ups are common; until recently, Ensley also served a decade as Georgia Equality’s treasurer. 

GLCR in particular has never been quite the same since the triumph of Georgia’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2004. That ugly, reactionary battle politicized Ensley and drew him into GLCR, he says, but it drove many others away.

“It was a huge blow to us. It caused some negativity to the Georgia LCR," he says. "We lost a lot of members.”

Gov. Nathan Deal’s 2010 campaign notoriously hammered GOP opponent Karen Handel’s former GLCR affiliation to boost his homophobic vote tally. (Ensley notes that Deal avoided such vitriol in last year’s reelection campaign against pro-LGBT-rights Democrat Jason Carter.) But local Republicans have never expressed bigotry to Ensley one-on-one, Ensley says, while fellow gays call him an “Uncle Tom” or worse.

“Being a gay Republican, I was expecting the worst [when first getting into politics],” Ensley says. “It never happened. No one’s been nasty to me within the Georgia Republican Party. Where the nastiness came from is my own [gay] community.”

'There’s too many closets to bust out of'

 

Deraney and Art Gardner (third photo), a Republican who backed gay marriage and other LGBT issues during his unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid last year, tell similar tales. The state GOP may not be progressive on LGBT rights, but it fully supported their candidacies, they said. It was the gay cash and votes that didn’t show up.

Gardner, who is straight, made challenging the Georgia GOP’s anti-LGBT positions a key part of his campaign. He calls discrimination against gays both “un-American” and ultimately fatal to the GOP as younger and more urban Republicans come along without bigoted views.

But he finished dead last in the Republican primary. On the Democratic side of the same race, he says, Michelle Nunn was “treated like a rock star” by the LGBT community despite taking far less progressive gay-rights stances than his own.

“That makes it hard for a Republican candidate to go out on a limb” and give up the religious right voting bloc, Gardner says. He says with more gay support, he might still have lost, but a stronger finish might have “forced [the GOP] to sit up and take a different approach.”

Deraney admits to being worried about his own party’s reaction to his campaign, especially when he was invited to meet the entire state House Republican Caucus. 

“You’re in a roomful of Republicans. You’re gonna be nervous about it,” he recalls. “I even brought up the fact that I am gay. I told them and said, ‘Y’all know I’m a horse of a different color.’” 

Deraney ended up getting strong moral and financial support from the party, he said. But LGBT voters showered with more criticism than votes, he says. That could discourage gay conservatives from running for office. 

“There’s too many closets to bust out of” as it is, Deraney says.

Gardner and Deraney say many Republicans privately would like to drop the gay-bashing wedge issues, and many fiscally conservative gays likely would vote GOP if the party embraced them. 

“There’s a natural bond there that could be forged,” says Gardner, but describes it as a case of both sides waiting for the other to make the first big move. Gardner says he doesn’t know the solution, but that it might be easier on the voting side.

“If you’d like to see more favorable policies from Republican politicians, pay more attention to Republican politicians," he says.