Log Cabin Republicans have a proud history of fighting to build a stronger, more inclusive Republican Party. Gay and lesbian Republicans have chosen to transform the GOP from the inside, working to overcome the forces of exclusion and intolerance.
The name of the organization is a reference to the first Republican President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, who was born in a Log Cabin. President Lincoln built the Republican Party on the principles of liberty and equality. The party should return to its roots. When the organization was founded, the name, “Lincoln Club,” was already taken by another GOP group, so organizers instead chose the name Log Cabin Republicans.
President Reagan Linked to Log Cabin Republicans’ Founding
Log Cabin Republicans got its start in California during the late 1970s. After several years of advances for the cause of gay and lesbian rights, a backlash was building. Singer Anita Bryant led a successful “Save Our Children” campaign to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida. The legislatures of Arkansas and Oklahoma had banned gays and lesbians from holding teaching positions. In California, Republican State Senator John Briggs, who had ambitions to be governor, proposed a statewide ballot initiative to prevent gay and lesbian people from teaching in public schools. The so-called Briggs Initiative also permitted the firing of any educator who was determined to be “advocating, imposing, encouraging or promoting” homosexuality. Briggs’ vicious campaign to “defend your children from homosexual teachers” seemed to be heading for victory. One poll showed support for the Briggs Initiative leading 61% to 31%.
Many prominent politicians in the Republican and Democratic parties were hesitant about standing up to the bigotry of Briggs and his allies. That’s when gay conservatives turned to former California governor Ronald Reagan. At the time he was preparing to mount a campaign for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. His advisors all thought he was committing political suicide when he decided to be an outspoken foe of the Briggs Initiative. Reagan declared that the initiative “is not needed to protect our children — we have the legal protection now.” Reagan went further, detailing the dangers of passing such a measure. “It has the potential for real mischief,” the former governor explained. “What if an overwrought youngster, disappointed by bad grades, imagined it was the teacher’s fault and struck out by accusing the teacher of advocating homosexuality? Innocent lives could be ruined.” Reagan’s forceful opposition helped defeat the Briggs Initiative. In November 1978, voters rejected the Briggs Initiative by more than one million votes. Even in conservative Orange County, Briggs’ home base, the initiative lost. Long-time Democratic gay activist David Mixner met with Reagan in 1978 to personally lobby him on the Briggs initiative, recalling, “Never have I been treated more graciously by a human being. He turned opinion around and saved that election for us,” Mixner said. “We would have been in deep trouble. He just thought it was wrong and came out against it.”
Log Cabin National Board member Terry Hamilton said, “As a teacher, I am personally grateful for Reagan’s courageous action to help stop the Briggs Initiative in 1978.”
The Briggs Initiative was the first statewide electoral victory for proponents of gay rights. Historian David Johnson argues that it was “the greatest electoral victory yet of the burgeoning gay rights movement.” Had Briggs passed in California, similar proposals would have been introduced around the nation.
In the wake of the Briggs campaign, gay conservatives in California formed Log Cabin Republicans. Throughout the 1980s, gay Republicans continued working behind the scenes in Washington—as power players in Congress and during the Reagan Administration. Meanwhile, Log Cabin chapters sprang up around the United States as more and more people became involved in educating and lobbying the GOP on gay and lesbian issues.
Log Cabin Battles Buchanan
In 1992, failed GOP Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan ignited the culture wars at the Republican National Convention in Houston. Buchanan attacked gay people in what he called “a fight for the soul of America.” His words angered and motivated gay conservatives, including dozens on the floor of the convention that August night. The culture war started by Buchanan in Houston contributed to the defeat of President George H. W. Bush. From the wreckage of that campaign, Log Cabin Republicans took a more visible position in the party, and energized gay conservatives helped establish Log Cabin’s national office in Washington, D.C.
With Bill Clinton as President, the GOP came together around the issues that unite all Republicans. United around the principles of limited government and personal responsibility, the GOP regained control of both the House and Senate during the Republican revolution of 1994.
Throughout the nineties, Log Cabin members worked from the inside to educate members of the GOP about the important issues affecting gay and lesbian Americans. Governor Bill Weld from Massachusetts, Governor George Pataki from New York, Governor Christine Todd Whitman from New Jersey, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan became leading voices of inclusion and liberty. They share our vision that the GOP should be a big tent. That tent was damaged in 1996 when the presidential campaign of Bob Dole returned a $500 donation made by Log Cabin. Eventually, he accepted the money, but the episode showed how much work remained in transforming the GOP. Even so, throughout the late nineties, the GOP made slow but steady progress in reaching out to gay and lesbian Americans.
In 2000, then Texas Governor George W. Bush built his campaign around the philosophy of compassionate conservatism. He vowed to be a uniter, not a divider. During the campaign, Governor Bush met with a group of gay conservatives. After the meeting, he said he was a better man for having heard their stories and listened to their concerns. The 2000 campaign was notable for its lack of anti-gay rhetoric. Log Cabin endorsed Governor Bush in his campaign against Vice President Al Gore. After his election, President Bush initially fulfilled his pledge to be a uniter and a compassionate conservative. He kept in place an executive order from the Clinton Administration which prohibited discrimination against gay and lesbian federal workers. He appointed gay people throughout his administration. Also, the federal government provided benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian people who died on September 11th. In 2002, President Bush proposed an ambitious $15 billion plan to tackle the global AIDS pandemic. Log Cabin members, meeting for our 2003 national convention in Washington, D.C., had a genuine sense of optimism about the direction the Republican Party seemed to be moving on gay and lesbian issues.
Defending the Constitution
The optimism of Log Cabin members shifted to concern during the summer of 2003. In June 2003, the United States Supreme Court issued a historic ruling in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, in which the justices struck down anti-sodomy laws around the nation. Four of the six justices in the majority were Republican appointees. This decision infuriated many social conservatives, whose rhetoric reached fever pitch after the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that civil marriage laws could not discriminate against gay and lesbian citizens. Three of the four Massachusetts Supreme Court justices who ruled in the majority were appointed by Republican governors. Even before Goodridge, social conservatives had been pushing for an amendment to the United State Constitution defining marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. After Goodridge, they racheted up the pressure on the White House to endorse this proposal. Throughout the fall, the President sidestepped the issue in several carefully worded statements. In the meantime, the President made a series of controversial nominations to the federal bench. The controversy peaked when the President made a recess appointment of Alabama Attorney General William Pryor, who had a clear anti-gay track record. By the end of 2003, it became increasingly clear that the President was going to endorse the discriminatory Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA).
Gay conservatives felt betrayed by the President when he formally endorsed an amendment in late February of 2004. This proposal violates the principles of federalism, state autonomy and liberty that the Republican Party purports to represent. Even before the President’s formal endorsement of the amendment, Log Cabin was ready to fight. In late 2003, Log Cabin laid the groundwork for an ambitious campaign to stop the FMA.
Log Cabin made the decision to create and launch a $1,000,000 advertising and grassroots lobbying campaign to defend the Constitution. In February 2004, Log Cabin conducted a national poll to gauge public opinion on issues related to civil marriage equality, civil unions, and the proposed anti-family constitutional amendment. Utilizing poll results, strategy sessions with political experts, and input from our members around the nation, we developed an advertising campaign against the amendment.
This was the first time in Log Cabin’s almost 30-year history that the organization ran a television ad campaign. We targeted the ad toward the Washington, D.C. leadership, including members of Congress and the Bush Administration. It also was aimed at legislators and voters in swing states around the nation. The ad aired throughout the spring and early summer of 2004 in the District of Columbia, Missouri, Ohio, Florida, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Arizona, Colorado, California, Washington State and Texas. In addition to the TV commercial, Log Cabin also engaged print media along with conducting the most intense lobbying effort and grassroots mobilization in our history. Our efforts to defend the Constitution paid off in 2004, when both the U.S. House and Senate overwhelmingly rejected the constitutional amendment, with GOP leader Senator John McCain saying that, “the constitutional amendment we’re debating today strikes me as antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans.”
A Bright Future
Log Cabin’s mission is about more than one election or one President. We will continue working to build a stronger, more inclusive Republican Party based on the principles of freedom and fairness for all Americans.