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Remembering Jesse: the archconservativess planned retirement marks the end of a painful antigay era in Congress.

While a number of conservatives have evolved into gay rights supporters during their time in the U.S. Senate, Jesse Helms has remained stubbornly in the Stone Age.

As a result, gay and lesbian activists breathed a collective sigh of relief August 22, when the Republican from North Carolina announced he would not seek a sixth term. Helms, 79, cited old age and a desire to spend more time with family as reasons for his decision to leave office in January 2003, when his current term expires.

"There was no reasoning with Helms. There was no compromising with him," says Jo Wyrick, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a Raleigh-based gay rights group that has squared off with the senator for years. "In the past 15 years or so, some of the negative things he said and did about homosexuality became increasingly unacceptable to the middle of the electorate. But that didn't stop him from trying."

Indeed, Helms may have been the most single-minded gay rights foe the Senate has ever seen. In opposing a Stonewall commemorative postmark, for instance, he accused postal officials of taking "a large step to accommodate perversion." Explaining Iris refusal to use the word "gay," Helms retorted, "I resent the corruption of a very fine word." In 1990 Helms attached a "decency" clause to reauthorization measures for the National Endowment for the Arts, using gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe as his prime example of what he termed "taxpayer-fund[ed] pornography." Asked in 1993 why he opposed Roberta Achtenberg as then-president Clinton's nominee for assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Helms said, "Because she's a damn lesbian." And as recently as this summer he authored a measure punishing public schools for prohibiting the Boy Scouts, which discriminates against gays, from using school facilities.

Yet Helms is perhaps most notorious for a series of measures aimed at banning federal funding for HIV prevention materials. In 1987, for instance, a red-faced Helms took to the Senate floor to brandish a sexually explicit booklet produced by Gay Men's Health Crisis, a New York City AIDS service group. In 1991, members of the New York chapter of ACT UP traveled to Helms's home, where they hoisted a 35-foot condom over his roof.

"When historians look back at the 1980s, they will judge Helms to be the chief villain in the federal government's inability to respond to the epidemic in a timely and effective manner," says Craig Rimmerman, author of the forthcoming book From Identity to Politics: The Lesbian and Gay Movements in the United States. "The senator was a one-man wrecking crew in the nation's attempt to inform Americans about how to avoid contracting HIV."

Despite increased support for gay rights even in his Bible Belt state, Helms proved adept at vanquishing more moderate challengers. "What Helms did so well was appeal to the poor and the working-class voters," Wyrick says. "To some of these voters, he played gay rights as part of a class struggle. He and conservatives like him were able to say that gays are rich people who can have everything they want in life and they want special rights too."

Helms's departure adds intrigue to the 2002 election. Democrats now control the Senate 50-49, with one independent, James Jeffords of Vermont. Two other senior Republican senators, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Phil Gramm of Texas, have also said they won't seek reelection. Candidates from both parties, including failed GOP presidential candidate Elizabeth Dole, are already lining up to run for Helms's seat.

Whatever the outcome of the election, Helms's departure marks the end of an era. "This is certainly not the death knell of shrill antigay activists in elected office," Rimmerman says. "But those politicians who continue to associate with the Christian right will have to pick their battles more carefully and work behind the scenes to block progress on gay rights in the Senate. You just can't replace a Jesse Helms."
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Title Annotation:Congress
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 9, 2001
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