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The only openly gay Republican in Congress, Jim Kolbe prefers to work behind the scenes for gay rights

At the Republican national convention in Philadelphia in July, Jim Kolbe was given a coveted prime-time slot on the podium. The only openly gay GOP member of Congress used the rare opportunity to reach a national television audience to advocate for what has become his signature issue: free international trade.

The three-minute speech pleased almost no one. The party's antigay delegates held a silent prayer vigil on the convention floor to protest George W. Bush's decision to give a gay man a speaking slot, waving signs declaring THERE IS A WAY OUT. Gay activists complained that by addressing the convention, Kolbe condoned the antigay planks in the party's platform. Even gay Republican leaders, who consider Kolbe a hero and had lobbied hard for his selection, whispered among themselves that he had failed to work any references to gay rights into his remarks.

But for Kolbe, that was precisely the point. The chairman of a powerful House appropriations subcommittee, he has earned the respect of his colleagues for his strict devotion to the concerns of Arizona's fifth congressional district. "Frankly, I was surprised I was asked to speak," he said in an interview with The Advocate, his first since publicly identifying himself as gay in 1996. "It's nice that gay Republicans think of me as a leader, but Bush asked me to speak about trade, which is my area of expertise. I was not asked to speak about gay rights, and that's not something my district is particularly interested in hearing about."

Despite his growing national stature within the GOP and a substantial financial campaign chest, Kolbe may have good reason to be worried about voters closer to home. The eight-term congressman faces a tough campaign against a well-financed foe, George Cunningham, in an increasingly Democratic district that encompasses Tucson and rural areas around it.

"There are very few people who will say anything negative [about my orientation], but we know from our polls there are some older conservative men who will express it when they go to the polls," Kolbe says. "One percent here or there can make the difference. It doesn't help that Bush is doing more poorly in Arizona than expected, which will keep Republican voters at home."

Kolbe may be overestimating the threat of antigay votes in his district, says Peter Goudinoff, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona who served with Kolbe in the state legislature. "There is a rural population that is Mormon and traditionally very conservative," he says. "The fear is that someone could mobilize a homophobic vote. But I don't see that materializing. His Democratic opponent knows it would blow up in his face if he played that card. In essence, I don't see sexual orientation as a factor at all."

The fear of inspiring an antigay backlash makes Kolbe especially cautious when addressing gay issues. Over the past two years Kolbe, through his aides, has turned down numerous interview requests from The Advocate. Kolbe's chief of staff, Fran McNaught, said earlier this year that if it were up to her, Kolbe would "never" grant an interview to this magazine. Reached at home in late September, Kolbe finally agreed to talk, commenting that his staff had advised him against it.

Kolbe is a reluctant torchbearer when it comes to gay issues. Some of his reluctance stems from an aversion to talking about his personal life, but some of it comes as a result of the opposition he faces from his own party. "In some ways the Republicans have not come as far as the Democrats," Kolbe admits. "But I think we do better in treating gay people as individuals rather than as members of special interest groups that need special treatment."

That stance often puts Kolbe in an awkward position when it comes to aggressively lobbying his House colleagues on hate-crimes legislation and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would ban antigay bias in the workplace. Kolbe supports both measures. "I certainly hope we can get those bills passed, but my gut feeling is that they are tall orders," he says. "They are still very controversial among conservatives."

Even so, Kolbe has come a long way as an advocate for the cause. In 1996 he joined the overwhelming majority of representatives in voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill that banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Gays directed their fury largely at House Republicans who voted for the bill, including Kolbe. As The Advocate prepared a story on the secret gay life of Kolbe and another closeted gay Republican who voted for the bill, Kolbe decided to preempt the story by coming out publicly.

Today, Kolbe, 58, says the coming-out experience was almost entirely positive. "There was a tremendous sense of relief," he says. "It finally made me go lift the burden off my shoulders and come up with a plan to go forward. I look forward to the day when gay politicians don't have to go through such an experience and interviews like this are not necessary." Kolbe's revelation was greeted with a mostly positive reaction in his district, which has reelected him twice since he came out.

"The bottom line is that it took incredible courage for Jim to come out," says Rich Tafel, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group that has endorsed Kolbe. "Of the seven candidates we're supporting, Jim is our number 1 priority. He's made a huge difference in Congress in terms of Americans seeing gay people in politics as more than just shills for the Democratic Party. He's worked behind the scenes to win over many of his more conservative colleagues." The Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a group that provides funding to gay candidates, has also endorsed Kolbe. Together, Log Cabin and the Victory Fund have raised more than $50,000 for Kolbe's campaign this year.

The tension between Kolbe's highly public political career and his sexual orientation had troubled him for years. When Kolbe was 15, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater named him a congressional page. After serving in the Navy during the Vietnam war, Kolbe ran successfully for the Arizona state senate, and he was elected to Congress in 1984. He was once married, divorcing his wife in 1992. Until January, Kolbe had a male partner with whom he lived in Washington's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Friends and colleagues say he is an extremely private person who largely keeps his sexual orientation to himself.

"Jim is very comfortable as a gay person, and he socializes openly with both gay and straight friends," says Neil Giuliano, the openly gay mayor of Tempe, Ariz., who is a friend of Kolbe's. "But I think he's from a generation and a part of the country where people don't talk publicly about their private lives. I think he thought he could keep the two apart until [the Defense of Marriage Act] came along. I think he handled himself in a very dignified manner throughout that time."

Since 1996 Kolbe has made occasional forays into gay politics. During the 1998 House battle over the Hefley amendment, which would have overturned President Clinton's executive order banning antigay discrimination in the federal government, Kolbe quietly worked to derail the measure. Ironically, the amendment was attached by Colorado Republican Joel Hefley to a bill that Kolbe had introduced.

"It wouldn't be an exaggeration to credit Kolbe with turning around that vote," says Tafel. "He skillfully brought Democrats and Republicans together, people who don't ordinarily trust each other. There was this incredible moment when he and [Democratic congressman] Barney Frank took the floor together. By being out there, Jim made it very tough personally for Republicans to vote against him. He made the politics of it human."

"Given the politics of his district, it's obviously very difficult for him to go out on a limb on the issue [of gay rights]," says Frank, who is gay. "His problem is with his own party. It was clearly a sign of disrespect that they attached the Hefley amendment to his appropriation bill."

Kolbe says his role in the debate was in keeping with his political strategy. "I try to focus on the issues I was elected on--trade, Social Security reform, appropriations," he explains. "But there are times when I need to take a stand on a social issue. I took what I felt was an appropriate role on an amendment offered by a colleague that was inappropriate."

And Kolbe is capable of a more confrontational style as well. A champion of foster care while he served in the state legislature, Kolbe and his former wife once provided shelter to a homeless teenage boy. "The young man sought me out during my first campaign because he knew foster care was one of my major issues," he says. "We provided him a home for a while, and I'm sorry to say I've now lost track of him. When some of my colleagues proposed a resolution banning gay adoption in the District of Columbia, it became really wrenching for me. My style is to work behind the scenes, but those sorts of family issues make me become more outspoken."

Kolbe's role in the Hefley debate could pay more dividends after the election. If Bush is elected president, Kolbe be will be one of a small group of gay Republicans with access to the Texas governor's inner circle. One of the group's first challenges would be to fight off any effort to overturn Clinton's executive order.

Whether Kolbe is reelected or not, Tafel envisions even bigger things for him. "Even though he endorsed [unsuccessful GOP presidential hopeful John] McCain, Kolbe is held in very high regard by the Bush people," he says. "I can see him in a very high-profile position in the Bush administration."

Characteristically, Kolbe downplays such ambitious talk. "If Bush wants to tap my thoughts on gay issues in the White House, I'm prepared to give him my own private advice," he says. "But he already has plenty of well-qualified gay advisers. And I've got plenty of issues to work on already."

Find more on Jim Kolbe and links to related Internet sites at
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:openly gay Republican Jim Kolbe
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 7, 2000
Previous Article:BANKING ON A WINNER.

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