Out of the closet, onto the political stage
Seminar teaches political savvy to gay, lesbian candidates
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Patrick Adams, a 37-year-old Los Angeles businessman, is considering a career in politics. To help him consider his options, he's attending a political training program this week in the nation's capital, learning how to run a campaign -- and handle the question of his sexual orientation.
Adams is gay, and he expects that should he decide to run for office, it's an issue he will have to address.
"You can't hide that it's a part of your life," Adams said. "It will be one of the issues people will look at it."
Adams and about 19 other prospective candidates are attending a four-day seminar in Washington organized by the Gay and Lesbian Victory Foundation, a public interest group. The program ends Sunday.
Most of the items on the agenda are typical for any political seminar, such as how to develop a campaign message. The difference is the kind of questions likely to come up during discussions. As Jason Young, a spokesman for the foundation, put it, "How do you handle the gay issue in front of the camera or at a public debate? What happens when someone says, 'Are you gay?' "
The foundation, which has been hosting four such training sessions throughout the country each year since 1993, advises candidates to be honest.
Adams called that sound advice. "I think people will see that if you can be open about your sexuality, then what else is there to hold back?," he said. "I think one of the biggest gripes people have with politics is that people can't be honest."
The number of openly gay officer holders in the United States is quite small.
In 1991 -- when the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, which supports openly gay candidates, started -- there were 49 openly gay politicians at the local, state and federal level. Last week, that number stood at 223. A 1995 census report put the number of elective offices in the United States at 511,039. So the 223 openly gay politicians fill well under 1 percent of those posts.
Most of those 223 individuals serve at the local and state level, and just under 6 percent are Republicans. There are only three openly gay lawmakers at the federal level: Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, Jim Kolbe, an Arizona Republican and Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat.
Conservative groups say openly gay candidates and politicians want to promote a narrow political agenda that would undermine traditional family values.
"Homosexuality in politics isn't going to fly," said the Rev. Louis Sheldon, founder of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition. "That's not what America needs at this time."
Kristin Hansen, a spokeswoman for the Family Research Council in Washington, said she believes groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund want special rights for gays.
"As with all candidates, people should ask the hard questions, on issues like gay marriage, gay adoption, promoting homosexuality in schools," she said.
But Karla Drenner, a Democratic state representative from Avondale, Georgia, said her interests are not defined by her sexuality as a lesbian.
"I didn't run on that issue," she said. "I ran on education, the environment, neighborhood restoration."
Her sexuality was disclosed in a sympathetic newspaper profile when she first ran for office in 2000. Once elected, she said, a few legislators shunned her and others criticized her.
That, she said, has changed. Running for re-election without any opposition this year, Drenner said she feels her sexuality is becoming less of an issue.
"I'm now the representative who just happens to be gay, not just the gay representative," she said.
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