SAVE Dade, Ros-Lehtinen reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender Republicans

May 18, 2011

SAVE Dade, Ros-Lehtinen reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender Republicans

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

SAVE Dade, the county’s largest gay-rights group, struggles with the perception that all its members are liberal Democrats.

This year's honoree at the group’s Champions of Equality reception on Friday will be Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Weston, who was recently elected the new chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. But last year the group honored Republican U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami.

“Just like most stereotypes, they’re usually wrong and based on prejudices and untruths. This is one of them, that people believe SAVE Dade is a Democratic organization,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a GOP stalwart and longtime leading Congressional gay-rights ally.

Ros-Lehtinen offered to host a gathering for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender members of Log Cabin Republicans at the reception. She praised SAVE Dade for promoting “gender equality” and is pleased the organization “is getting more conservatives involved in this outreach effort.”

“The goal of equality is an important one and has no party labels,” said Ros-Lehtinen, who has a transgender son. “I congratulate them for going the extra mile to promote their organization — and their message — to a community that may be prejudiced against them. We’ve got to reach out. The message is important. There’s strength in numbers.”

While Kenneth Mehlman chaired the GOP in the mid-2000s, the Republican Party platform officially opposed gay marriage and the Bush administration strongly supported anti-gay marriage amendments throughout the United States.

Last year, Mehlman came out as a gay man. He, Mary Cheney (former Vice President Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter), and other high-level GOP activists then held a $10,000-a-couple reception in New York City to raise money for the legal team that successfully argued a federal court overturn of California’s Proposition 8. Conservatives have appealed that decision.

Gay and lesbian Democrats should go easier on their Republican brothers and sisters, Ros-Lehtinen said. “They want to punish all the Republicans for statements by a few.”
SAVE Dade Executive Director C.J. Ortuño believes “there’s an opportunity for the Republican Party to embrace LGBT issues.”

“We’re trying to use language that resonates with Republicans,” he said. “It’s talking in a way that reflects the values of their own party’s principals. Keeping the government out of private lives. That’s a big core foundational belief for the Republican Party.”

Ortuño says the Democratic Party has long “embraced the LGBT movement.”

“We were speaking the same words as the Democratic Party. We were speaking the same language,” Ortuño said. ”We just need to do more work with the Republican Party.”

Ortuño acknowledged that many gay organizations are run by Democrats, “but if you talk to any of the leaders, they’ll tell you the importance of our issue being nonpartisan.”

“The reality is we’re talking in very large strokes when we say the Democratic Party or the Republican Party,” he said. “The reality is that there are Republicans who support our issues and there are Democrats who don’t. The president is a good example of that. He doesn’t support us on marriage equality.”

Mark Trowbridge, president and CEO of the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, is a SAVE Dade board member. He came out as a gay man after leaving a job in the late ‘90s as University of Miami student activities director.

“One of my bosses at the time, who was gay, said if you want to do well here, get promoted, you have to keep your sexuality private. He was speaking from his own experience. I got the message loud and clear,” Trowbridge said. “I tell people my life began after I left there. I made a solid commitment that wherever I worked again, I promised or committed to myself that I would be comfortable to share who I am.”
With a sense of irony, he adds that more people know his sexual orientation than his party affiliation.

Trowbridge says when his gay friends find out he’s a Republican, “they tease me incessantly.”

“First they roll their eyes and then they say what exactly does that mean? I tell them the story I share with you: I’ve been a Republican since I was a kid because I handed out fliers for Ronald Reagan. My parents (both Democratic union activists in Ohio) felt I would grow out of it.”

He ignores the jokes. “If you took the bait, you’d have to be defensive.”

Trowbridge said gay leaders everywhere must look beyond party politics. “When you vote for a candidate and they disappoint you, you don’t care what party they are.”

IF YOU GO

SAVE Dade’s Champions of Equality reception honoring U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ACLU and Greenberg Traurig law firm will be 6 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at Ice Palace, 1400 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Tickets are $75 in advance, $100 at the door. www.savedade.org.