Two weekends ago, the elites of the Massachusetts LGBT community gathered at the Marriott Copley for the 31st annual Human Rights Campaign (HRC) New England Dinner Gala. They bid on chic dinners at silent auction, heard speeches from political luminaries and celebrities, and were entertained by '80s pop star Tiffany.
And, according to some who were there, attendees awkwardly avoided the fact that both Congressman John Tierney — endorsed by the HRC — and his archrival Richard Tisei — endorsed by the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund — were in attendance.
The North Shore congressional race, considered the most competitive in the state, has split the LGBT community, both in the region and across the country. Or rather, it has exposed a rift, long kept quiet, between outspoken Democratic activists and less-vocal conservatives, especially conservative professional gay men.
This contest was never likely to stay sedate: Tisei, who leads in some polls, would be the first openly gay Republican to serve in Congress. Some argue — as Tisei himself has argued to me — that it is more important to the LGBT cause to get a real, live, out gay politician into the generally hostile GOP caucus, than to have one more supportive Democrat in Washington.
"Someone like Richard Tisei in the Republican caucus room would help bring change," says Denis Dison, Victory Fund vice president of communications.
That notion is bringing a lot of financial backing, from Victory Fund and others, into Tisei's corner. It could also make it easier for straight progressives in the district to cast their vote for the Republican.
So Tierney, who is straight, has been playing his own gay cards — rolling out endorsements from the Bay State Stonewall Democrats, former HRC executive director (and Attleboro native) Joe Solmonese, and a host of other LGBT activists in the district.
And two weeks ago, the campaign put Congressman Barney Frank on a conference call with the press, to drive home Tierney's strong record on LGBT issues — which is better than Tisei's.
Frank, true to form, has been unafraid to publicly discuss, and even exacerbate, the gay community's internal divisions. Earlier in the month, Frank declared of LGBT advocates Log Cabin Republicans that "their role model is Uncle Tom."
NO RAINBOW CARPET
Nobody thinks John Boehner is going to roll out a rainbow-colored carpet for Tisei; but Tisei would act as a living, breathing refutation to the more sinister and ignorant beliefs of the Republican homophobes.
"This is not a two-year fight," says Dison, who reports that Tisei is the Victory Fund's second-priority candidate in the country, behind only Wisconsin Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin, who is a Democrat and a lesbian. "We're looking at the long term."
If you believe, as most of us do, that the path to acceptance is familiarity, there can hardly be a better gay infiltrator than Tisei. He is neither flamboyant nor self-loathing — just a comfortably homosexual middle-aged North Shore guy. He lives with his boyfriend. He came out officially less than three years ago, as a prelude to joining Charlie Baker's gubernatorial ticket, but it hadn't exactly been a state secret; many in the press were surprised to learn that he had been closeted in the first place.