The Enemy Within

What's a nice gay man doing with the Republicans?

Mary Lou Lord Beachland Ballroom Thursday, February 26
John Farina feels betrayed by his friends. - Walter  Novak
John Farina feels betrayed by his friends.
The father of former Congressman J.C. Watts once said that a black man voting Republican is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders. The same could be said of gay men.

Listen to Republicans these days, and you might as well be at a 1920 Klan rally. They've shined up their language and traded in their robes for Kmart suits. They've swapped blacks for homos as the enemy of choice. But it's all the same thing, practiced by the same guys.

So it's strange to find John Farina among them. He's smart and engaging, with a professorial knowledge of government. He exhibits no enlarged forehead, no outward signs of the frenetically unhinged. Other than being a gay Republican.

Consider it a curse of birth. He grew up on Long Island, where Republicans bloom like drunks at Browns games. Farina was a strange little boy. While his classmates were engaged in the wholesome activities of youth, like doing bong hits and setting fire to the neighbor's garage, Farina was already campaigning by the time he reached junior high. He started his own Young Republican Club and later became vice chairman of the state chapter.

It all sounds rather scary. Someone should have called Human Services.

But Long Island Republicans aren't the same as those who populate southern Ohio. They believe compassion is more than a slogan. They walk upright and know how to use silverware. You could actually enjoy a beer with them.

When Farina moved to Cleveland, he immediately became active. It wasn't like joining the Yankees. Of the nine nonjudicial county elections this year, Republicans are running just one candidate -- a stiff named O'Malley -- to confuse voters out of reelecting Recorder Pat O'Malley. Farina rose to ward leader and won a seat on the county's central committee -- honors granted the best grunt workers. He also became a lobbyist for the AIDS Task Force.

Mention his name to state Representative Jim Trakas (R-Independence), and the slobbering begins: "He's a great guy, just a very good human being. He's aggressive, he's passionate in what he believes in. He's one of the better people I've met in politics over the years."

Farina also has "a lot of credibility" as a Columbus lobbyist, says Trakas. Not an easy task when you're gay and pushing AIDS funding among people who think both are signs of the Apocalypse.

But such qualities also prompt the question: What the hell is a gay man doing with the Republicans?

It's not as if Democrats are much better. Clinton bailed on gays in the military like a French general. Former Mayor Mike White was pro-queer, but he kept it in the closet, considering it a political liability. And one of the biggest powers in the party, black preachers, denounce queers from the pulpit the same way white boys in Birmingham denounced them 40 years ago.

For the biggest civil rights issue of our time, the best Democrats can do is raise the pride flag over City Hall. It's like giving a starving man photos of cheeseburgers.

Yet Republicans aren't just committing the sin of cowardice. Officially prohibiting people from marrying, as Ohio just did, is a play last used by 19th-century slave owners.

Farina understands that a good portion of his party despises his kind. But he views himself as a missionary. "I know there are people who think differently about gay people than they did 10 years ago, because they met me."

He's a political animal, after all. A guy who studies election data for fun. Ask him about matters of the heart, and he'll respond with theories on strategy. In a sense, he represents the best and worst of politics. He has the shine of a good man. You'd trust him to run your government. But if push came to shove, you're not sure whether his yearning to win wouldn't overwhelm his need to do what's right. In that sense, Farina's just like the guys he's with.

So sympathy comes hard when he talks about Trakas or state Representative Sally Conway Kilbane (R-Rocky River). He considers both friends. And both voted for the Defense of Marriage Act.

"I'm not his only gay friend," he says of Trakas. "He has many gay friends. I'm insulted that he would disregard a close personal friend."

As for Kilbane: "She's a very smart person, the kind of person you want in government. She knows better. Without getting into specifics, she has personal reasons to know better."

The lobbyist estimates that some 15 Republicans who privately find the bill moronic voted for it nonetheless. Pose this thesis to Trakas and Kilbane, and they dance like Rockettes, dodging with words about contract law and state autonomy. Farina's right. You can tell they're not bigots. They're just not brave enough to stick their heads up, lest they be cut off.

The last straw for Farina wasn't being screwed by his friends, however. The final push came from the White House. Last week President Bush said he would seek a constitutional ban on gay marriage. It's hard to tell whether he actually believes in it or simply needs a weak target, having found war and economics far beyond his abilities.

"I thought he was going to let his minions do the pushing, and he was going to stay above the fray," says Farina. For some reason, he was okay with this. While the rest of America might call it chickenshit, in politics, it's just smart strategy.

Yet hearing it aloud was more than he could handle. "I never thought I'd hear the President say it."

So this week, when John Farina went to the polls, he went as a Democrat. It was inevitable. It takes a brave man to walk among those who will shiv you for convenience and pleasure. But a wise man eventually realizes he shouldn't be sharpening the knife.

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