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COMMENTARY: Is Carl DeMaio the key to rewriting LGBT history?

(Publisher's note: During this momentous week of progress on LGBT rights, I wanted to share this thoughtful piece from Arlon Staggs on why we have an opportunity to write LGBT history right here in San Diego. There are some with a narrow political agenda who continue to advance a “big lie” smear against my partner Carl DeMaio. It’s inaccurate. It’s wrong. And it does no good for the LGBT community. I encourage you to get the facts – and ask that you consider joining Carl’s successful efforts to advance full equality, respect and inclusion in some of the hardest communities that we must win over in the coming years. -- In Equality, Johnathan Hale)

Imagine it’s 2063 and we are reading a history book. We’ve just read about the year 2013. We read about Prop 8, "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" and DOMA. We learned how the Democrat Party was the first to adopt LGBT equality as a part of its platform; and we learned about the first President to support LGBT rights publically.

As we turn the page, we ask ourselves, what happens next? Did the Republicans ever embrace equality? Did they finally stop using the gays as a way to divide the nation? Did the politicians in DC ever stop fighting over social issues?

These are the pages we are writing — and the questions we are answering — today. This minute. Right now.

More than ever, Republicans are embracing marriage equality and taking a public stand like Senators Rob Portman, Mark Kirk and Lisa Murkowski, just to name a few. They are changing their conversation, and taking huge political risks at the same time, by coming out. (Pardon the pun.)

Isn’t this what our community has always wanted — for the “other side” to change? So why then, are we so resistant to these new age Republicans, in particular our own Carl DeMaio? Why do we not view this as the beginning of a real victory?

Unfortunately, it’s been less than a month since he announced his bid for congress, and already people like Sara Libby from the Voice of San Diego are attacking DeMaio. Libby calls him “evasive” on social issues, pointing to one question in one debate in one mayoral election.

That DeMaio is evasive is simply untrue and unfounded. He’s been an openly gay, vocal advocate for the LGBT community since Day 1 of his political career — despite running for City Council (and winning) in one of San Diego’s most conservative districts. On the council, his pro-LGBT voting record was spotless, as he, along with Todd Gloria, led the way to passing resolutions that let the state and nation know where San Diego stands when it comes to LGBT rights.

What Libby is calling “evasive” is actually DeMaio’s extremely successful strategy at meeting the conservative members of his party where they are, and from there, altering the social issues conversation.

It’s not quite what we are used to from our LGBT politicians. Think about it. It’s easy for Todd Gloria, Toni Atkins and the like to stand before an audience in Hillcrest and get standing ovations because they champion LGBT rights. Certainly these moments represent our progress and make us all proud, but it’s progress that’s already been made. I respect the work of Gloria and Atkins as much as the next person, but I also realize that in those moments, no minds are changed, no hearts are won over, and no one’s views are altered.

And then there’s DeMaio. He’s forced to come to the table and truly demonstrate equality with his mostly conservative constituents. In a DeMaio campaign, you’ll find volunteers from the LGBT community sitting next to socially conservative volunteers making phone calls, stuffing envelopes, and talking about issues. In that moment, something beautiful happens.

Those socially conservative voters start to see something in a different way. They start to realize that our lives are not much different than their own. We are brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, professionals, young, and old … just like they are. Hearts start changing. Equality starts to happen.

It doesn’t stop with the volunteers. Just look at the endorsements that DeMaio received in his mayoral run. Roger Hedgecock, Gov. Pete Wilson, Papa Doug Manchester, Congressman Tom McClintock, the San Diego Republican Party, and so on all endorsed DeMaio. Groups we typically think of as our “enemies” were finally able to look beyond a candidate’s sexual orientation and endorse him. This is progress that we should celebrate.

Love him or hate him, DeMaio represents a vision for the LGBT community that we need to embrace. It’s a vision where the GOP thinks newly and makes the changes we have always wanted them to make.

Sure, it’s exciting to grab a bullhorn and a handmade pithy poster, march down the street in protest, write scathing op-ed articles about ridiculous conservatives, and dismiss anyone who disagrees with us, but in the end, what does that accomplish?

Those tactics have their time and place, but it’s not DeMaio’s style and it shouldn’t be, because he’s in a unique position to win over conservatives. He faces a different challenge that requires him to play on their turf.

Today, more than ever, we have a choice about how to move forward. We can listen to the negativity that spews from the mouths and pages of some of the loudest members of our community. We can take their advice and “turn our backs on DeMaio.” We can ignore the true spirit of our annual Pride celebration and use it to shamelessly shout boos at one of our own.

Or we can choose to help write a different chapter for that 2063 history book.

We can choose to celebrate leadership in all its forms — the Glorias, the Atkins, along with the DeMaios of the world. We can choose to honor the one who’s willing to step out of the comfort of Hillcrest and challenge the other side with new ideas. We can choose to at least appreciate DeMaio’s mastery at balancing a myriad of questions, fears, and doubts that come from both his LGBT community, and his GOP one.

We can choose to embrace equality, the way it should be on both sides of the aisle. When we do, perhaps we can watch what happens as DeMaio, loved by his party, starts to change the GOP’s conversation about gay rights in Washington in the same way he has changed it here at home.

Arlon Jay Staggs is a writer, business owner and professor who tries his best to stay left of his family and right of his friends when it comes to politics. You can reach him directly at arlonjay@yahoo.com.

As a matter of full disclosure, SDGLN Publisher Johnathan Hale has a personal relationship with Carl DeMaio.