Are right-wing politicians in Texas starting to realize that gay-baiting no longer works?

Attorney General Greg Abbott appears to be letting the Liberty Institute's Hiram "Sassy" Sasser, shown during yesterday's press conference, do the AG's dirty work for him.
Attorney General Greg Abbott seems to be letting people like the Liberty Institute’s Hiram “Sassy” Sasser, shown during yesterday’s press conference, do his dirty work for him. (DAVID TAFFET)

During this year’s big national gathering of conservative political activists, called CPAC, a poll found that virtually none considered “stopping gay marriage” to be one of their top priorities.

Meanwhile, three consecutive polls of likely Texas voters have found that a healthy majority — about 60 percent — support some form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples, such as civil unions.

Also recently, lesbian Annise Parker overcame appeared to benefit from vicious anti-gay attacks on her way to becoming mayor of the nation’s fourth-largest city — which happens to be in Texas.

All this seems to raise the question of whether gay-baiting or gay-bashing or whatever you want to call it is still an effective political strategy, even in the reddest of big states. Indeed, there are signs that even politicians who’ve traditionally been virulently anti-gay are calling off the dogs. Take Gov. Rick Perry, for example.

When a Tarleton State University student wanted to stage a gay-themed play for his class project last month, it was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — and not Perry — who issued hateful statements slamming the production. While both Perry and Dewhurst are up for re-election this year, most believe the governor’s race is the only statewide contest that a Democrat has a reasonable chance of winning.

Which also helps explain why Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples doesn’t have any qualms about being an outspoken opponent of gay divorce, even as Perry has remained completely silent about the issue — at least since issuing a statement when the Dallas case was first filed in January 2009.

Where’s Rick? As far as I can tell, he hasn’t said a word about the gays in months. His opponent, Democrat Bill White, was endorsed by the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-rights group, in early March, but I haven’t heard a peep out of Perry about it. Former Eagle Forum President Cathie Adams, who’s now chairwoman of the State Republican Party, has also been strangely silent.

And even Attorney General Greg Abbott, who initiated the challenges to gay divorce, may now be backing away from the issue just a little bit.

Indeed, Abbott appears to be letting the Liberty Institute, which should be called the Oppression Institute, do his dirty work for him. When politicians can gay-bait through a third party, they still get a boost from homophobic voters, but without the backlash from fair-minded people.

Yesterday, not only was Abbott not present, but the attorney arguing the case for his office didn’t even show up for a press conference after the gay divorce hearing. Instead, it was Hiram “Sassy” Sasser from the Liberty Institute at the microphone. Surprisingly, none of the reporters on hand questioned why in the hell the AG’s office wasn’t speaking for itself.

Of course, the canned answer would have been that the AG’s office doesn’t comment on cases that are still pending. But I’ll tell you the real reason: People like Perry and Abbott are starting to worry that gay-baiting will backfire. Four years ago, both Perry and Abbott probably would have been at the press conference themselves. But not anymore, and that’s a good sign. Now we just need some pro-LGBT politicians with enough guts to go on the offensive.

—  John Wright

Lorie Burch takes on Liberty Institute's Sasser in gay marriage debate Tuesday night at SMU

Lorie Burch
Lorie Burch

Aside from the Final Four, there’s another showdown this week you may not want to miss.

Tomorrow night at SMU, local lesbian attorney Lorie Burch will face off against Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the right-wing Liberty Institute, in a debate on marriage equality. The debate, an SMU Political Science Symposium, is at 7 p.m.. in the Hughes-Trigg Theater. It’s free and open to the public, so we should try to pack the audience to give Burch a home-field advantage.

Burch is chairwoman-elect for the North Texas GLBT Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the DFW Human Rights Campaign Steering Committee. I don’t know much about Sasser, but according to his bio on the Liberty Legal Web site, his military experience includes serving as headquarters commander, company executive officer and training officer in the Army Reserves. He’s also appeared on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and the BBC, and has been heard on various radio stations throughout the United States, Asia, Africa and Europe, the bio states.

To be honest, though, this one sounds like a bit of a mismatch on paper: Burch has a law degree from George Washington University, while Sasser’s is from Oklahoma City University.

To view the Facebook event page, go here.

—  John Wright