Leaving the GOP: My Journey to the Democratic Party

I have to give credit to prominent Houston Republican Ed Hubbard for inspiring me to write this (you’ll understand why later).  I’ve told this story countless times, but figured it was time to put it to writing.  Redefining myself politically was an interesting journey and forced me to really evaluate the things that are important in my life and where they fit in political terms.  It’s a lengthy read, but I hope readers enjoy it.

On Tuesday, May 28, 1996, I remember walking into the Red Lion Inn in Ontario, California, to have my first experience with presidential politics.  I had no real idea of what to expect other than some Secret Service at the door and a long wait.  I got inside and was surprised when the crowd pushed me and several other young people up toward the front.  They wanted everyone to see that young people were eager to support then-72 year-old Bob Dole

I wasn’t really sure who I was going to support for president at that point, but the event was a just a couple of miles from my house and I went on over if for no other reason than to say I was there.  I still have the slip of paper Bob Dole signed for me that day to show for it.  Up to that point I had only voted once, in 1994, when I voted for Republican Pete Wilson for governor and Democrat Gray Davis for lieutenant governor.  Although I grew up with Republican parents, neither showed any real interest in politics, and neither voted regularly.  Unlike them, I always had an interest in public policy and government, so I knew I wanted to be informed and involved. 

Later that year I joined the US Air Force and left home.  I wasn’t all that impressed with Bill Clinton’s approach to national defense and what appeared to be a lack of support for members of the military.  When you’re a young airman taking home $513 a month, you tend to put a lot of weight on who is more likely to support the military.  And thus I began my life as a Republican.

It’s easy to be a Republican in the military because you end up in an environment where most people are like-minded in many different areas, particularly support of national defense – a staple plank of the GOP platform – and it was even easier during the Clinton Administration when the military was stretched thinner than it ever had been up to that point and he engaged us in more military operations than any other president.  I can appreciate the non-military aspects of Clinton’s presidency much more now that I have more worldly experience and education, but I was pretty narrow-minded politically 15 years ago.  I did happen to vote for Gray Davis when he ran for governor of California in 1998.

After getting out of one generally conservative environment, I went to Texas A&M University and joined the Corps of Cadets – an environment that was traditionally even more conservative than that which I had just left.  It wasn’t until my time at A&M that I voted in my first of three Republican primaries, even though I had never voted straight-ticket in any general election.  Again, it was very easy to continue being a Republican, even having gone through the struggle of coming out as a gay man in the Corps in late 2000 after I was discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. 

I worked as a staff intern for Congressman John Culberson in his district office in spring 2004 doing non-partisan Veterans Affairs and Social Security cases for constituents.  I am very proud of the work I did for the constituents of the 7th District, and it has been prominently displayed on my resume ever since.  Interestingly, Culberson knew I was gay and didn’t care.  In fact, his personal stance on GLBT issues at the time seemed to be very different than his public policy stance.  Of course, we all know he has drifted much farther to the extreme right following the departure of Tom Delay, and I think if he really doesn’t have any personal issues with GLBT people, he shouldn’t go out of his way to attack us and deny us equal rights the way he has, but that’s another post entirely. 

Up to that point the GOP had not really gone officially full-tilt against the GLBT community.  George W. Bush had not yet gone quite so far off the deep religious right end against us, and I felt comfortable enough voting for him since he was our Texas governor.  Needless to say, some buyer’s remorse set in as the winds of social conservatism began to ramp up and George W. Bush began using anti-GLBT rhetoric as a wedge issue (among a variety of other reasons).  In 2004 I voted in my last Republican primary, and I skipped the top of the ballot because I simply could not vote for George W. Bush.

That summer, the Texas GOP adopted an amendment to the state party platform that had been hastily scrawled on a piece of scrap paper indicating marriage should be between a man and a woman, and I think that started the beginning of an end for me that would eventually take three years.  Ultimately I would vote for John Kerry and split my ballot among both Republicans and Democrats in November 2004, and I skipped the 2006 primary entirely.  I wasn’t sure where the GOP was heading, but I vowed I would not be a single-issue voter and would not let anti-GLBT policies dictate every single vote I cast.  My fiscal conservatism and strong support of our military kept me checking some of those R boxes at the voting booth. 

In 2007 I staged what could best be described as a “dry run” for Houston City Council in a special election to fill a vacancy.  There was no real expectation I could win against someone like Melissa Noriega, who eventually won the seat, but it was a good experience in how a citywide campaign really works.  I still identified enough as a Republican at that time to seek Republican support in the non-partisan election.  Out of three candidates who identified as Republicans, I was the only one of them who had ever actually voted in a Republican primary, so what happened that year was truly eye-opening and sealed my departure from the GOP. 

At some point, 2006 I think, I became president of the Houston chapter of Log Cabin Republicans, so it was no real secret I was openly gay.  I thought, idealistically, that I could somehow change the Republican Party from within.  What I found very quickly on the campaign trail was that the GOP cared more about sexual orientation than Republican bona fides.  At first, the county GOP refused to list me as a Republican on its website and denied my primary voting history.  Then it listed my responses to questions regarding GLBT issues in bold red letters.  Finally, it ran robocalls to Republican voters essentially telling them “vote for anyone but the gay guy.” 

Shortly after the election, I thought I would give it one last try to change the party from within by seeking appointment as a precinct chair.  My meeting with the vacancy committee was fascinating and horrifying all at once.  None of us have the time for me to go through that story, but suffice to say, I didn’t put up with any of their lies and bullshit and walked out.  They would rather have no precinct chair than a gay precinct chair, and oddly enough, SD15 chair Ned Watkins was really curious about bondage and S&M. 

My days as a Republican reached their end. 

In some of my academic research I extensively studied the relationship between public opinion, gay rights and public policy as it evolved from 1925 to 2005.  I understood the statistical intricacies of public opinion, partisan relationships and religious affiliation, but I never experienced the practical reality of the politics of gay identity firsthand.  I never truly understood what it meant to be a gay man in the bubble of political application.  Through a great deal of self-reflection and thought, I examined the single-issue connotations of standing up for myself and the GLBT community, and it seemed less single-issue than ever before.  By that time I had been fighting for the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for several years, and GLBT issues became the primary focus of my political activism.

Since that one handwritten amendment in 2004, the Texas GOP platform has grown increasingly anti-GLBT.  No longer was it a matter of saying I wasn’t going to vote based solely on support or opposition of same-sex marriage – something I could not have in Texas anyway, it was a matter of standing up against a party platform that wanted to vilify and criminalize my very existence as a person.  It was a party that used my personal identity as a wedge issue to stir up hate among voters and promote inequality for an entire population of Americans.  Politics is totally different when it involves you, individually, at the most personal level.  It’s different when the target is painted on your own chest. 

At that point, the question became whether or not the Democratic Party had a place for me beyond its direct support of equality for all Americans and support of the GLBT community.  It was not an easy decision to make, but in the end, I found there were a lot of people like me who called themselves “Blue Dog” Democrats so I jumped in feet-first and put all that energy I had been wasting in the GOP to work in the 2008 Democratic primary on the Obama campaign.  I went to my first conventions at the precinct and senate district levels and served on the Resolutions Committee.  It was a lot of fun. 

Getting involved in a party that wants you and appreciates the work you do and the energy you bring to achieving its goals is an incredibly rewarding experience.  It was great to finally stop beating my head against the wall trying to make change that would never happen and get to work making a real difference in the community.  What was so remarkable was the fact that I could be accepted for those ideologies I agree with without being shunned for those things in the platform for which I might have some disagreements.  It was a stark difference from the non-negotiable litmus test of the Republican Party.  When I ran a real race for City Council in 2009, I garnered the support of 80% of the Democratic endorsing organizations in Houston. 

Even still, being in a high-profile position in the GLBT community today, there are occasionally some folks who claim I’m still a “closet Republican” or try to convince folks that I have somehow tried to keep my Republican past a secret.  I can’t help but wonder who some of them think they are kidding, but I do encounter people from time to time who legitimately wonder how it was I came to my evolution from Republican to Democrat.  I was asked that question frequently in 2009. 

We all evolve over time.  We learn from our experiences.  We even realize at times that we are wrong.  As a result, some of us grow more progressive, others grow more conservative for whatever reasons.  I have been a public servant for many years, and I have spent a great deal of time working in the community to make our world a better place.  My academic background is filled with studies of presidential politics, gay politics, public policy, public opinion and other aspects of the political world we live in.  All these things come together and have helped shape my ideology in ways that extend beyond just GLBT issues.  

For example, I find that user fees are often a successful tool in funding public programs and deserve strong consideration at all levels of government.  User fees are a distinctly Republican concept.  I believe (mostly through study and observing practical applications) that privatization of many core government functions is a really bad idea – a Democratic position.  Sometimes I tend to be particularly moderate, as with my view that we need to provide some level of free or reduced-cost healthcare to less fortunate and indigent citizens, but do so in a way that maximizes the return on a minimum investment.  That combines the compassion of Democratic principles with reduced cost, smaller government Republican principles.  I support a woman’s right to choose.  I support a strong national defense.  There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to public policy. 

I suppose that I might still have felt myself clinging to my Republican upbringing were it not for its massive shift toward social extremism – this idea that GLBT citizens have no place in society, that we should be locked up for the rest of our lives, or worse.  I was almost pleasantly surprised when local Republican activist Ed Hubbard published a blog post advocating that the Republican Party stop using the GLBT community as a punching bag to win elections.  It was a shockingly refreshing view to see coming from a recognizable Republican, but I then I realized that his entire argument was premised on ignoring one very important thing: the party platform.  

Remember earlier when I said it had been getting worse since 2004?  The anti-GLBT plank grew from chicken scratch tacked onto the end to a full page with top billing.  The GOP party platform simply does not accommodate any room for compassion for the GLBT community.  The Harris County GOP went so far as to run direct mail and live call campaigns to oust GLBT and GLBT-friendly precinct chairs a number of years ago in an effort to “purify” the party.  It is hatred toward an entire community of people that likes to pretend it isn’t hatred, and they will end up making the party so pure the convention can be held in a phone booth.  Perhaps if Mr. Hubbard feels so compassionately and wants the GOP to stop beating up on the GLBT community, he will work to change the party from within.  I wish him well in that effort. 

What it comes down to for me and where I am at this point in my life is that I am a policy wonk.  I want good government and well-reasoned, effective public policy without regard to which political party is behind it.  I reject the politics of demonizing populations of people, and I support equality for all Americans.  As long we have public policy that works and achieves what is best for citizens in my view that has developed from my experience, education and life’s work, I can live with it.  And I find that living with those things I believe in places me among my friends in the Democratic Party.

About Noel Freeman

First and foremost, I'm a Fightin' Texas Aggie, but I earn my living as a proud public servant in Houston's Public Works Department. I served in the US Air Force as an intelligence analyst and spent some time with the National Archives and US Congress.
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