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Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004 07:55 am

Equality’s the reason

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes' homophobic views. Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter. President George W. Bush's efforts to adopt a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.

These were some of the issues raised during an hour-and-a-half-long informal discussion led by gay-rights activist and author Candace Gingrich at the University of Illinois at Springfield on Tuesday.

Gingrich, who is the half-sister of former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has served since 1995 as a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization. Her stop in Springfield was the first in a get-out-the-vote campaign for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry that will take her to college campuses in 12 states.

Gingrich told an audience of about 50 that a "stark difference" exists between Bush and Kerry on matters of gay rights. "While there's a host of reasons to vote for a candidate," Gingrich said, "if you're [gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender], equality is pretty high up on that list."

One student noted that Kerry and running mate John Edwards were absent during the Senate vote on whether to pass a constitutional ban against gay marriage.

"I don't know that they'll ever be the perfect candidate that will do everything you want them to do," Gingrich said. "But there's room for dialogue [with Kerry]; there's a shut door with Bush."

Gingrich, 38, became a champion of gay rights at the height of her half-brother's power in Congress, when he famously said that homosexuals should be "tolerated" like alcoholics.

She is one of several well-known gay-rights activists related to top politicians, including Deborah Mell, sister-in-law of Gov. Rod Blagojevich; and Chrissy Gephardt, daughter of former Democratic House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri.

Mary Cheney, the conservative vice president's lesbian daughter, has taken flak in recent years for not following the path paved by Gingrich. Cheney, who did not even appear on the platform of the recent Republican National Convention, remains loyal to her father as a key advisor who travels with him on nearly every campaign trip.

When asked whether gay activists should target Mary Cheney for criticism, Gingrich said, "I would hope she has a hard enough time sleeping at night as is."

Gingrich said little of Keyes' recent comment to a New York-based satellite-radio station that Cheney's daughter, like all homosexuals, is a "selfish hedonist."

As she hustled to the parking lot on her way to her next speaking engagement, in Chicago, Gingrich noted that such rhetoric is typical of Keyes. The extraordinary thing, she said, was its swift condemnation by other Republicans.

Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka called the statement "idiotic," former Gov. Jim Thompson called it "offensive," and U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Republicans had to forfeit the open Illinois U.S. Senate seat.

"It shows that name-calling isn't acceptable anymore," said Gingrich, "which is a step, however small, in the right direction."

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