The news on Friday about Helms' death was certainly satisfying for those of us who experienced his reign of terror, and I among others gave him a fitting send off.
But let's not let history forget that a powerful gay man was instrumental to Jesse Helms, even as Helms was vilifying and demonizing gay men and allowing them and and many others to die throughout the 80s and 90s. Conservative, then-closeted, Republican political operative Arthur Finkelstein (pictured here in one of the only known photos of the guy) helped engineer Helms' racist campaign against African-American Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt in 1990, as Helms was vilifying gay sexuality, blocking AIDS funding, stalling prevention and attacking queer artists. (See the ad below that was aired at the height of the campaign and which resulted in Gantt going from a a lead in the polls to defeat on Election Day).
Finkelstein is today still working as a strategist for right-wing Republicans, as are many other closeted and not-so-closeted gay Republicans. Finkelstein was outed in 1996 in Boston magazine, and a few years ago he quietly got married to his partner in Massachusetts -- benefiting from the hard work of LGBT activists while he promoted and worked for a vile antigay crusader like Jesse Helms.
Jesse Helms is dead but his legacy lives on. Republicans today similarly bash gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people in order to win elections -- maybe not so vociferously, maybe on different issues than those in the 80s and 90s, but no less opportunistically. And people like Arthur Finklelstein and many other gay Republicans work for them and endorse them.
Here we are, currently in a presidential election season in which the Republican candidate John McCain supports the California ballot measure banning marriage, has left the door open to a federal marriage amendment, is opposed to lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military, is opposed to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and voted against the Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And yet, we've seen Patrick Sammon of the Log Cabin Republicans and his group carry water for McCain as the group mulls whether or not they should endorse him -- as if it's a difficult decision. John McCain may not be ideologically in the same place as Jesse Helms on homosexuality, but what does that matter? If Jesse Helms were in the Senate today John McCain's voting record on gay rights wouldn't be that much different from that of Helms. And John McCain is busy promising to defeat gays to all the same people who supported Jesse Helms.
Let Jesse Helms' death be a reminder of the kind of gay-bashing the Republican Party has promoted and exploited for decades among its politicians -- and which continues today -- and of the selfish and self-deluded gay people who give the party cover, help, strategy and support. And let's vow not to let it happen again.