Watching gay conservatives try to make their way in the GOP is like having a friend in an emotionally abusive relationship. Despite the victim's best attempts to placate the abuser, tensions mount until there's a big blowup. Your friend denounces the guy, packs their bags, and resolves to leave. But next you hear, suddenly everything's fine; the abuser has apologized—he's been under a lot of stress lately—and getting out was a bad idea anyway.
At this week's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), gays and the GOP are in another one of their reconciliation phases. After raising hell for being knocked off the list of sponsors in 2011, the leadership of gay Republican group GOProud is back to keeping up appearances. "The relationship between GOProud and the American Conservative Union has been frayed in the past," says Ross Hemminger, the group's executive co-director. "Our big focus now is rebuilding the relationship."
For those not familiar with the saga: When GOProud, a gay Tea Party group formed in 2009, was allowed to co-sponsor CPAC in 2010 and 2011, it prompted established conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, and Concerned Women for America to boycott the yearly event. Cleta Mitchell, a board member at the American Conservative Union (ACU), which sponsors CPAC, encouraged organizations to pull out of the conference and convinced incoming ACU chairman Alan Cárdenas to call for a vote excluding groups that engage in "homosexual advocacy" from the following year's event. The board voted to shut out GOProud, which has been barred from the conference since 2012. GOProud founders Jimmy LaSalvia and Chris Barron criticized the ACU for its decision—Barron went as far as calling Mitchell a "nasty bigot" in an interview with Metro Weekly. In 2012, the pair stepped back from the organization and allowed a new, less-battle-weary crop to take their place. Former GOProud summer interns Ross Hemminger and Matt Bechstein took the helm of the organization in 2013.
This year, GOProud didn't ask to co-sponsor CPAC or even to set up an informational booth—the organization's leaders say they are focused on rebuilding and establishing chapters around the country—but was granted the privilege of attending. The ACU and some members of the media touted this as a big step forward. "Meet the kinder, gentler Conservative Political Action Conference," declared the National Journal's Beth Reinhard in a glowing piece about the ACU's change of heart. Not only will GOProud members be let in the door; they're also welcome to sit in the audience at the conference's various panels and presentations just like regular, heterosexual attendees. Hearing Hemminger describe it, the current relationship between GOProud and the ACU sounds peachy. "We put in our request to attend and were immediately accommodated," he says. "There was no hatred or anti-gay bigotry."
But GOProud's co-founders aren't as sanguine about the new agreement as their successors. Baron resigned from the group's board in protest in February, saying it was “beyond disingenuous for GOProud leadership to say this is some sort of compromise or a step forward.” He told Politico, “It’s akin to the Germans saying the Treaty of Versailles was a compromise." LaSalvia, who announced he was not only leaving GOProud but quitting the Republican Party altogether, stresses that the organizers of CPAC have not evolved on gay rights at all. "It's important to note that ACU's policy hasn't changed ever since they kicked GOProud out," LaSavia says. "I wouldn't agree to be treated as three-fifths of an organization. It's 2014. It's not okay to give ACU a pass when they're treating you differently simply because you're gay."
Even CPAC's old flame, the gay GOP group Log Cabin Republicans, piled on. Log Cabin executive director Gregory Angelo pointed out that neither his organization nor GOProud has ever been barred from going to the conference—they just haven't been able to sponsor, present, or participate in panel discussions since 2012. The fact that GOProud members were allowed to come this year is "hardly something worth tweeting, much less trumpeting via press releases," Angelo said in an op-ed at The Daily Caller.
But even GOProud's quiet attendance this year has ruffled feathers. At the conference's exhibition hall yesterday, a handful of activists from ultra-conservative Catholic group Tradition, Family, and Property handed out flyers warning that embracing the gay-rights agenda would destroy the conservative movement, which is propped up by the "three-legged stool" of "fiscal," "social," and "defense" conservatism. The pamphlet featured an illustration of a man in a blue suit standing atop a stool with a ferocious, rainbow-colored beaver gnawing on the "social" leg. “Why is GOProud a welcomed and official guest at CPAC, when it advocates the legalization of same-sex ‘marriage,’ thus undermining the votes and dreams of millions of God-fearing Americans?” the flyer asks.
While previous CPAC gatherings have featured discussions about the party's stance and evolution on gay rights—an issue that the Republican National Committee said was driving away young voters in its postmortem of the 2012 election—CPAC's program makes no mention of gays or gay rights this year. Participants on a panel about expanding the GOP tent, "Reaching Out: The Rest of the Story," talked about courting Latinos and blacks but made no mention of reaching out to gays or lesbians. This despite the recent wave of "religious liberty' bills in conservative legislatures seeking to sanction discrimination against gays and lesbians and marriage bans being stuck down in Oklahoma, Virginia, Texas, and Kentucky in the last two months. A recent poll from the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute highlights how glaring the omission is: Not only do a majority of American support same-sex marriage; a majority of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and Jews do.
But at least for the moment, GOProud leaders seem happier with conservatives' silence at CPAC than with an outright rebellion. “We're playing nice with people because we agree with them on 90 percent of the issues," Hemminger says. Hemminger points to the three tenets listed on GOProud’s website: free markets, limited government, and a respect for individual rights. “Find me a group at CPAC that doesn't agree with those three tenets,” he says. “We’re part of the conservative movement. We have a place there and we're thankful to be there.”