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7 min

Red, white and rainbow?

Out gay Republicans help reshape party's image after election slap

Gay Republicans hope to create a more appealing party for gay people before the next American election, in 2016.
As Barack Obama’s election victory began to look more and more inevitable on the evening of Nov 6, thousands of gay and lesbian Americans and their allies were celebrating the reelection of the most openly pro-gay president in their history, the first to declare his support for same-sex marriage and to question and ultimately dismantle the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy on gays in the military.
 
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re . . . rich or poor, abled or disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America!” Obama told a cheering crowd in his victory speech.
 
R Clarke Cooper wasn’t buying it.
 
At the time, Cooper was executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, America’s most established gay-friendly, rightwing lobby group. To him, Obama’s victory was a disappointment — and a wake-up call.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Cooper says. “The election results were not that surprising, given that Mitt Romney’s campaign was very weak in communicating that they actually were in favour of open military service and anti-employment discrimination legislation, for example. Those were lost opportunities. There’s a real question of how much the perception of our party hurts our candidates.”
 
According to Cooper, there is more to the Republican Party than its white-bread, social-conservative image. “We value issues like individual liberty and personal responsibility,” says Cooper, who hopes his group will have a seat at the table as the Republicans decide what steps to take following Romney’s unexpected November shellacking.
 
Many gay and lesbian voters still have a visceral mistrust of the Republican Party, whose rightwing has made no secret of its distaste for gay rights. “Homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and society at large, and can never be affirmed,” stated a recent editorial by the Family Research Council, a leading American social-conservative organization that has sponsored major rightwing conferences.
 
“No candidate beholden to this party can be an LGBT champion,” the staff of The Advocate wrote in an anti-Romney pre-election editorial, breaking its longstanding policy of taking no official stand. “The GOP abandoned core values of limited government and federalism in exchange for demonizing rhetoric and repressive legislation and whether women are equal to men.” 
 
While views differ on whether Romney himself is deeply homophobic or was “held hostage” by the party’s right wing, the Advocate’s anti-Romney message appeared to resonate with gay voters. Exit polls cited in a New York Times article indicate that Obama earned the support of gay voters by more than three to one.
 
“It’s not easy to dismiss that response from the voters,” Cooper says. “We [Republicans] are doing a deep dive instead of a surface review. We are looking at what we do right and what we don’t. Americans like where we stand on economic freedom and national security, but Americans do not like where we have stood on GLBT issues and immigration. If the party does not pivot it could disappear. People in the Republican Party are acutely aware that being relevant and realistic is a concern.”
 
“If you say, ‘Only this type of person is allowed in the party,’ you won’t win elections and you won’t be a guiding force,” Cooper says, noting that antigay legislation supported by either party often contradicts the small-c conservative philosophy of his group. “A lot of social-conservative positions clash with true conservative ideology,” he says. “The federal Defense of Marriage Act, which was passed by a Democratic president, is a perfect example. The government defining marriage is a federal encroachment on personal liberty.”
 
Stephen Keblish, the newly elected chairman of the New York State Log Cabin chapter, sums up the party’s ideology in a nutshell. “I believe that giving people the opportunity to succeed on their own is more important than trying to maintain people’s comfort and that people have to make their own decisions and live by the consequences . . . there’s more to my views on government than what gender the person I sleep with is.”
For Keblish, who says he “picked out” the Republican Party at a young age, discovering the existence of a gay-friendly, moderate Republican association has been like coming home.
 
“Before I came out, I was president of the College Republican Committee at the State University of New York in Blackport,” he recalls. “At the time [in 2002], the campus was having a few events on campus regarding gays and lesbians. I invited the national treasurer of Log Cabin to come speak at Blackport, and from there I was persuaded to come out, having heard from someone who had had a good experience. In 2002 there weren’t really very many gay and lesbian role models, so I really owe a debt of gratitude to [Log Cabin].“
 
Keblish says he has faced some backlash from both gays and other Republicans as an out gay conservative. “Coming out to gay friends as Republican has not been so easy; I haven’t lost friends over it, but there have been awkward moments,” he says. “When I expressed my support for marriage equality, that was criticized somewhat by religious conservatives, but they would have criticized regardless . . . I’m very lucky to live in these times.”   
 
Michael Carr is a Log Cabin activist and entrepreneur who ran an ultimately unsuccessful state senate campaign in heavily Democratic Denver, Colorado. “I ran as an openly gay man with a partner in a civil union, and it did ruffle some feathers,” Carr says. “For some people I wasn’t the ideal Republican because I did not espouse every part of their moral belief system.”
 
Like Keblish, however, he says that coming out as a gay Republican was more difficult in the gay community. “I did face resistance in the gay community for being Republican, but in the Republican community for being gay I didn’t have the same problem.”
 
Overall, Carr says he was satisfied with the public response to his campaign. “The fact of the matter is that as conservatives get to know members of the gay and lesbian community, their hearts and minds warm to the issue once they put a face to the activism; their perspectives change, or at least they become neutral on these issues.”
 
While moderate conservatives such as Carr and Keblish have found a home with Log Cabin, upstart lobby group GOProud has become the face of gay and lesbian advocacy on the far right. GOProud was founded in 2009 as the anti-government-spending Tea Party movement was gaining traction, and it is the self-described Tea Party to Log Cabin’s Republican mainstream.
 
“We started with a collection of goals, mainly to prove not every gay person is leftwing and not every straight conservative is a homophobe,” says Jimmy LaSalvia, the group’s ebullient co-founder. “We sought to reform conservative policies to benefit gays and lesbians and to talk about why limited government benefits people, particularly gay people. No other organization has done that.”
On wider policy issues, GOProud’s views remain firmly to the right of the political spectrum. “While many people on the left support a single-payer [government] healthcare system, we continue to support free-market-based solutions.”
 
The group has supported incorporating reinforcement of the right to bear arms into hate-crimes legislation. Reinforcing the right to carry concealed weapons in certain circumstances “could help prevent violent crimes from happening instead of waiting for a hate crime to occur and having the government swoop in and save the victim.”
 
GOProud is no stranger to controversy. Far-right commentator Ann Coulter, a self-described “mean-spirited bigoted conservative” who has advocated for the forced conversion of Jews and Muslims to Christianity, vocally supported Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and most recently angered the powerful Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation by making light of National Coming Out Day on Twitter, has spoken at several of the group’s fundraisers. In 2011, Coulter accepted a position on the group’s advisory council, which she still holds, and the corresponding title of “Gay Icon.”
 
“Ann may not be where I am on gay marriage, but she’s the furthest thing from a bigot,” LaSalvia says. “We’re trying to show that not all conservatives hate gay people.
 
“One thing that mainstream conservatives don’t grasp but gay ones do is that pop culture and media culture matter in engaging public opinion. Engaging with popular conservative messengers helps to change our image.”
 
Log Cabin’s positions have also come under scrutiny since the group sponsored a full-page New York Times ad discouraging the nomination of Chuck Hagel, Obama’s choice for the US Secretary of Defense.
 
Hagel has in the past supported the Defense of Marriage Act, called the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell “some social experiment” and expressed concern that an “openly, aggressively gay” ambassador was not qualified to represent the US abroad. Log Cabin has, in the past, given “qualified endorsements” to Republican politicians, such as Romney and Sarah Palin, whose gay rights records may leave something to be desired. Cooper has confirmed that the funding for the New York Times ad (the ads often cost more than $100,000) came in large part from outside sponsors but would not name the sponsors.
Hagel “has stood firmly and aggressively against not only gay marriage, but also against gay people in general. Log Cabin Republicans helped lead the charge to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and [are] extremely invested in seeing that we don’t lose any ground due to a lack of sincere commitment to gay people and their families on the part of the incoming defense secretary,” said Cooper’s successor, Gregory Angelo, in a press release.
 
GOProud and Log Cabin have faced backlash from both leftwing queer groups and the socially conservative rightwing of their own party, but LaSalvia and Cooper believe both sides are becoming more open to their points of view.
 
“We co-sponsored the Conservative Political Action Conference [in 2011], and we were ultimately kicked out, but there was controversy around that, which showed us we have way more friends than enemies,” LaSalvia says. “It’s true that there are a few people [on the right] who just don’t like us, but when those people are attacking us, we’re able to identify lots of friends.”
 
Meanwhile, Cooper says Reince Priebus, the current chairman of the Republican National Committee, has been the most engaging chairman in the party’s history as far as talking with the queer community. “He’s a young chairman, he and his wife have gay friends, he’s the first [chairman] to work with our organization and the first to really say ‘LGBT,’” Cooper says.  “If the party continues in this direction, that is a good thing.” Priebus made headlines during the campaign season by openly disagreeing with Romney on gay marriage, saying that decisions about marriage rights should be left to individual states.
 
While everyone is looking to 2016, Cooper says it is still too early for speculation.
 
“Who knows what the future holds? Who will the two people be [running for president]? What I’d like to see happen is that  Republicans can move past their hangups when it comes to LGBT people and that the LGBT vote stops being a question of rights and starts being about pro-business versus pro-labour, more taxes versus more revenue — so LGBT voters can look at the more nuanced differences.”