NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The message from Republicans on gay inclusion in the party was mixed as the Conservative Political Action Conference unfolded over the weekend. As one faction of the party was saying evolve or die, the other was saying there’s no need for change.
The push for Republicans to adopt a more inclusive tone was heard most distinctly during an unofficial event at CPAC titled, “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.”
That panel concluded just hours before Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) announced he supports marriage equality. But at the same time, leaders of the Republican Party — most prominently House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — continue to assert steadfast opposition to marriage equality.
Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of the gay conservative group GOProud, was one of the lead speakers on the panel and advocated for a change in the conservative movement.
“In 2013, those who demonize gay people and oppose homosexuality are way out of the mainstream, because everyone has a gay person in their lives — and they know better,” LaSalvia said. “I believe that this issue contributes more to conservatives’ image problem than any other, because it’s an issue that cuts across all demographic groups. And it has to be addressed.”
LaSalvia, whose organization endorsed marriage equality in January, said the conservative movement has tolerated “anti-gay bigotry” for too long, but emphasized those who oppose same-sex marriage aren’t necessarily homophobes.
“Opposition to gay marriage isn’t, in and of itself, bigotry,” LaSalvia said. “There are, however, a few in our movement who just don’t like gay people, and in 2013 that’s just not OK in America anymore. Gay people are in every family, every circle of friends, and every community in the country now. Everybody knows a gay person.”
The panel, hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was an unofficial event that took place in the Gaylord National Hotel as CPAC was underway. GOProud, along with the John Birch Society, was barred in 2011 from sponsoring the annual conservative conference and hasn’t been allowed back since. While the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, said the groups were barred because of “disrespectful behavior,” GOProud says they were barred from participating because it’s a gay organization.
On stage at CPAC, mention of marriage equality or other LGBT outreach was scant, although a few speakers brought up the issue. Most prominent was Sen. Marco Rubio, who said during his remarks on Thursday, “Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in a traditional way does not make me a bigot.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Thursday as the keynote speaker of a dinner honoring former President Reagan also warned against an anti-gay image for the Republican Party.
“Way too many people believe Republicans are anti-immigrant, anti-woman, anti-science, anti-gay, anti-worker, and the list goes on and on and on,” Bush said. “Many voters are simply unwilling to choose our candidate — even though they share our core beliefs — because those voters feel unloved, unwanted and unwelcome in our party.”
Off stage came another announcement: Portman announced that he’s had “a change of heart” and came to support marriage equality after his son Will, a student at Yale University, came out as gay two years ago.
“One way to look at it is that gay couples’ desire to marry doesn’t amount to a threat but rather a tribute to marriage, and a potential source of renewed strength for the institution,” Portman wrote in an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch.
While the panel took place before Portman’s announcement, a number of prominent conservative commentators on the CEI panel, who spoke before a packed audience, advocated for a similar evolution in the Republican Party on marriage equality.
Jennifer Rubin, a conservative blogger for the Washington Post, said outreach to the LGBT community would be akin to the Republican Party’s effort to reach out to Latinos by working on immigration reform.
“I suggest that in another generation, or a half generation, this argument is going to be gone,” Rubin said. “Virtually every state in the union will have voted by popular vote; some may choose not to, and they’re going to experience whatever social and economic consequences flow from that. But in 10 years or so, no one is going to be talking about this.”
Earlier this month, polling analysis was unveiled by the LGBT advocacy Freedom to Marry showing opposition to marriage equality rests within three groups: white evangelical Christians, older people and non-college educated white people. Another notable statistic: 51 percent of Republicans under the age of 30 support marriage equality.
That last statistic was a point that Liz Mair, president of the Arlington, Va., consulting firm Mair Strategies, drew upon as she advocated for greater Republican outreach.
“The way that we’re going to talk about these issues and in some cases, the stands that we take on them, is going to prove to be a problem,” Mair said. “There’s something that needs to be addressed here, and that needs to be addressed now.”
Margaret Hoover, a conservative CNN contributor, also warned that continued opposition to marriage equality will harm the conservative movement as younger voters grow older.
“The millennial generation, the 30 and unders, are simply not hearing conservatism because they’re tuning us out based on a certain set of issues,” Hoover said. “Winning the argument and showing that we’re an inclusive movement is critical to not turning them off to a whole other rainbow of our other ideas.”
One question that sparked discussion concerned whether government should get out of the institution of marriage altogether — for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples — and simply allow individuals to form contracts with whomever they choose. That view was espoused last week by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who won the CPAC straw poll as the attendees’ preferred presidential candidate for 2016.
Mair explained that while many conservatives would like to see the government out of marriage, many aspects of government are involved in marriage, so support for marriage equality is the best option for libertarians.
“Unless you have a radical overhaul of the tax system, a radical overhaul of the entitlement system and, frankly, probably a radical overhaul of the immigration system, also, because that is going to affect certain same-sex couples, that’s not actually going to be a practical way of ensuring equality and rights,” Mair said.
Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for the National Review, said he agrees the Republican Party needs to work on greater inclusiveness toward LGBT people, but noted that work needs to be done to hold onto social conservatives within the movement.
“You’re going to have to show me who you’re going to replace the 20 to 30 million social conservatives and evangelicals who may leave the party if you completely abandon some of those issues,” Goldberg said. “So the trick is to explain to people on our side why this is the right position because if you do that, you’ll have a great moral victory, but you’ll lose even more elections. It makes a lot more sense to try to persuade the people who agree with you on 80 percent of the issues to stick with you, than to say, ‘Go to hell over this one issue!'”
And remarks from other prominent Republicans over the weekend demonstrate the view that marriage is one man, one woman is still held by leaders within the party.
Most prominent is Boehner, who said in an interview on ABC “This Week” airing on Sunday that he couldn’t imagine his views on marriage changing, even if — like Portman — a child came out to him as gay.
“I believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman,” said Boehner said. “It’s what I grew up with. It’s what I believe. It’s what my church teaches me, and I can’t imagine that position would ever change.”
According to Roll Call, former Republican presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum under questioning at CPAC indicated he was unmoved when asked about Portman’s newfound support for marriage equality, saying, “Just because someone changes their mind doesn’t change things.”
Santorum reportedly added Republicans are confronting “very difficult facts” in their live, but if marriage were just about “two adults who love each other,” there’s no reason not to let “three or four people” marry. His remarks reportedly generated loud applause.
And on a CPAC panel on bullying faced by conservatives, titled “Stop THIS: Threats, Harassment, Intimidation, Slander & Bullying from the Obama administration,” Brian Brown, president of National Organization for Marriage, maintained opposition to marriage equality is a conservative principle.
“When you hear someone act as if standing up and believing for the truth about marriage is not a conservative principle is not the truth, refuse to back down, refuse to be cowed, do not accept the notion that this is an issue that somehow we can’t talk about or we can’t debate,” Brown said. “Don’t accept the idea that we need silence on this issue. What we need is people standing up more than ever for marriage is the union between a man and a woman. What we’ve seen in state-after-state is that when people do this, far from being a losing issue, it’s a winning issue.”