February 24, 2010 at 8:00 am EST | by Chris Johnson
Gay group works to change hearts, minds at CPAC

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference. His group and its message drew mixed reactions during the D.C. event. (DC Agenda photo by Michael Key)

GOProud’s booth at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference was, like most others at the event, a simple setup.

At the back of the booth was a cardboard wall with the group’s name repeated in red, white and blue lettering. On a table were clipboards with sign up sheets, a roll of “Draft Cheney 2012” stickers and a handout describing the group’s mission.

“GOProud represents gay conservatives and their allies,” it says. “GOProud is committed to a traditional conservative agenda that emphasizes limited government, individual liberty, free markets and a confident foreign policy.”

The setup, in hindsight, might have been too simple. Jimmy LaSalvia, the group’s executive director, at one point looked longingly at a neighboring booth for the Citizens in Charge Foundation, a group dedicated to instituting the referendum process in each state. The motif for the booth included beach toys and fishing nets with dollar bills.

“We should have had a gimmick like that,” he said. “That would have brought more people over.”

Still, the “Draft Cheney” stickers caused at least some passers by to stop. The problem? Most people in the CPAC exhibition hall were unaware of GOProud’s mission as a gay group. Asked by one attendee whether Cheney would really run in 2012, Chris Barron, GOProud’s board chair, responded enthusiastically.

“I don’t know, but can you imagine a better person to send off in a debate with Barack Obama?” he said. “I’d pay money to see that!”

It was a tough crowd for GOProud. As LaSalvia and Barron greeted convention attendees and explained the organization’s outlook to those who were interested, they found themselves having to navigate a sometimes-hostile environment.

Brochures handed out by the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family & Property, ostensibly a Catholic organization, encouraged people to “keep our military clean” and “oppose the homosexual agenda for the military.”

“Homosexual vice represents the opposite of this military honor,” says the document. “It violates natural law, epitomizes the unleashing of man’s unruly passions, undermines self-discipline and has [been] defined as ‘intrinsically evil’ by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on numerous occasions.”

At CPAC, GOProud was queer. And while some were OK with it, others were not.

‘What are you guys about?’

Tension at GOProud’s booth mounted at one point when a woman with a determined look on her face stopped at the booth and announced she needed to air some concerns. Jon Fortin, a gay former Republican administration official who helped GOProud at CPAC, became noticeably tense as a nearby reporter grabbed his notebook.

“I just want to tell you guys that I believe gambling does harm to families,” she said. “It creates financial ruin and drives families apart.”

Fortin quickly noted that the Poker Players Alliance, is actually next to GOProud, opposite the Citizens in Charge Foundation.

“Oh,” the woman said. “Well what are you guys about then?”

Fortin explained GOProud’s mission of advocating for items on the conservative agenda while simultaneously advancing some LGBT causes, such as repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

In response, the woman said she had concerns about how gays serving openly would contribute to military readiness. She also wanted to know what arrangements could be made for straight service members who are uncomfortable being in close quarters with gays.

Fortin made an effort to allay her concerns by saying that repealing the law would simply allow gay troops already in the military to serve openly without being expelled from the armed services.

The exchange was among the most contentious moments at GOProud’s booth. Others who approached either voiced support for their inclusion at CPAC, asked questions about the group’s agenda, or expressed their lack of interest or opposition by simply moving to the next booth.

That nothing more contentious occurred at the gay group’s booth could be taken as evidence that the conservative movement is shifting toward greater acceptance — or at least greater tolerance — of gays. Young conservatives, the largest demographic at CPAC, seem willing to include gays among the crowd, or are at least divided on the issue.

Remarks of two CPAC speakers and the accompanying audience reaction seem to best symbolize the state of gay inclusion among conservatives. Alexander McCorbin, a member of Students for Liberty, praised CPAC in his speech for allowing GOProud to participate in the conference.

“In the name of freedom, I would like to also thank the American Conservative Union for welcoming GOProud as a co-sponsor of this event,” he said. “Not because of any politics, but because of the message that it sends: If what you truly care about is freedom, limited government, and prosperity, then this symbol is a step in the right direction, and look to the student movement for support!”

The audience received McCorbin’s words with a mixture of boos and applause. But what caused more controversy took place a few moments later when Ryan Sorba, co-founder of California Young Americans for Freedom, took the stage.

“I want to condemn CPAC for bringing GOProud to this event!” he shouted, drawing more boos than McCorbin received, but still some applause. Sorba continued his tirade against gays and their pursuit of civil rights.

“Civil rights are granted in natural rights,” he said. “Natural rights are granted in human nature. Human nature is a rational substance in relationship. The intelligible end of reproductive act is reproduction. Do you understand that?”

Despite more boos from the audience, Sorba continued. “The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do!” And after apparent disapproval from Jeff Frazee, executive director of Young Americans for Liberty, Sorba countered, “You just made an enemy out of me, buddy.”

When asked moments later for his reaction to Sorba’s comments, LaSalvia gave a measured response.

“I think the audience speaks for itself,” he said. “That’s all I have to say about that.”

LaSalvia later noted that Sorba’s remarks were possibly a boon for collecting signatures on GOProud’s signup sheet. During the first two days, the group netted about 100 signatures; nearly 200 people signed up in the days following Sorba’s tirade.

No other event at CPAC hit quite as hard an anti-gay note as Sorba’s tirade.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness and a leading national voice against gays serving openly in the armed forces, held a press conference to warn about the danger of ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” but her event wasn’t officially sponsored by CPAC.

And her message was blunted when conservative activist Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Richard Cheney, told Talking Points Memo following her speech at the podium that it’s time to end the ban on open service.

Even an official CPAC panel dedicated to social issues was largely free of anti-gay rhetoric and instead advocated a more general advancement of largely undefined traditional values.

One exception came when panelist Tim Goeglein of Focus on the Family Action advocated for the Manhattan Declaration, an agreement among religious groups that proclaims, among other things, that marriage is for life and between one man and one woman.

Longtime social conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly praised the 31 state constitutional amendments that banned same-sex marriage throughout the country — comments that drew significant applause from her audience. In particular, she praised the amendment Ohio voters approved in 2004.

“George Bush could not and would not have been elected in 2004 if it had not been that the marriage amendment was on the ballot in the state of Ohio, which turned out to be the crucial state in that election,” she said. “So that has been very good for Republican victory.”

LaSalvia said after Schlafly’s speech that Bush’s victory could be attributed to any number of different factors.

But the venom found on stage was lacking among those who visited GOProud’s booth in the exhibition hall. Brett Dinkins, a 19-year-old student from the University of Missouri, signed up to join GOProud’s list while sporting a golden “Blunt” pin on his lapel indicating his support for Republican candidate Roy Blunt in Missouri’s upcoming U.S. Senate race.

Dinkins said he wanted to sign the list to show how the conservative movement is “just getting away from the traditional, close-minded thoughts and moving forward to the age that we’re definitely in now.”

“They probably get a lot of heat from people sometimes, so it’s good that they’re actually out here at the biggest conservative gathering doing it,” he said.

At one point, a representative from the National Rifle Association visited the booth, and he and LaSalvia shared memories of how the groups worked in tandem last year to get a failed concealed weapons amendment passed in the Senate. The NRA official wasn’t able to stay long, though, and soon returned to his booth.

Several candidates seeking to oust traditionally pro-LGBT lawmakers also visited GOProud’s booth in search of support. LaSalvia said he received a visit from a Republican challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and John Loughlin, the GOP candidate who seems poised to challenge gay Democrat David Cicilline in Rhode Island this fall for Congress.

Sean Bielat, who’s the likely Republican candidate to take on gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), also made an appearance to seek the gay group’s help. He emphasized that he’s running on fiscal issues and that he and GOProud should “keep in touch.”

There was even a surprise visit from lesbian MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow, who toured CPAC as part of her trip to D.C. She asked LaSalvia about the “objections” to GOProud’s presence.

“Well, the bottom line is those objections came from the fringe of the fringe,” LaSalvia said. “There was one organization that pulled out. It was Liberty University.”

“Oh yeah,” Maddow said. “They’re the people that said health care reform was going to mean mandatory sex changes.”

LaSalvia noted it’s ironic that Liberty University pulled out because both the school and GOProud participated in a Young College Republicans event together last year.

“Maybe you so spooked them at the event — they were like, ‘Never again!’” Maddow responded.

“The bottom line is the real story is people have been coming up to us saying, ‘We’re so glad you’re here,’” LaSalvia said.

Even an encounter with the National Organization for Marriage, which had a display near GOProud, was relatively calm. At one point, CNN prompted a meeting between GOProud and the anti-gay group in the network’s coverage of GOProud’s role at CPAC.

“We can have a beer summit later,” Barron joked during the exchange.

So if they’re not at GOProud’s booth, where are these conservatives who aren’t happy about the inclusion of gays in the movement? It turns out that they’re somewhat evasive.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), notorious for remarks he made during his tenure in the Senate comparing homosexuality to bestiality, dodged a DC Agenda reporter after giving a speech that suggested Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen were “indoctrinated” by political correctness into endorsing an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in congressional testimony earlier this month.

Santorum held the reporter’s business card and peered at it through his glasses before he returning the card.

“I’m actually late for something and I have to get going,” he said. “Sorry, but I can’t answer any questions.”

Some college students with comparatively lower profiles seemed equally skittish when approached while examining an event map.

“I’m with the press,” said the reporter. “Can I ask you some questions?”

“Sure,” one responded.

“I write for DC Agenda. We’re a gay publication.”

“I’d rather not be part of that.”

“Well, can I still ask you some questions?”

“I don’t want to say anything.”

To get some conversational traction, this reporter eventually resorted to identifying himself verbally as a member of the press and then handing his business card to each person following the conversation. The approach helped convention attendants find their voice.

John Daniel, a 19-year-old student from Florida State University, said he’s against the inclusion of gays in the conservative movement.

“I think there’s nothing wrong with people being homosexual, I just don’t believe they should get married,” he says. “All of us are brothers in Christ, but I’m against them getting married.”

When pressed about what he thought of GOProud’s participation in CPAC, Daniel expressed similar reservations.

“I’m glad that they’re on our side for most things, but I don’t think that they should like — I don’t know — I don’t think that should be high on the agenda,” he said.

Expressing similar reluctance to welcome gays as conservatives is Chase Bishop, a 21-year-old conservative Christian from Liberty University.

“I believe that gays are fine,” he said. “I believe that they can express themselves, and they’re still human beings, and they can give their political views — but I think in the conservative movement, we need to keep the people that are not gay in leadership and help the gays come back to where they need to be.”

More support for gay rights could be found among CPAC attendees who identify as libertarians, such as Kevin Brent, a 23-year-old D.C. resident.

“It sounds funny, but gays are people, too, and they have the rights; they should [have the] freedoms to express themselves,” he said. “I don’t really think it’s a political issue and I think it gets way more attention than it should.”

Margaret Marro, a 19-year-old libertarian and a student from Indiana University, said she was enthusiastic about gays in the conservative movement and GOProud’s participation in CPAC. She said there’s “definitely” a place for gays among conservatives.

“I think that gay and lesbian issues are very, very much a generational thing and I think that my generation is much more accepting,” she said. “Honestly, I can’t wait until those social issues aren’t part of any party’s agenda because I think that economic issues are so much [more] important to this country than issues over anyone’s personal rights.”

The real test for GOProud came during the group’s participation in a panel discussion. On Feb. 20, the group was slated to discuss the use of social networking technologies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to advance goals for conservative organizations.

The panel took place the morning after Sorba made his remarks. LaSalvia, who represented GOProud on the panel, said he didn’t expect much fallout.

“This is a room full of tech people,” he said, “so I think we’ll be pretty calm here.”

But LaSalvia appeared anxious. He laughed nervously as he talked to other panelists, and had his arms wrapped before him as he chewed on his thumbnail. The first to speak of the three panelists, LaSalvia recalled that he and Barron relied on the Internet to advance their message when GOProud opened shop.

“We knew that we had to use to the best of our ability — and on very little money — technology to organize our organization and start it from scratch,” LaSalvia said. “We still continue to use a mix of a database and contact management software that we paid for … and then we use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the free stuff.”

He went on to relay an anecdote about how the group used Twitter last year to put pressure on Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) for voting against the concealed weapons amendment and comparing passage of the measure to imposing same-sex marriage on Missouri.

“We know that Sen. McCaskill is famous for being a Twitterer,” he said. “We knew that that was going to be the secret weapon in this particular thing, and so, again, it was me in a coffee shop and my colleague in his living room in Georgetown with our laptops — and we started talking to her on Twitter.”

LaSalvia said he sent links to McCaskill on their press release and the remarks she made and that the information was re-Tweeted “thousands of times.”

“The Second Amendment community was mad at her,” he says. “The gay left was mad at her, and the Twitter universe was going nuts, and she was trying to respond to people from this committee hearing. And I thought, ‘OK, we lost yesterday, but at the very least, we’re giving her a bad day,’ and we have an election issue.”

Among the audience, people were listening intently. No one appeared concerned about being lectured by a gay group or hearing about same-sex marriage — except for perhaps an older man in the audience who had his arms crossed before him. No questions emerged regarding the group’s involvement at CPAC; people instead want to learn about the best ways to use technology to advance their organizations.

LaSalvia told the crowd to keep as much information as possible on people in their databases, including where potential supporters were first encountered. He said if people interested in their groups first expressed interest during, for example, an art fair, that information should be included in the database.

The panel discussion ended promptly after one hour and LaSalvia seemed happy with how it went.

“It went very well — exactly as I had expected,” he says. “We’re all trying to do the same thing, we’re all different organizations and we have common needs and common concerns.”

Still, LaSalvia cursed himself for using an art fair as a place for conservatives to meet supporters.

“I wish I hadn’t used the gayest example that I could think of.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • Once again, I have to say that GOProud is extremely misguided and not likely to make any headway with the overwhelmingly bigoted group at CPAC. Why do these gay Republicans feel such a need to gain acceptance from these right-wing jackels? I really think it smacks of self-loathing on their part.

  • @ tim: so that we are no longer beholden to the democrats in congress and state legislatures. so that we don’t have to beg them for our rights. so that we can choose our political platforms without worrying about such basic things as fundamental rights. for all these things, this granola liberal thinks these guys have taken on an honorable cause.

  • TIm,

    I totally agree with you!

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