March 13, 2013 at 6:34 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
GOP at a crossroads as conservatives meet
Jimmy LaSalvia, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, GOProud, Florida, United States House of Representatives, Republican Party, GOP, gay news, Washington Blade

Jimmy LaSalvia and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) are urging the GOP to undertake greater outreach to the LGBT community. (Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

As conservatives from across the country prepare to descend on D.C. for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, some Republicans are urging the party to reach out and welcome the LGBT community.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) — perhaps the most pro-LGBT Republican U.S. House member and co-sponsor of legislation to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act — said in a statement to the Washington Blade that she hopes the Republican Party will reach out to the LGBT community.

“I am optimistic that the GOP will see the value of being more inclusive,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “More of my House colleagues need to come to the realization that establishing positive working relationships with the LGBT community in their districts is the right thing to do.”

It would be quite a turnaround for the Republican Party. The party lost the presidential election and seats in both chambers of Congress in 2012 after the standard-bearer in the election, Mitt Romney, campaigned on a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and said he opposed not only marriage equality, but civil unions.

Gay GOP groups have worked to spread the message that victory for the Republican Party means taking a more inclusive, “big-tent” approach.

Gregory Angelo, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said if the GOP doesn’t evolve to engage more with the LGBT community, the party will “hit a wall” and be unable to secure the support of not only gay conservatives, but young voters.

“What we’re looking at is a matter of addition-multiplication that can benefit the movement as opposed to subtraction-division, which will harm it, and ensure that we continue to lose elections,” Angelo said.

Jimmy LaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, said the Republican Party needs to address gay issues because so many Americans know gay people and don’t want to cast votes for a party that opposes their interests.

“The gay issue is something that cuts across all demographic groups because politics is personal and everybody has a gay person in their lives, and so they think about how issues affect gay people,” LaSalvia said.

In last 13 years, LaSalvia counted two instances in which the leader of the Republican Party sought input from LGBT people: then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush’s meeting with the “Austin 12” in 2000 and then-GOP nominee John McCain’s interview with the Washington Blade in 2008. In October, Log Cabin also met with Romney at a Virginia farmhouse just before Election Day to discuss LGBT issues, such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

The Republican National Committee is set on Monday to make public an internal review of Election 2012 and make recommendations going forward. It’s unknown whether the report will address the party’s relationship with the LGBT community.

Sean Spicer, a Republican National Committee spokesperson, expressed a sentiment similar to Log Cabin’s on the importance of inclusion, but took note of the party’s 2012 platform, which endorses a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

“While the issues of our party are clear in our platform, Chairman Priebus recognizes that in order to grow our party we need to be a party of addition and multiplication rather than subtraction and division,” Spicer said.

On its face, CPAC represents the image of the Republican Party that has yet to embrace LGBT people. This year, an estimated 10,000 people are expected to attend the convention, which will take place from Thursday to Saturday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Speakers at the event include rising Republican stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who’s expressed opposition to same-sex marriage and voted against LGBT-inclusive reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act as well as former Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who campaigned last year in favor of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.

Others include Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who gained notoriety recently for his 13-hour filibuster in the Senate over Obama’s use of drones and authority to use them in the United States, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Neither GOProud, which was banned from the event in 2011, nor Log Cabin will be co-sponsors of the event, although social conservative groups, such as The Heritage Foundation and Focus on the Family’s CitizenLink will be in attendance.

Both groups told the Blade they didn’t actively seek to participate as sponsors during the event, but they also weren’t invited to attend. Angelo said Log Cabin was invited to participate in other CPAC-related events throughout the week, but opted not to attend.

Gregg Keller, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said in a statement to the Blade that GOProud — along with John Birch Society, an advocacy group supporting limited government — were barred in 2011 for reasons other than gay identity.

“The ACU Board voted in 2011 to not invite two groups to sponsor CPAC because of past disrespectful behavior toward conservatives and event attendees and that policy remains in place,” Keller said. “Although these organizations are not able to participate as sponsors, their members and supporters are welcome to purchase tickets and attend.”

LaSalvia responded by saying ACU’s stated reason for GOProud’s exclusion from CPAC is untrue.

“For two and half years we were under attack from anti-gay forces on the ACU board to keep us out of CPAC because we are gay,” LaSalvia said. “One of our board members called one of those anti-gay ACU board members a ‘bigot.’ He apologized, and they have used that incident as their reason to exclude us when the truth is they kicked us out because we are gay.”

Still, an unofficial event will be held on Thursday in the same building as CPAC that will highlight gay conservatives and tolerance, titled, “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.” It’s hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute and will begin at 6 pm.

Speakers on the panel include LaSalvia as well as CEI Chair Fred Smith; Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for The National Review; CNN contributor and noted supporter of marriage equality Margaret Hoover; and the Washington Post’s conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin.

Despite the prominent anti-gay speakers at the event, CPAC is hosting no official panel with a specific anti-gay bent, or even one against same-sex marriage.

LaSalvia said he thinks social conservatives “are an important part of the coalition” that make up the Republican Party, but he doesn’t know what the future holds for conservatives who demonize gay people.

“And I’m not talking about people who oppose gay marriage; I’m talking about the ‘anti-gay-for-pay’ crowd,” LaSalvia said. “Because most Americans have gay people in their lives, they know that gays aren’t destroying America, they know that gays aren’t destroying civilization because gay people are in their families, and so they know better.”

Perhaps the most striking signal that the GOP is reconsidering its position on LGBT issues is a legal brief signed by 131 prominent Republicans calling on the Supreme Court to overturn California’s Proposition 8.

Signers of the brief, which was circulated by gay former RNC Chair Ken Mehlman, included Ros-Lehtinen as well as her House colleague Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.). The brief also included many individuals who worked on the Romney campaign — including David Kochel, Romney campaign’s Iowa strategist, who’s said support for marriage equality is “emerging as a mainstream issue” in the GOP — as well as Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who campaigned in support of Prop 8.

Angelo said the brief “really crystalized” a greater acceptance of gay individuals in the conservative movement that he said “has been happening for years.”

“There have been people who have been elected officials at the grassroots level — and people who have been prominent staffers — who have been personally supportive of gay individuals in the past,” Angelo said. “What’s happening now is they’re becoming more outspoken in that support, and there is a true debate that’s happening within the conservative movement on this issue, specifically of marriage equality.”

Additionally, the 2012 election — in which three states legalized same-sex marriage and another rejected a constitutional amendment banning it — has shaken up presidential candidates’ views on same-sex marriage.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon, expressed support for same-sex marriage in an op-ed for the American Conservative, while former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich reportedly told The Huffington Post the Republican Party must accept the reality of same-sex marriage.

In a recent Fox News interview, Romney said he continues to believe marriage is for one man, one woman, but he’ll “respect” other views on the issue.

These new views have led observers to believe that positions on marriage could divide Republican candidates when the compete in primaries for the nomination to run for the White House in 2016.

Angelo said 2016 is a “long way away” and thinks how the marriage issue will play out among the Republican candidates will become more apparent depending on the Supreme Court’s upcoming rulings on Prop 8 and DOMA.

“Will Republicans breathe a sigh of relief if DOMA is overturned and Proposition 8 is overturned because the issues are off the table, or is it going to be something that the Republican Party continues to pursue?” Angelo said. “Any presidential candidate that the party would put forth would have to deal with these issues as a political reality.”

Angelo said the debate within the Republican Party on LGBT rights is the result of an absence of negative consequences after the legalization of same-sex marriage in nine states and D.C.

“I know a lot of people would rather that there would be no debate at all and the movement go from completely opposing same-sex civil marriages to completely embracing it, but that’s not how these things happen,” Angelo said. “I’m definitely a realist in that regard, but things are definitely moving in the right direction.”

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include a comment from the Republican National Committee and a response from Jimmy LaSalvia on ACU’s stated reason for excluding GOProud from CPAC.

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

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