Unless, of course, they are gay--or worse, gay and married, or gay and serving in the military, or (worst of all) gay and self-identified as a conservative. That’s the message implicit in the stance of a number of religiously-based anti-gay organizations that have chosen not to attend this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the gathering of ideologically rightward individuals and organizations that has taken place annually for thirty-eight years.
The reason for the split among conservatives? GOProud, a group dedicated to advancing issues important to the right that happens to be made up of gay conservatives.
The idea of a gay conservative is still often seen as a contradiction in terms, but in the last year the notion has lost some of its novelty. It was a conservative gay group--the Log Cabin Republicans--that won a judgment against "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" last year, generating headlines and giving fresh credence to the idea of gay conservatives as a force to recognize and take seriously.
But not all is well among conservatives when it comes to the issue of GLBT Americans. For some groups on the extreme end of the ideological spectrum--especially the religiously motivated--gays are nothing more than "sinners" who "choose" to be romantically and sexually attracted to members of their own gender. Gays are excoriated as "promiscuous" by anti-gay conservatives, but the idea of domestically settled, married gays is even more upsetting: it was only a little more than two years ago that record-setting sums of money poured into California in support of Proposition 8, an effort--barely successful and now under challenge in the courts--to strip gay and lesbian families of their then-existing right to wed. Since then, at least one major player in the Proposition 8 battle, the National Organization for Marriage, has spent more millions on a nationwide campaign to prevent--or roll back--marriage equality for gay and lesbian families.
Other conservatives have little difficulty accepting gays into the ranks. Conservatives of this stripe and gays angry at how they have been targeted by intrusive anti-gay laws have a common cause in wishing for a smaller, less invasive government. Moreover, such conservatives tend to emphasize fiscal conservatism, looking for smaller government to be more frugal as well as less liable to control the details of their personal lives.
The drama playing out as the Feb. 10 start of this year’s CPAC approaches is a stark study in the differences of the right’s mainstream and its extreme fringe. The mainstream celebrate the midterm election victories of Tea Party candidates as a rebuke to big government and its social programs, and a victory for freedom, independence, and personal responsibility. Tea Party candidates who prevailed in the last election tended to be those who avoided social issues and kept their focus on jobs, federal spending, and other economic issues.
But for the hard-core anti-gay extreme, the only "true" conservatives are heterosexuals who expect everyone else to "choose" to be heterosexual, too--or at least, to pretend that they are straight. They view openly gay conservatives with skepticism or even suspicion, sometimes accusing gays of attempting to "infiltrate" the political right out of a strategy to undermine conservatism, rather than because many gays might hold personal views that align with conservative principles such as enhanced liberty, reduced government, and the means to promote and protect their own interests--and those of their families.
The fact that the American Conservative Union allowed GOProud to co-sponsor last year’s CPAC, and is allowing the group to do so again this year, therefore rubs many anti-gay groups the wrong way. The schism between religiously motivated conservatives and fiscal conservatives is especially pronounced given the list of those groups that have chosen to boycott the 2011 edition of CPAC. Among them, reported the New York Times on Jan. 27, are organizations such as Concerned Women for America, Liberty University, and the Family Research Council.
Nominally secualar groups such as the Heritage Foundation are also skipping this year’s CPAC, the New York Times noted, but the ACU has held firm and declined to rescind GOProud’s co-sponsor status. Indeed, it may not matter much if the anti-gay crowd stay home: this year’s CPAC is expected to be the biggest one yet.
GOProud itself barely seems to promote anything overtly gay. The reason that anti-gay groups give for denouncing GOProud is that the organization says that the issue of marriage should be left to the states to decide, and indeed states’ rights are a rallying point for many on the ideological right.
But GOProud contends that specific positions on issues are secondary to the fact that this is a organization that is out, proud, and conservative. In short, they suggest, the anti-gay elements of the political right simply do not like sexual minorities: said GOProud head Jimmy LaSalvia, "The reason the boycotters applied a litmus test to us is because we were born gay."
That interpretation can hardly be faulted given statements like the one tossed off by Liberty University’s Mathew Staver, who told the New York Times that "GOProud is working to undermine one of our core values." Staver implied that gays are welcome to lend their weight to the conservative movement, but when it comes to full membership, they should content themselves with a seat in the back of the bus: "they shouldn’t be allowed to be co-sponsors," Staver said.
Next: Family Matters
A Conservative Tenet?
Added the letter, "It is no more acceptable as a participant at CPAC than a group that said it embraced the ’traditional conservative agenda’ but actively worked for higher taxes and greater governmental control of the economy."
Americans who favor limited governmental interference in their lives, believe strongly in the importance of family, support a strong national defense--sometimes by serving in uniform--and view fiscal responsibility as vital to the long-term health of the nation are generally known as conservatives.
The "core" value that the letter’s signatories accuse GOProud of standing against is that of "life and family," in the words of Princeton’s Robert P. George, who established the American Principles Project. Anti-gay groups--especially religiously-motivated ones--promote themselves as the sole genuine defenders of marriage, family, and children, and condemn gays in suitably with-us-or-against-us language, calling sexual minorities the agents of a "culture of death"--that is, a culture in which sexual congress fails to lead to procreation, and sexual promiscuity spreads disease.
The fact that gays and lesbians often enjoy stable, long term--and even monogamous--relationships, often have children of their own, and have long sought the same legal rights, protections, and obligations of legal marriage that heterosexuals take for granted is often not acknowledged by such anti-gay groups. One notable exception is when such groups make claims (based on studies involving heterosexual single parents) that children raised by two loving parents of the same gender do worse in life. (Studies that actually look at the question of how well children of gay and lesbian two-parent homes fare have revealed that they do just as well as children from stable two-parent heterosexual homes.)
The assumption that gay and lesbian families are somehow inferior to heterosexual families undergirds the assumption that gays cannot authentically support all of the "core values"--small government, fiscal accountability, a strong national defense, a leadership role in global affairs, and, yes, devotion to family--to which heterosexual conservatives cling.
The very existence of an organization such as GOProud--to say nothing of conservative individuals who are gay or lesbian, partnered, and heading up homes complete with thriving children--threatens such assumptions, and are often met with the charge that conservative gays are somehow "false" conservatives, and with disproportional outrage.
As the letter to Keene put it, "It is our conviction that the institution of marriage and the family qualify--historically, philosophically and empirically--as such core principles. An organization committed to the ultimate abandonment of the legal and social meaning of marriage by definition disqualifies itself from recognition as a partner in the conservative cause." This comment referred to GOProud--a group that simply said states should be allowed to decide the issue of marriage equality for themselves.
Meantime, there is still the hardly incidental matter that when the GOP was trounced in 2008 one theory was the Republican candidates had spent too much time talking about who should be denied legal family status, while all of America’s families were facing economic uncertainty, if not downright hardship. When conservatives bounced back to deliver a "shellacking," as President Obama called it, to Democrats, the Tea Party was a major component of that sweeping victory... but the Tea Party, by and large, was also focused on economic issues rather than social issues.
The impression--one that has been growing for years now--is that Americans are less concerned with social questions like which rights to deny and which to reward, and which segments of society should enjoy the full suite of freedoms that theoretically belong to each American at birth. Rather, America’s voters want and need to know what practical, real-world solutions their leaders will implement to address practical, real-world problems--not largely imaginary boogeymen such as an ever-looming "culture of death."
Moreover, there’s room to question just how much space lies between the media sizzle of the political right’s schisms and the gristle. As the National Review Online noted, big-name politicians with a realistic shot at the nomination in 2012--Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Tim Pawlenty among them--are hardly going to miss a chance to address the nation’s largest assemblage of their prospective constituents, whatever internecine food fights may be going on in the background. As for the fringe groups that have vowed not to attend, National Review Online reported, at least two--the Family Research Council and the Heritage Foundation--weren’t going to be in attendance anyway. But why spoil a good gay-bashing press release by admitting that a so-called "boycott" is for an event they planned to skip before the controversy got hot and the media started to make hay out of it?
That said, there is a kernel of truth to the claim that even fiscal conservatives are concerned about social issues, the National Review Online noted. "Polling of voters who identified with the Tea Party movement suggested they are conservative on these issues, too, not just on the economy.... Contrary to conventional wisdom, American politics has not evolved beyond social issues."
Moreover, the GOProud flap ought not to be dismissed as another example of the right’s ongoing internal tensions--ongoing for decades--between its more extreme religious elements and its mainstream. "In the final analysis, GOProud may be doing conservatism a real service," the National Review Online posited. "The organization is helping a movement and party discern how to deal in a principled and prudent way with fundamental, personal issues in the political realm--in the contentious public square of a fallen world."
Next: The Shape of Things to Come?
Time Will Tell
But would a continued role for GOProud among CPAC’s organizers lead to an emptier event in 2012? Anti-gay conservatives hint that the issue could drive a wedge into the ranks of the political right. Practical experience, however, leavens such pessimism: younger Americans--conservatives among them--are increasingly accepting of gays as fully formed, fully fledged human beings competent and deserving of all the rights and liberties that straights expect, and are less likely to delegate gays and their families to some vague category of inferiority.
This trend applies not only to the man on the street, but to the most luminous regions of the conservative realm. Where John McCain positioned himself last year as an avid opponent of repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," his daughter Meghan spoke up for full equality before the law for GLBT Americans; where George W. Bush publicly supported an amendment to the United States Constitution that would have denied some families the legal recognition of marriage (and deprived the states of the right to make that determination themselves), daughter Barbara Bush has recently emerged as a pro-marriage equality voice.
"We try to give an umbrella for all the groups that are legitimately conservative on most issues," CPAC’s Keene told the New York Times. The question that lies ahead--perhaps more crucial even than who deserves marriage rights and whose right to family stands to be curtailed--is just such a matter of legitimacy. Who is a "real" conservative and who isn’t? Decrees and declarations may make for good headlines, but they do not necessarily stand the test of time. "True" conservatives ultimately are likely to be revealed more by the effectiveness of their policies and positions--doing the most good for the most people--than by the targets of their rhetoric.
Even some religious conservatives doubt that it should be the government’s role to define or impose any specific brand of moral conduct. Calling boycotts of CPAC "self defeating," Kevin Miller, a columnist at conservative site Town Hall, noted that "social conservatives believe their task is to win national battles for their virtues, to be implemented by Washington.
"This despite that fact that the U.S. Constitution never empowered the federal government to define and enforce the personal virtues of Americans-quite the opposite," Miller continued, going on to say, "the Bill of Rights reserves personal virtue to Americans themselves and their local governances. This is particularly true of religious liberty, which jealously encompasses personal virtues." Miller went on to add, "once you determine that your task is to force 300 million Americans into conformity to your specific set of virtues, then your allies, including possible allies for the preservation of freedom, shrink to your small group of fellow-travelers."
In other words, conservatism won’t have the chance to make its case if it alienates large segments of the electorate--including sexual minorities and the heterosexuals who know and accept them.
"I’ve been proud of David Keene for not letting them hijack the conservative movement, making the definition of conservatism narrower and narrower," former Oklahoma congressman Mickey Edwards told the New York Times. "If independents are driven away, conservatives aren’t going to win elections."
GOProud founder and chairman Christopher Barron was upbeat about the prospect of his organization co-sponsoring CPAC in 2012, telling the New York Times, "I think 10 years from now people will forget there was ever a discussion over whether a truly conservative gay group should participate."
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.