'Accidental Activist' Candace Gingrich Gives New Meaning to 'Sibling Rivalry'

Candace Gingrich is nationally known for three things: her plain-spoken lesbian activism, her half-sibling kinship with one of the country's most powerful politicians and her trademark hairstyle, a modified crewcut.As a high-profile activist, she's an unacknowledged thorn in the butt of her archconservative big brother, Newt. The Speaker of the House has been alternately revered as the popular ("Time" magazine's 1995 "Man of the Year") chief architect of the Republicans' stern Contract with America and, more recently, castigated as a scalawag whose dubious ethics nearly cost him his leadership post. He's had little to say about Candace, who is 23 years his junior; a request for comment for this article went unanswered. Newt Gingrich has had a great deal to say, however, about gays, who, he declared in a Nov. 25, 1994 "Washington Blade " interview, don't constitute true families and should be "tolerated" by society in the same fashion as alcoholics.This was all a bit much for little sister. Scant weeks earlier, immediately after Newt won the speakership, she had come clean to an Associated Press reporter who - tipped by that severe bowl-on-the-head coiffure - asked if she was gay. Her lesbianism was subsequently reported by "The New York Times " in a profile of her brother.Within two months, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political organization, had asked her aboard as their National Coming Out Project spokesperson for 1995. That role took her on a gay-rights stump through 50 cities, which led to a cascade of national media publicity (she was one of" Ms." magazine's 1995 "Women of the Year"), which led to a guest spot on the then wildly popular "Friends", followed by a national tour to mobilize the vote in 1996.Gingrich continues her high-profile work as an HRC spokeswoman. Described by one book reviewer as "still the scrappy little blue-collar dyke with a passion for rugby," she's out to promote "a message that never gets old" - that gay people need to be out and active."I didn't just happen to wake up one morning, realize the injustice in the world and say, 'I'm going to do something about it,' " says Gingrich, 30. "It wasn't until I found out that my brother thought gays should be tolerated like alcoholics that I had my eyes opened. ..."Now's the time to be active, not to wait until something happens to them before they become aware."In interviews and her memoir, "The Accidental Activist" (Scribner hardback, $23), Gingrich concedes that her early years were politically apathetic. "I came out to my family in 1987," she recalls. "I, at that age, was already tired of hearing about my brother's career. Instead of being interested in politics, I blocked it out. ..."I had concerns after I came out to my family that, if I were the one to throw his career off track, that I would lose my family, lose their respect, lose their love. That may have helped keep me apolitical for awhile."Gingrich was also taken in by her brother's easy acceptance of her lesbianism. "He said, 'That's your life, you have the right to live it the way you want to,' " she recalls. "And I took him at his word, because I didn't know any different."She has learned, however. In his high-profile political career, Newt Gingrich has:*aligned himself with such antigay crusaders as Pat Robertson and Lou Sheldon, who has suggested confining HIV-positive people in concentration camps *voted to reject President Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military *voted to prohibit use of federal funds for public schools that allow open discussion of gay concerns *voted to discharge servicemen and women who test HIV-positive *voted to overturn a District of Columbia bill providing for the registration of domestic partnersAll of which leaves Candace Gingrich, who sees her brother only at occasional family gatherings, a bit mystified. "He's known I'm a lesbian since 1987, yet he still has not ever voted in favor of something that would benefit gay and lesbian Americans," she says. "He still repeats things I know are stereotypes and myths of gay people. ..."Either he does believe the things that he says, or there's stances he's taking because he knows that will keep the far-right wing of the party happy."She acknowledges owing her brother an ironic debt - the name recognition that makes her activism profitable to the gay-rights cause and to her, personally. Before going to work for the Human Rights Campaign, she spent six years as a truck loader and package sorter for UPS, work that topped out at $12.83 an hour."Strange to say, I was happy loading truck at UPS," Gingrich says. "I was very content in my job."Now, she's famous, having quickly made a career on her brother's coattails."The question is asked very often, that I'm capitalizing on his name, that I'm an opportunist," she says. "Well, hey - guilty. Life is full of opportunities. Some you get because of who you're related to, some you get because of who you know, some you get because of where you live. And you take them or you don't."I think they're honorable reasons. I am speaking about something I care deeply about. I am talking to people about getting involved and taking action, and if having that last name makes it easier to do that, fine."

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