As a queer-identified man who grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist Church in North Carolina, I've spent most of my life flirting with conservatives and gays, but rarely both at once. Sure, at times my worlds have overlapped, like when, in Christian youth group, we'd go proselytize at gay bars with our trying-so-hard-not-to-be-gay former President of the Auburn College Republicans youth pastor. But, generally, these two worlds--the gays and the conservatives (both of which I simultaneously love and hate dearly)--have remained as two clearly distinct spheres in my life.
That is, until this past weekend at the Log Cabin Republican (LCR) National Convention.
For three days, hundreds of gay conservatives from all over the country descended upon Washington, DC for this $400-a-person convention complete with open bars, catered steak dinners, group prayers, readings of the Constitution, and more non-reciprocal meat market staring contests than you could possibly imagine. The Log Cabiners threw around business cards, strategized about elections, planned recruitment of all types, anointed and threw tribute to their favorite charismatic, super-sexy leaders, and desperately (and poignantly) searched high and low for any and every pro-gay Republican leader in the country. (Average distribution: one per 100 square miles)
And, as an "intern," I was at the center of it all: meeting and greeting Andrew Sullivan when he arrived to speak, bantering with Grover "drown Big Government in a bathtub" Norquist at the registration table, overhearing various attendees try to win social points by ambiguously implying that they had slept with LCR President Patrick Guerriero, and talking shop with my dinner table populated by JP Morgan executives.
Determined to immerse myself in the culture throughout the weekend (and avoiding nostalgia for the Republicanism of my youth), I certainly saw my fair share of elitism and puffed up right-wing rhetoric, but I was also surprised and impressed by the genuine sincerity, passion, and struggle of many of the attendees, and in the end became excited about much of the LCR movement.
Rich, white, Reagan-loving gay conservative politics?
One thing worth noting right off the bat is that by and large, the LCR convention was all about white, gay men; there wasn't much space (nor much of a turnout) from lesbians, bisexual or transgendered individuals. The Log Cabin Republican Staff. Can you guess which one's the administrative assistant?
Much of the weekend was spent reminding attendees that there need be no oxymoron in the phrase "gay Republican." (24% of gay Americans did vote for Bush in 2004.) The striking juxtaposition of a "Brokeback Mountain" Wyoming resort package right next to a framed image of Ronald Reagan on horseback in the silent auction drove this leitmotif home with more than a hint of irony.
Over and over again, the speakers expounded on how the philosophy of conservatism, and its insistence on liberty and freedom from the State, created a paradigm for gay identity and expression. It seemed that many attendees had so reworked their own history that Gay Liberation had become a natural outgrowth of Barry Goldwater conservatism, completely disconnected from feminist and left-wing political and social movements. Understanding a lot of LCR members means understanding that many gay Americans don't necessarily see their struggle connected to larger feminist and identity politics movements.
During one particularly embarrassing (and revealing) moment, one of the original LCR founders shouted from the podium: "And because of Reagan's courage as governor, California avoided banning all gays and lesbians from being state teachers." How sad that such a defensive, small-bore, conciliatory act became Reagan's most proudly pro-gay moment, and how much sadder for so many gay people to be unabashedly championing the man who refused to mention the word AIDS for the first five years of his Presidency even as the virus raged across the country and ravaged the gay community.
The Reagan-worship, which seemed quite sincere, really shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as it is fairly consistent amongst almost all conservative movements and groups. Each group molds Reagan to embody their particular core ideology--whether it's economists who hone in on his supply-side leadership, neoconservatives who highlight his aggressively uncompromising foreign policy, or in this case, gay Republicans, who focus on his "inclusive" party building. Take this line of thought far enough (and I'm sure a few LCRers would) and you conclude Reagan did more for gay rights through his reduction of the "death" tax and his promotion of anti-communist paramilitary groups overseas than any hate crimes legislation, nondiscrimination codes, or civil unions benefits ever have or ever will.
This smooth confluence of gay and conservative identities was utilized brilliantly throughout the weekend. By playing on the white gay male cultural stereotypes of conspicuous consumption, hedonistic indulgence, and children-less affluence, and fusing them seamlessly with country club Republican stereotypes dominated by stock options and lavish golf vacations, one begins to think that gays and conservatives are indeed--and always have been--one and the same. (That is, of course, if they reside in the top tax bracket.) Part of the event was tinged with a sense of "we're gay and rich, so hurry up and give us our rights so we can get back to doing what we really want to do: working out and accumulating capital." Several men's method of flirtation was to tell me how big their credit limit was (usually unlimited, of course) with a certain square jawed, jocky superiority. Another guy struck up a conversation by asking, "Do you play squash?" Needless to say, this kind of wealth and status-conscious attitude isn't limited to gay men or to conservatives, but the scene acquired an extra poignancy because I could almost imagine these guys standing in the corridors of power, wearing the same Brooks Brothers shirts as everyone else, whispering, echoing Tony Kushner's Reagan-era Roy Cohn: "I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I'm screwing to the White House."
An earnest LCR grassroots movement
But focusing on these pockets of extraordinary elitism would be to miss the larger point of the LCR conference entirely. It's important to remember that, in a lot of ways, the Log Cabin Republicans are a very organic, nuanced grassroots political movement. Though reductionist parody is always entertaining, to characterize the group as a sex-infused business networking opportunity is both inaccurate and politically limiting. The fact is, that for most of the LCR attendees, their main goal was to create a more inclusive Republican party that can produce a better world for so many gay and lesbian Americans, regardless of whom they choose to vote for.
During a remarkable session early Saturday morning, LCR organizers from all over the country gave a report on their local efforts. What they described was essential and grueling grassroots organizing work: letters to the editor, door-to-door canvassing, attending school board meetings and city council hearings. One LCR organizer explained, "to do effective gay grassroots organizing you have to be in the field, with people, talking to people, doing the hard work of politics, one person at a time."
And who else is going to do this work within the Republican party but the Log Cabin Republicans? Who else is willing to talk to Republican party leaders one by one, reminding them that some of their constituents are not heterosexual? These are people who are active in their churches or their campus Intervarsity chapter; and as church members and conservatives they can speak to fellow church members and conservatives with legitimacy. Perhaps this model can be effective, just as women across the country of all ideologies continue to speak out and demand more equality in the home and in the work place, one by one, little by little. Instead of trying to change the way the world thinks about larger frameworks of sex, power, and gender, these grassroots Log Cabin patriots have a simple plea for the Heartland: We're like you in every way Red State America, but could you just give us a little equality?
In one video shown at the conference, fifty openly gay and lesbian Republican delegates held a passionate, forceful rally asking for the Log Cabins to be able to have a booth at the 1996 RNC Convention. The rally was greeted with fiery, hateful counter-protests and anger from fellow delegates. Yet the LCR's stood firm, passionately defending their right to be there, and stalwartly holding strong to their identities as Republican, Christian, and gay.
Propaganda aside, I was generally impressed with the LCR's earnestness. Many of them are doing the work many people aren't willing to do: working in the heartland, talking to conservative religious leaders, setting up meetings with state-level Republican representatives and senators and asking them point blank why they support anti-gay adoption bills that pull apart American families, or refuse to support hate crimes legislation that better protects gay Americans from violence. And if at least a third of the country is Republican, can we ever arrive at a place of LGBTQ equality without a vibrant gay Republican movement?
Everything in moderation : a principled conservatism?
At the conference, the impacts of the social right-wingers--let's call it the DeLay/Santorum Caucus--were diminished in favor of a very conscious, if at times forced, optimistic focus on the few Republicans--mainly in the Northeast--who are supportive of gay and lesbian issues. Though there was tremendous emphasis placed on a few dozen elected Republicans who had shown courage in supporting gay and lesbian equality, there was nary a mention of the much greater numbers of elected Democratic politicians who were fully supportive of a range of LGBTQ rights.
Two ideological themes emerged: one, the need for LCRs to support all moderate Republicans--from Chris Shays to Christine Todd Whitman to John McCain--and to work to build a politics squarely in the middle; and, two, the need to cultivate a more principled conservative movement rooted in "genuine conservative values."
Congressman Jim Kolbe, a moderate Republican himself, represented the first of these themes. A former aid to Barry Goldwater, Kolbe spoke of what he saw as a link between terrorist nations and anti-gay oppression. Commenting on the male Iranian lovers who were recently executed in Tehran for homosexuality, Kolbe said that the nations that most threaten our national security are also the nations that are most oppressive to gays and lesbians. "Do gay rights stop at our borders?" he asked, and then called for the U.S. to become more active in exporting our way of life into other nations. Of course, Congressman Kolbe made no mention of the potentially deleterious impact that aggressive U.S. involvement in Iran would have on all Iranians, gay and straight.
Openly gay and HIV-positive conservative intellectual Andrew Sullivan best represented the second theme, through a riveting speech about the need to find a new conservative soul grounded in liberty and freedom driven by the spirit of self-critical conversationalists open to the exchange of ideas and always willing to admit mistakes. He eloquently spoke about how the Bush Administration had abandoned true conservatism by disregarding habeus corpus, irresponsibly expanding the federal government, and governing in a fundamentalist, oppressive manner. So much of his rhetoric and philosophy was similar to my own sense of the world (one rooted in vibrant democratic exchanges), yet his message sounded like empty idealism glazed with a hint of British colonialist nostalgia. I mean, how can we all really be free to enjoy our liberty when the structural framework of our society works against so many people?
Making space for not always progressive LGBTQ movements
In the end, I can't say I really believe in the Log Cabin Republican movement--the systems of patriarchy, unchecked corporate capitalism, war-mongering, and homophobia that produce LGBTQ oppression are too fundamentally linked together to separate LGBTQ equality from other issues. But my respect for these people and this movement and my sense of its importance has grown tremendously. Most Log Cabiners I met were rich, out of touch, and self-consumed, but, then again, so are many people, including our leaders on both sides of the aisle. I found myself impressed with their efficiency, lucidity, and positivity. There was something remarkably fresh about being around gay men who were into guns and hunting, and something inspiring about being around people who have the courage to work so intimately with the people responsible for so much hate.
The Log Cabin Republicans will continue to grow as a movement, as gays and lesbians become more mainstream, and younger generations of Republicans far more tolerant of gays and lesbians than their predecessors take over the Republican ranks. Our challenge as progressives is to figure out how we can work together with Log Cabin Republicans on issues we have in common so we can build a more inclusive LGBTQ rights movement. I'm certainly not about to, as LCRers are fond of saying, "come out as a conservative," but I will say that some of the activists I met renewed my hope in the power of the grassroots, in the power of the work people can do in infinitely small ways every day and everywhere, from small towns in Texas to suburban Ohio.
Gay Republicans explicitly pivot between multiple identities. They struggle over whether they dislike James Dobson or Hillary Clinton more, all the while feeling that they are equally despised at different times both for being gay and for being Republican. All of us encompass competing identities, desires, cultures and politics. And as we struggle to create a more participatory body politic and a more thoughtful national political discourse, that we can't simply deny those whose identities we see as contradictory or illogical. Instead, we might need to open up some space.
I'll probably continue to satirize gay Republicans, just as I often deride many straight Democrats. Ultimately, for me, the Log Cabin Republicans are sort of absurd and certainly politically problematic, but they are also at times so powerful and endearing that I find them absolutely essential to our national politics. But, of course, at the end of the day, it's important to remember that things can only go so far. As earnest and courageous as LCR politics can sometimes be, one thing will certainly not change: if you want to make it with a Log Cabin Republican, solid conservative philosophy will only get you so far; presentation, performance, and money is still more than half the game so brush off your American Express Black card and start starching your collars.