‘Freedom is Fabulous’: Two Republican gay groups make waves in Tampa

Liz Goodwin
The Ticket

TAMPA--An older gentleman in a sparkling cowboy suit and matching hat made out of sequins gazed at a pair of buff male go-go dancers wearing tight jeans and skimpy tank tops that read "Freedom Is Fabulous." That was the scene at a local gay bar called "The Honeypot" on Tuesday night. More than 800 Republican delegates along with members of the local Tampa gay community and reporters clustered to listen to the colorful conservative gay group GOProud make the case for electing Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

"This is the largest event hosted by a gay group at any Republican convention," GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia shouted at the crowd during a brief speech at the party, called "Homocon."

"Not that size matters," he added, to laughter, "But ours is the biggest."

If you sense a hint of competition in the statement, you'd be right. GOProud often needles the older, more established gay conservative group, The Log Cabin Republicans, by emphasizing that GOProud is the "only" gay group to have endorsed Mitt Romney. The group hints that Log Cabin is the stodgy uncle figure in the very small world of gay conservative groups.

"Have you been to any of their events?" LaSalvia asked, looking smooth in a suit and purple tie on Wednesday. "Womp-womp."

"Our focus is very much within the grassroots of the conservative movement." he explained. "They are very establishment." LaSalvia and GOProud co-founder Christopher Barron are both former Log Cabin staffers. They left after neither was selected for the organization's top job a few years ago, and started GOProud in 2009.

Yahoo News has, in fact, attended a Log Cabin event. On Sunday, the group held a welcome cocktail hour hosted by three local chapters at the Rusty Pelican, an oceanfront eatery. Fred Karger, a gay rights activist and long time Republican operative who launched a failed bid for the GOP presidential nod last fall, and Sandy Steen, the 73-year-old vice president of the Broward County, Fla., Log Cabin Republican chapter, chatted in a corner at the party.

"Fred ran for president!" Steen said. "He was at our home and Log Cabin gave him a contribution."

"My first and most generous," said Karger.

"My husband and I are fiscal conservatives and social moderates," Steen said. "In this country everyone is entitled to equal rights."

"How do you argue with that?" Karger asked.

Both Karger and Steen said they were disappointed with the Republican Party platform, officially adopted on Tuesday, which calls for a constitutional amendment that would bar gay couples from obtaining civil marriages, even in states that allow it. Mitt Romney signed a pledge during the primary that embraces the same plank.

"They need to lighten up!" said Steen. "I'm just a little distressed that the tea party has so much influence."

LaSalvia and Barron frequently note that GOProud is the only gay group to have endorsed Mitt Romney--the Log Cabin Republicans are still mulling over the decision--and paint themselves as the more truly conservative group.

But one thing both groups agree pretty strongly on is that gay people should be allowed to marry each other, and the Republican Party seems pretty far away from that point; meanwhile, the Democrats plan to adopt that stance in their platform next week. At the RNC platform committee meeting last week, Romney adviser Kris Kobach argued against a libertarian delegate who wanted to add an amendment saying government shouldn't bar gay marriage and civil unions because it doesn't infringe on the rights of others. "Our government routinely judges situations where you might regard people completely affecting themselves like, for example, the use of controlled substances, like, for example, polygamy that is voluntarily entered into," he said. "We condemn those activities even though they're not hurting other people, at least directly." Kobach's view won the day in the platform.

But leaders of both groups seem upbeat about their prospects and secure in their own place in their party and at the convention. LaSalvia says GOProud is about "showing there are gay conservatives within the conservative movement and showing the conservative movement publicly [embraces] gay conservatives." And the number of political operatives and media figures (including anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and  chair of the Tea Party Express Amy Kremer) who attended "Homocon" shows that a Republican gay bar party--which would have sounded like an oxymoron only a few years ago--isn't that big of a deal now. In 1996, Bob Dole's team returned a campaign check from Log Cabin. Today, some national Republicans, especially in the Northeast and Mountain West, actively seek the group's endorsement.

But even so, not everyone in the conservative movement has been welcoming. In 2010 and 2011, GOProud opened up a rift among conservative groups by co-sponsoring the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Social conservatives boycotted CPAC in retaliation, and eventually GOProud was purged from sponsorship this year. LaSalvia says being kicked out of CPAC has given the group an opportunity to explore other ways to make a difference, including hosting Homocon.

"I fully understand the many folks who say how can you be a gay Republican?" said Log Cabin's Pick, at the Sunday event, citing some on the right who question gay people's rights to raise families and not be discriminated against at work. "It is sometimes a difficult thing, but as someone who is a fiscal conservative I am a Republican. You run down the list of core conservative values and they describe me. Including conservative family values."

"I don't think that responsibility, commitment, fidelity and raising responsible children without the intervention of government are things that apply only to heterosexuals," Pick said. "You can be gay and believe all those things. I do."