Guess Who's Coming to CPAC?

GOProud has taken the conservative and LGBT movements by storm by being brash, loud and uncompromisingly conservative -- and just as uncompromisingly gay

By Chris Geidner
Published on February 9, 2011, 2:25pm | Comments

Andrew Breitbart does not play nicely with others.

He's prone to endless fits on Twitter, pointing his fire hose of tweets at a person for hours or days. His enemies – most of the political left – appear to feel the same way about him as he feels about them. Many of his recent biggest splashes – from promotion of James O'Keefe's ACORN videos to then-USDA official Shirley Sherrod's comments at an NAACP event -- have turned out, on further investigation, to be something less than he had claimed. His Big Government, Big Journalism and Big Hollywood websites can be to borrow a phrase nasty, brutish and short.

GoProud
GOProud
(Illustration by Scott G. Brooks)

Like his tweets.

More than 30,000 people receive each of those tweets, though, and far more point their browsers to his websites each day. He is a powerful voice in a conservative movement that has many people attempting to curry favor and influence the debate daily. Breitbart revels in the extent to which he plays a role in that.

And now, he's added to that role by becoming a member of the advisory council of the gay conservative group GOProud. And he's not alone.

Alongside conservative tax icon Grover Norquist, right-wing radio host Tammy Bruce and Fox News O'Reilly Factor regular Margaret Hoover, as well as former Republican party official Liz Mair, Breitbart is one of a growing number of unexpected voices supporting the upstart gay conservative group.

What's more, Breitbart has opened up a side of himself that those on the left (and some on the right) never thought they would – and might not want to – see.

''The majority agrees on the humanity of gay people – and to treat gay people like you treat all people,'' Breitbart says, talking with Metro Weekly the week before CPAC – the annual conference that brings a slew of conservative students, activists and would-be presidents to town.

With GOProud's emergence, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman's coming out, the Log Cabin Republicans' lawsuit aimed at ending ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' and the leadership of Federalist Society hero Ted Olson in the challenge to Proposition 8 in California, ''gay rights'' have often looked like a conservative movement in the past two years.

Elected Republicans, however, have almost universally opposed those issues. On Feb. 7, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) said he thought it would be ''reasonable'' to rescind funds for implementing ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' repeal – a move that prompted a sharp rebuke from GOProud the next day. And GOProud's participation itself in CPAC led to a stand-off between GOProud and the religious right, prompting a call from a coalition of social conservatives in the days before this year's CPAC to exclude gay conservatives from next year's CPAC.

Calling this ''a maturing point for the conservative movement,'' Breitbart minces no words: ''If being conservative means rejecting gay conservatives because they are gay, then fine, I'm not a conservative.''

Of course, Breitbart is a conservative, and his disdain for ''activist gay left'' – and most of the media – comes through loud and clear.

If there's one gay place in D.C. where Breitbart's blunt, take-no-prisoners style of conservative political combat fits perfectly, it's the offices of GOProud – a half-dozen blocks from the Capitol and a world away from the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT organizations.

Jimmy LaSalvia and Christopher Barron, the co-founders of GOProud who serve as its executive director and board chairman, respectively, wouldn't have it any other way. They're not Log Cabin Republicans, though both men have histories that intertwine with that group, and both clearly find that LCR's ability to play well with the majority of other LGBT organizations is not necessarily an advantage.

''Fundamentally, we're a conservative organization," says Barron, "and we're trying to stop the left's agenda.''

LCR's executive director Clarke Cooper, on the other hand, says of his organization's coalition work with other LGBT organizations, ''Nothing moves forward without moving together.''

Those six words could fit quite well as the antithesis to GOProud.

''We're not trying to … sneak the left's agenda into the conservative movement. That's what people recognize,'' Barron says. ''That's why people like Breitbart have joined our advisory council.''

One year since Barron and LaSalvia first attended CPAC on a tight budget and little to no outside presence or financial support, the hyper pair have led the organization through a debate with far-right conservative website World Net Daily's Joseph Farah and a ''Homocon'' conference featuring headliner Ann Coulter. They've been through an election cycle that included an unsuccessful attempt to unseat the longest serving out gay member of Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) but did include the election of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), who later provided one of the votes to repeal ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell.''

And by taking on tax and foreign policy issues – as well as traditional gay issues like DADT repeal – they've made an impact on the right, says Norquist, who told Metro Weekly, ''GOProud has exhibited a great deal of patience, and not everyone in the gay community has exhibited that patience. And they've been team players, which is important.''

The duo has taken their brash tactics to the top, hosting what Barron calls ''the hottest ticket'' at CPAC -- the ''Big Party,'' co-hosted with Breitbart and featuring a performance from singer Sophie B. Hawkins, who identifies as omnisexual and has a female partner.

Barron and LaSalvia are loud and proud – despite the fact that they may not be popular in the rest of the gay political world. But sometimes the taunts from the left even get to them.

Turning serious, LaSalvia says, ''You can question our tactics, you can question some of the stunts we pull and some of the things we say, but nobody should question our motives – because we're gay Americans, too.''

Although their message often hits deaf ears from those outside the conservative movement and the payoff at this point is more often found in spirit and tone than in action and legislative victories, it's a message that resonates inside the conservative movement. It's also a message that players from all corners of the political world would be foolish to ignore.

The Build-Up

GoProud's Barron and LaSalvia
GOProud's Barron and LaSalvia
(Photo by Todd Franson)

SITTING WITH BARRON and LaSalvia a week before CPAC comes to town, the two are giddy with anticipation, both for the event and for the group's future. The change from a year ago is palpable.

''I mean, last year, it was two guys and a laptop,'' says Barron.

Adds LaSalvia: ''We had pamphlets, too.''

With the large ''Don't Tread On Me'' flag that has become a Tea Party mainstay as a backdrop in their basement office, Barron says, ''Last year, we were struggling just to survive at that point. We were literally trying to cobble together the money to afford to go to CPAC.''

LaSalvia, who generally plays the second, calmer fiddle to Barron's larger-then-life personality, pipes in, ''We were going into CPAC on fumes.''

It didn't seem to be a turning point until Liberty University School of Law decided to pull out of co-sponsoring the event. As its dean told Metro Weekly at the time, ''We'll always be a part of CPAC, but we don't believe it's appropriate to be a co-sponsor when another co-sponsor actively works to undermine a mission of its other co-sponsors. And that's what GOProud does.''

And Ryan Sorba, a college activist with Young Americans for Freedom took to the stage and condemned CPAC for including GOProud at the conference – a move that led to his being booed off the stage.

Breitbart points to that moment as a key in the evolution of GOProud and the conservative movement. ''I think that if you saw how [Sorba] was treated … by the CPAC crowd when he cast aspersions on gays, I thought that that was a heroic moment in CPAC – when spontaneously he was rejected by the conservatives in the crowd. And to me that was a reflection of the conservative movement that I am very comfortable being a central part of.''

GOProud was now squarely in the public eye. And they ran with it.

''The attention we received last year at CPAC was about maybe 10 percent of what's happening this year," says LaSalvia. "But that 10 percent … launched this organization.''

Despite the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) having a booth in the same aisle as GOProud at the convention in 2010, it was a setting that drew attention to what might be a new spirit in the conservative movement.

Despite LCR's involvement in one way or another in previous CPAC conferences, their dedication is to serving, as Cooper says, as a ''part of the institutional body of the Republican National Committee.'' This, by intention or accident, has kept LCR from taking on the prominence at CPAC that GOProud, as a conservative group not affiliated with the party, has been able to seek.

Mair, the GOProud advisory council member who served as the online communications director for the Republican National Committee during the 2008 election, says, ''The reality is GOProud's positions, particularly on economic issues and also when it comes to national security issues … are very, very well within the mainstream [of the conservative movement].''

LaSalvia, the details guy, talks numbers: ''It opened doors to us that have helped us to grow our organization. Ever since that day, we've gone from about 2,000 people in our universe to about 10,000 people in a year. And we've raised a lot more money.''

Barron is characteristically blunt.

''We grabbed this plot of political land that nobody else wanted, that nobody else had been interested in, that no one else was involved in, no one was talking to, no one cared about and we have occupied it completely and totally by ourselves.''

Mair says that the shift makes sense, demographically.

''If you scrutinize polling data and you scrutinize what's going on demographically and how people are thinking about a wide array of political issues now, one of the things that you will notice is that there is a generational shift when it comes to so-called 'gay issues' and that people are thinking about a lot of that differently.

''And that's true, I think, across the board," she continues. "It's not merely true with liberals in American society. It's true with a lot of folks who would consider themselves completely conservative and very strongly conservative.''

And GOProud considers itself conservative. Very strongly so.

The Difference

GOPPROUD TAKES criticism from LGBT people on the political left as often -- if not more than -- it does from the religious right. Unlike LCR, which lobbies for legislation like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and often works with LGBT community organizations (as well as Republican Party groups), Barron agitates against the entire premise of most of the LGBT organizations in existence.

''The problem is that the gay left has decided what qualifies as pro-gay and what qualifies as anti-gay, and a whole bunch of the stuff that they think qualifies as pro-gay, I don't think has anything to do with being pro-gay,'' says Barron. ''And, a whole bunch of stuff that they think is anti-gay, I don't think is anti-gay at all.''

Barron sees his mission as changing that.

''I think that, over time, obviously, people's position on gay issues is evolving, and I think it helps to have a gay voice out there that says, 'You don't have to be with them on all the things they say you have to be with them on.'''

Saying that's ''one of the things that drives the left crazy,'' Barron becomes angered when describing the complaint that GOProud is ''providing cover to our enemies,'' as gay left blogger Joe Jervis (Joe. My. God.) – a near-constant critic of GOProud – puts it.

Barron isn't having it.

''No, we're not giving cover to bigots," he argues. "What we're doing is separating the people who don't agree with the left-wing agenda from the real bigots. You can be against ENDA and hate crimes and federal safe schools legislation and not be a bigot. If you're Tony Perkins, you're a bigot. You're against all of that stuff not because of any federalist reasons, but actually because you're just a nasty, anti-gay bigot.''

Jervis defends his tactics against GOProud, saying, ''What they're actively advocating is blockage of some pretty critical LGBT rights that the movement has only begun to scratch the surface of.''

Pointing to GOProud's opposition to ENDA and hate crimes penalty enhancement legislation – while admitting that people of varying political persuasions (including, at one point, himself) also opposed hate crimes laws – Jervis says, ''GOProud is about as far right as any political group, gay or straight.''

GOProud's strategy for equal rights for gays and lesbians is very much a conservative strategy. It seeks implementation of the ''fair tax,'' without mentioning the repeal of DOMA. Although not listed as a legislative priority, Barron does say, ''Of course, we support the repeal of DOMA'' – though on federalism and not equality grounds.

Regarding ENDA, Barron says, ''We believe it isn't the proper role of a limited federal government and that it is a solution in search of a problem. The truth is that the private industry has been way ahead on protections and benefits for gay and lesbian Americans.''

GOProud is pushing to allow for purchase of insurance across state lines to ''expand[] access to domestic partner benefits.'' The group supports a foreign policy aimed at ''standing strong against radical regimes that refuse to recognize the basic human rights of gays and lesbians, women and religious minorities''

And, yes, GOProud supported DADT repeal. But, Barron says, in their way.

''Part of the reason why, I think, conservatives haven't been there on things like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is quite honestly, nobody's bothered to talk to them,'' he says. ''Nobody's bothered to show common ground.''

He argues that other groups – hinting toward LCR and the Human Rights Campaign – take what he calls ''Democratic talking points'' and simply ''slap 'conservative' or 'Republican' on it.''

But, he says, ''We know – Jimmy and I know – that there are words that get said that the left thinks are warm and fuzzy to people that actually automatically turns conservatives off. Instantaneously.''

Such as?

''Inclusion,'' Barron says.

LaSalvia chuckles: ''Equality.''

Barron, with an eyeroll: ''Fairness.''

''Immediately, the antennae go up, and they think this is some B.S., P.C., lefty conspiracy to undermine the conservative movement,'' says Barron. ''You cannot come in sounding like the other guy.''

GOProud is different. And it's different, he argues, in a way that works.

''When you demonstrate some common ground, when you say, 'You wanna know what? We actually think that these policies that you support anyway are good for gay people, and here's why,' then all of a sudden they say, 'Well, wait a second, maybe I don't have a problem with gay people. All of these crazy things that we've been told by the Tony Perkinses of the world aren't true. These guys and gals, they're not here trying to snatch my children, they're not here in leather chaps.'''

Barron pauses. ''Not that there's anything wrong with leather chaps.''

Back to his hypothetical conservative Republican.

By simply being in the room as a true conservative, Barron argues, something changes. They conclude, ''in fact, [we] sound just like all of the rest of the folks that are here.''

That, however, has not been enough for the Tony Perkinses.

The Boycott

THE CPAC BOYCOTT list consists, primarily, of a who's who of the groups generally described as anti-gay organizations: American Family Association, Concerned Women for America, Family Research Council, Media Research Center, National Organization for Marriage.

''CWA has decided not to participate in part because of GOProud,'' said Peggy Nance, the group's spokeswoman. Other groups made similar statements.

LaSalvia sounds fine with that decision.

''There are socially conservative groups who are a part of CPAC. You have the pro-life groups, you have education – school choice groups, all kinds of Second Amendment groups,'' he says. ''Lots of social conservatives are represented at CPAC.

"And we're at CPAC. It's still the preeminent conference of conservatives in the country. The groups who aren't there are the anti-gay groups. That's it.''

Breitbart, not often thought of these days as one who pokes at the right, expresses confusion, whether real or feigned, at the boycott attempt.

''I've seen gay groups estimate the percentage of gay people in our country as high as 10 percent, and I've seen groups that aren't amenable to gay rights or whatever say, 'No, no, it's closer to two to three percent.' Well, when those people minimize the amount of people there are – two to three percent – what is their fear of that two to three percent coming into the Big Tent and disagreeing with you on three percent of the issues?

''None of it makes sense to me.''

Going to the substance of what he says is the primary reason for his support of GOProud, Breitbart says, ''I believe, to the core of my being, that what I'm doing is supported by the vast majority of the people who consider themselves conservatives in this country.''

He adds, though, ''I'm not here to play the Meghan McCain or the Barbara Bush role. Anyone that would indulge the left's marginalization tactic of putting on that 'NOH8,' over-the-mouth thing – which equates honest disagreement over gay marriage as an act of hate, an unbelievably loaded term – I have no time for.''

Speaking about his involvement with GOProud, Breitbart sounds almost professorial – in a way that conflicts with some of his actions in other political spheres.

''I'm for the debate. I'm for any debate,'' he says. ''I believe in a democracy when debate is free and open and free from the constraints of political correctness – that the best ideas win.''

And that's exactly what Norquist says GOProud's presence does: ''The key issue is, 'Let's make sure everyone is invited and welcome in the party' – and then we're going to have a nice, long conversation about lots of stuff.''

Not everyone agrees with Breitbart and Norquist, even outside of the right-wing anti-gay groups. The Heritage Foundation and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) are the two biggest names to drop out of CPAC based, at least in part, on GOProud's role at the conference.

This is Barron's time to go on the attack.

Of the Heritage Foundation's decision, he says, ''They've chosen to – and it's a mystery to me why – but they've chosen to align themselves with the losers.''

Asked to explain, Barron places the blame at the feet of Cleta Mitchell, the big-name Republican D.C. lawyer who was the attorney for the groups trying to keep marriage equality from coming to the District. Mitchell did not respond to multiple requests from Metro Weekly for comment.

''I think there's a couple people in Heritage who, at the behest of Cleta Mitchell – who is just a nasty bigot … she got some of the people at Heritage early on fired up about this,'' Barron says. ''We tried very, very hard to smooth this over and to avoid any public fight with Heritage and then when Heritage came up with their excuse about how this wasn't about GOProud – first of all, we knew it was, we knew it was six months ago – but we were willing to publicly let them.''

He puts on his ''really, I'm a nice guy'' face.

''Look, Heritage does a lot of good work, and I didn't want – it looks terrible for them, and I didn't want to have them humiliate themselves. But they've seemed hell-bent on it. Their story keeps changing and now we're down to the truth, which is: It was about us. And they've lost donors. They've lost supporters.''

With a nod of agreement from LaSalvia, Barron concludes, ''There's a lot of people in the conservative movement who are looking very differently at the [Heritage Foundation].''

He's singing the same tune when it comes to DeMint, who is joined by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in claiming GOProud as part of his reason for staying away from this weekend's conference.

Of those calling for the boycott, Barron says, ''They're all excited that Jim DeMint is boycotting. And that's fantastic. I'm glad that he's willing to be on the Island of Political Misfit Toys with [World Net Daily's Joseph] Farah and the Concerned Women for America.''

LaSalvia eagerly notes, ''Cleta Mitchell is his lawyer.''

The Party

MITCHELL'S EFFORTS notwithstanding, GOProud will be at CPAC.

Moreover, Barron points to the backing that his group got from the American Conservative Union, which puts on CPAC.

''It's a watershed moment for the anti-gay right to pick a fight with somebody like us and lose in such a high-profile way,'' he says. ''I can promise you, they never saw this coming. They never thought they would lose this fight – or they never would have picked it. It's been completely embarrassing for them."

Barron looks at the landscape: ''We've said all along that we don't think that the conservative movement is unwelcoming to gay people. There is a fringe element. A really nasty, anti-gay, bigoted element. And we have smoked them out, and we have marginalized them.''

And, for the most part, that's true. Norquist says that CPAC is "running 15 percent ahead on registrations over last year, and last year we hit 10,000, which was a historic high that I didn't expect that we would reach again in a non-election year. But, it looks as though it will be another historic high.''

Barron says that ''everybody else important is going,'' and Mair notes that ''[w]e have pretty much every single prospective 2012 Republican presidential contender speaking there."

One who is not attending, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), made clear on Feb. 7 that GOProud's attendance was not at all the cause for her absence, telling the Christian Broadcasting Network that she was ''a little taken aback'' that people thought her absence had anything to do with GOProud's participation. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) also will be absent.

Although Palin and Huckabee will not be attending, most of the rest – from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) – will. So will Breitbart. With streamers.

''It's rare that something moves me as much in seeing that people who were invited then caused a certain group of people to drop out,'' Breitbart says. ''I wanted them to feel as welcome there as every other group. That was my motivation.''

Apparently, motivation gets Breitbart to do big things.

On the night of Feb. 10, Breitbart and GOProud will host the ''Big Party'' as CPAC opens.

Barron is excited about the event, saying, ''The ticket for our Breitbart party is going to be the hardest damn ticket to get all weekend. I mean, other organizations have moved their events so that they don't compete with us, and other organizations have begged us, saying, 'Please let us co-sponsor so that we can have tickets to make sure that we get in.'''

Gays throwing a party. Not exactly revolutionary.

When the agenda for CPAC was released, Jervis pointed to the absence of Barron and LaSalvia on any panels as a sign that GOProud will be, more or less, seen and not heard at CPAC. Barron dismisses that criticism, saying that there is much that they will be doing. ''Jimmy and I don't have the luxury of sitting there on a panel.''

LaSalvia says that the group ''said no to a dozen different things.''

Adds Barron, ''We've said all along this isn't about the cult of personality of Jimmy and Chris. This is about our message, and you know who is a better messenger than me or Jimmy? A better messenger is Tammy Bruce, Margaret Hoover, Andrew Breitbart, Grover Norquist. Those are the people – I want them up there communicating our message. I don't need to be on the CPAC stage.''

LaSalvia talks about all that he and Barron can accomplish during the weekend in terms of networking and setting up the next steps for GOProud. ''You'll see GOProud people all over that stage.''

Once CPAC is over, the group can move on to what's next.

Barron says, ''I know a lot on the nasty, anti-gay right think they're going to relitigate this again next year and come up with any different of a response – I've got news for them: This has been a P.R. disaster for them.''

Of the boycotters, LaSalvia says, ''They know that it's been a disaster, and so that sets the tone for the future.

''And you know what's the future? The future is a presidential race.''

The Future

THE 2012 PRESIDENTIAL race – particularly the Republican primary – is already well under way. ''We've been talking to presidential candidates before now, and we're going to continue to talk to presidential candidates in the coming weeks and months,'' says Barron.

As LaSalvia points out, the first Republican debate is scheduled to take place in May – just three months from now.

GOProud is geared up to be ''very engaged'' in the 2012 elections, Barron says. ''We have stuff in store for this presidential cycle that people are going to be like, 'I just can't believe this.' It's going to be so much fun."

''We'll be in the early states,'' LaSalvia says specifically.

It's clear GOProud is making waves. The question, however, is whether they're changing the shoreline.

Barron does point to the Republican votes that helped DADT Repeal Act to reach cloture, saying, ''Without those Republicans, we wouldn't have had 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' repeal.'' When asked for the three biggest specific successes achieved by GOProud, Barron's answers are more typical of community organizers than of D.C. political operatives.

He responds that the group has ''smoked out and marginalized the truly anti-gay forces within the conservative movement,'' ''built bridges to the conservative movement that have begun to change opinions about gay people and our lives'' and ''offered gay people a different way forward.''

And, though that's just a beginning, even Equality Matters president Richard Socarides admits when discussing relationship recognition, ''As I often say, everybody is entitled to their journey on this.''

On the right, Norquist points to modest – but, he says, solid – changes: ''Right now, it's a sign the modern Republican Party is open to all comers, and the modern conservative movement as well.''

Barron sums up his debates with LCR, with the left, with everyone, saying, ''I understand that many of us want to get to the same destination, the same place, where sexual orientation just doesn't matter. And there are a lot of different paths to get there. And the fact that we have staked out one that nobody has been on before doesn't make that path any less legitimate.''

Even an unabashed liberal like Jervis, who acknowledges that there is a base of gay people who vote for Republicans, says, ''I do think they should go to CPAC. I do approve, with great amusement, of the shit-stirring they're doing there.''

And they're making some friends in conservatives like Breitbart. ''I have gay conservatives in my life that I want to march to battle with," he says. "They're the best of the group.''

The battle – on the whole political field and among those on the right – is not a one-time event, as Norquist reminds those who are watching the relationship between gay conservatives and the conservative movement.

''That is a long-term conversation,'' he says, ''and you can't pre-judge that.''


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