The people stopping by to talk were mostly young, almost exclusively white and unabashedly conservative. Almost all, however, were just as excited to be welcoming GOProud – the nascent gay Republican organization that served as a co-sponsor of this past week's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) – to the annual gathering of conservative activists.
It was a sight that likely would have surprised many LGBT people – and perhaps many conservatives across the country – but, at CPAC this past Saturday, few of the participants seemed to be there to stop the ''homosexual agenda.''
GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia helms the CPAC booth
(Photo by Chris Geidner)
''Stopping gay marriage'' did not register as the most important issue for any measurable number of the 2,395 participants in the CPAC straw poll, 48% of whom identified as students. Only one percent of participants even listed the issue as the second most important issue to them.
When combining the percentage of participants selecting an issue as their first or second most important priority, only ''reducing the size of the federal government,'' ''reducing government spending,'' ''the war on terror'' and ''lowering taxes'' topped 10 percent.
With ''tax reforms,'' ''free market reforms,'' ''holding the line on spending'' and ''fighting global extremists'' among its listed 10 priorities, it is not as difficult to see how the crowd at this year's CPAC might have been more receptive to GOProud's message than past conference attendees. While Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) came away the winner at this year's straw poll – besting former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) by nearly 10 percent – Romney had won the CPAC poll in the previous three years.
Before attendees could even vote, however, GOProud's co-sponsorship of the conference made some waves, as Liberty University School of Law withdrew as a co-sponsor of the conference because of GOProud's presence. Matt Staver, the dean of the law school, was at CPAC, and spoke with Metro Weekly about the decision to end co-sponsorship but continue to attend and have a booth at the conference.
''Liberty University School of Law withdrew as a co-sponsor, but not as a booth. The reason is, is because we think there's a big difference between having a booth and participating,'' Staver said. ''We encourage our students from Liberty University to attend. In fact, a number of our students are here. People from Liberty University are here.
''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.''
Jimmy LaSalvia, the executive director of GOProud, was incredulous.
''I just think he's very, very uninformed about what we do. We work on a lot of issues that most every body here agrees with,'' LaSalvia said. ''Listen, we've got some of the most conservative members of Congress who work with us on a number of issues, and I think that's just very short-sighted.''
The first day of the conference was a good one for GOProud, with CNN profiling the group that's not even a year old and has been working to establish itself as an alternative to the Log Cabin Republicans for those who are gay in the GOP. A reporter interviewed LaSalvia and board chair Chris Barron, who were working at the group's booth in the exhibit hall, as well as Chris Plante, working at the National Organization for Marriage booth two booths down the row. A news conference to protest the Obama administration's plans to overturn the ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' policy was a side event on Thursday away from the hustle of the conference that went unnoticed by most CPAC participants.
Friday, however, brought the most coverage – and controversy – to the group's presence at CPAC. Alexander McCobin, the co-founder and president of Students for Liberty, spoke during a session where the American Conservative Union gave young activists two minutes to speak on issues important to them.
McCobin used part of his time to talk tolerance.
''I would like to also thank the American Conservative Union for welcoming GOPride [sic] as a co-sponsor of this event, not because of any politics but because of the message that it sends,'' he said, to some scattered boos. ''If what you truly care about is freedom, limited government and prosperity, then this symbol is a step in the right direction.
''The typical student's response is to be socially tolerant and fiscally responsible. Students today realize that freedom does not come in pieces, it is a single concept that we must defend at all times,'' McCobin said to rising applause.
Soon after, however, Ryan Sorba, a California organizer with Young Americans for Freedom, spoke up to counter McCobin's comments. Sorba has written a book, The ''Born Gay'' Hoax, and came to the podium ready to pounce. He started, ''I'd like to condemn CPAC for bringing GOPride [sic] to this event.''
Sorba went on about how ''natural rights are grounded in human nature'' and spoke to rising booing about ''the intelligible end of the reproductive act of reproduction.'' As the intensity of booing and numbers of participants booing Sorba increased, he stopped and started yelling back, telling those protesting his comments, ''Will you sit down? The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do…. All right, bring it.''
Sorba then left the stage, leaving a woman at the podium trying to quiet the audience with pleas of ''freedom of opinion.''
By Saturday, the final day of the conference, the scattered applause for a mention by former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) about plans to repeal ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' and decrying the ''political correctness'' in the nation's military was emblematic of a split on the policy and, perhaps, LGBT issues more generally.
Santorum told the crowd, ''I do worry, when I – Many people say, 'Whatever the generals want.' I'm not too sure that we haven't so indoctrinated the officer corps too much in this country that they can actually see straight to make the right decision.''
At the technology seminar where LaSalvia served as a panelist, his two co-panelists represented the two most prevalent views about GOProud's presence: supportive and indifference.
Adam DiAngeli, of the Campaign for Liberty, said of GOProud's co-sponsorship, ''I think it's fine. People are entitled to their opinions. I would allow any organization to have a booth here.''
FreedomWorks' Tom Keeley went further, noting, ''With FreedomWorks, we're a fiscal organization. Everybody pays taxes, including gay people. We welcome everybody.''
Pulling some party rhetoric, Keeley added, ''If the Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole claims to be a big tent, it should be, literally a big tent, and that's how it should be.''
Despite the voiced concerns about whether GOProud ''works to undermine the mission'' of Liberty University School of Law – or natural law or the military, for that matter – most CPAC attendees seemed to have the same supportive or indifferent about GOProud's involvement. GOProud officials and those passing by the booth on Saturday joked that the organization should send flowers to Sorba for raising the profile of the group – and in a very sympathetic way.
In interviews with several attendees, the least receptive to GOProud's presence said he thought it ''odd,'' though Kevin Harp of New York admitted he hadn't really thought about it – but several others were supportive.
Marydonna Henry, attending from Vienna, didn't know about GOProud but had no problem with the group's co-sponsorship, saying, ''I think it's good. I think it's diversity; I think it encompasses more people; I think it brings in more thought.''
Another attendee, Christine Hall, said the Republican Party's positions on LGBT issues were ''awful'' and that she hoped to see them change. Even many of those not particularly supportive of specific legislation advancing LGBT equality didn't have an issue with GOProud's co-sponsorship or presence.
Saying that he ''would have some differences with people involved with the group,'' Daniel Salvaterra said he had sat next to a GOProud supporter all day on Friday and added, ''We agreed on plenty of stuff throughout the day. But, I'm sure there's differences. That's fine. I had differences with a lot of people who spoke on the panels yesterday, too.
''The theme last year after we lost pretty bad, and the theme again this year now that we're looking good is still that you need a coalition of people to be successful in politics,'' he said. ''You're not going to get everyone to agree on everything. If we can agree on most things, then I'm probably going to be a supporter.''
If that was the message sent to attendees of CPAC who hadn't been supportive of GOProud or LGBT equality in the past, it appears LaSalvia would consider the event a win.
Citing an ''uptick in people who are supporting our mission and our organization,'' he said, ''The important thing is, a lot of conservatives who may not have heard about us before know about us and know that we exist and we're also a resource to them.''
Whether that will help advance LGBT equality efforts for everyone, however, remains to be seen.