TAMPA—To the extent that they insisted that the presidential election would be focused firmly on the state of the economy, the attendees at the cocktail event organized by the pro-gay rights Log Cabin Republicans that I attended yesterday afternoon at the Grand Hyatt in Tampa were perfectly on message. But, it wasn't long before I realized that their insistence on economic themes wasn't purely motivated by their desire to elect Mitt Romney.
Rather, the message I gleaned from the event was that if you are a conservative and gay, the best you can hope for from from your fellow Republicans is that they don’t mention social issues at all. Attendees told me that, in a party that tolerates open disparagement of gays, gay Republicans have no choice but to rally around those political leaders who simply don't actively cause them harm, who just nod politely and say nothing while the party indulges in anti-gay populism.
TWO SLIM, HANDSOME young men greeted me at the door (one was a politics student visiting from Oxford) of Oystercatchers, a restaurant with large glass windows filled with a view of the water—a stunning oasis after a day spent in hotels amongst heavy slabs of faux wooden furniture and expanses of carpet. Uniformed waiters passed tiny crab cakes sitting in pools of sauce and spring rolls resting in shot glasses. On a table in the center of the room sat a tray full of sliders and grilled fish sandwiches with tartar sauce (having existed in a food desert all day, subsisting on Nature Valley bars I’d bought at the CVS in the rain in downtown Tampa, I wolfed down a fish sandwich, hoping no one would notice, which is impossible, since I’m quite tall.) As live band played “Let’s Give ‘em Something to Talk About,” by Bonnie Rait, I noticed the men were dressed in shirts that actually fit them (two had their initials embroidered on their shirt’s cuffs). It was a shrine to bourgeoisie. I felt at home.
Inside, the Log Cabin Republicans Program Director, Casey Pick, told me about the progress they’d made since the last conventions. She was tall and wearing a boxy black suit; her dark hair was in a short, low ponytail. This year, the RNC actually talked to the Log Cabin Republicans before the convention and invited them to give their input for the drafting of the platform. This was not the case in 2004, she said (others say it didn’t happen in 2008 either). “Do you mind,” she asked, snatching a crab cake off a passing tray. In a real sign of progress, she told me, she’d noticed Log Cabin Republican and Freedom to Marry materials displayed on table at the convention alongside the Family Research Council’s. The more substantive coup was to get the R’s to take out the platform language that homosexuality is incompatible with military service (less remarkable, she admitted, since Congress passed DADT, but a positive step nonetheless). They had lost on the marriage inequality issue. But personal interactions with Republicans, Pick said, have been “remarkably cordial.” When I asked her what she thought about being at the convention this year, she responded that she was enthusiastic. “We are not foreign invaders,” she said. “We are Republicans…Nothing about loving a woman makes me want a weaker foreign policy or higher taxes.”
To be clear: I don’t mean to poke fun of Pick or the Log Cabin Republicans. To the contrary, they are incredibly brave and they take flak from all sides—from the liberal gays who hate them for being Republicans and the Republicans who want to deny them equal rights simply because they are gay. It’s not an easy position to be in. They have to delight in the small victories. I just think they deserve more.
I left Pick and spoke to a delegate from Indiana who works in finance. A slight man, dressed in perfectly fitted white shirt tucked into slim fit khakis, and round, tortoise shell glasses (Oliver Peoples? I should have asked. They looked great). He’d previously been very involved with the Log Cabin Republicans in Indiana, but on the advice of a mentor, he’d decided to become a more general-purpose Republican. He is not a supporter of gay marriage, he told me, though he has a partner of 15 years. Civil unions were more palatable he said. As the room quieted for the speakers, he noticed other reporters, and asked under his breath: “Why do you think the media is so suddenly interested in covering this?” I told him that given frenzy over Republicans “crazy” beliefs on social issues, thy were eager to get a look at these gay Republicans, like bird watchers eager to see a rare breed.
When Congressman Jim Kolbe, the first Republican Congressman to come out openly gay addressed the crowd, and said that such an event (by this, I gather he meant a room full of happy gay people at the convention, free from harrassment), would never have been possible when he was in politics (he came out of the closet in 1996), I couldn’t help but think it was case in point that Republicans are woefully behind. But the listeners nodded their heads and made sounds of approval.
As he was leaving the event, I asked the Congressman what he thought about the evolution of the party’s attitudes towards gays and he said: “Each convention, we make steps forward. In 1996, at the convention in San Diego, when I came out, Bob Dole returned the Log Cabin contribution. That wouldn’t happen today.” (Dole gave back a $1,000 contribution). This year the Log Cabin Republicans have yet to endorse Mitt Romney. He predicted that the marriage language will disappear from the Republican platform by 2016.
Killing time before the event, I interviewed some friendly Republicans from Georgia in the lobby. The people I spoke to: Helen Story, of the Cobb County GOP, Debbie Dooley, the co-founder of the Georgia Tea Party, and Samuel Olens, Georgia’s Attorney General, were frustrated by the mainstream media’s focus on Republican’s views on social issues. The Todd Akin comment was horrible, the women agreed, but it wasn’t reflective of the broader party. If you are gay and want to get married, says Helen, “that’s your business.” Yes, and if you are a gay Republican, you’re also on your own.