The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is known as much for its after-parties—where buttoned-up conservatives let loose over libations—as it is known for its official agenda of letting GOP kingmakers and presidential hopefuls vie for the party’s favor. This year’s most talked-about party happened Thursday night, under the dimly lit chandeliers and moody, faux-brocade decor of the 18th Street Lounge, in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. The toast of the party was GOProud, the ultra-conservative, GLBT advocacy group. The open-bar soiree was invite-only, and right-wing internet provocateur Andrew Breitbart hosted. Sophie B. Hawkins, 1990s pop sensation of “Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover” fame, performed to a crowd of several hundred gay men and their friends.
“The Big Party,” as it was called, seemed to be quite the coming-out affair for GOProud. “We were running on fumes last year, and now look at us!” said Chris Barron, who co-founded the organization in 2009 with Jimmy LaSalvia. The two former members of Log Cabin Republicans, the original gay conservative group, had less than $300 in the bank at last year’s CPAC and could barely afford the fee for a booth space. But, in the past year, their growing notoriety has allowed them to recruit support: They’ve bulked up their board membership, upped their fundraising, and, in September, threw a conference—HomoCon—where Ann Coulter spoke.
Not everyone, however, is thrilled with GOProud’s progress, and many of the skeptics are among the conservative elite. In light of the group’s second CPAC appearance, several organizations—Heritage Foundation and Liberty University among them—boycotted the American Conservative Union (ACU) event. Jim DeMint and Jim Jordan also skipped the conference due to the group’s participation. At the same time, some people speculated that the Tea Party movement’s overt focus on fiscal issues might be sidelining social debates and finally allowing gay Republicans a real seat at the conservative table. After all, CPAC stood firm on its inclusion of GOProud, and, in interviews, Tea Party icons Sharron Angle and Sarah Palin voiced their support for the group.
Yet, for as entertaining as it was, the Big Party suggested that GOProud isn’t welcome in the conservative inner circle just yet. Earlier Thursday, incoming ACU chair Al Cardenas told FrumForum that “it’s going to be difficult to continue the relationship” with GOProud. And the big-name Republicans who showed at the event had little to lose politically. Former New Mexico governor, erstwhile libertarian bad boy, and possible presidential candidate Gary Johnson roamed the room. When reminded of the controversial publicity looming over the fete, he quipped, “Well then, this is the place to be, isn’t it?” Outgoing and much-maligned RNC chair Michael Steele also made an appearance, greeting the crowd just before Hawkins performed. Taking off his long black coat, Steele perched himself stage-right, where earnest young men stood in line to snap pictures with the embattled pol. “Anything I can do with my chairmanship is addition and multiplication, not subtraction or division,” he told a fan. Leaning over to me, he added: “Our party should welcome everyone, gay or straight, white or black.”
As the night’s headliner approached the stage, Andrew Breitbart yelled, “Come on, Sophie, let’s part the gay sea!” Kicking off her flip flops, Hawkins gave a 30-minute set, whipping her long, blonde curls, dancing in circles, and seductively stripping off her floor-length velour coat. “The folks back home tell me, ‘You’re playing for the enemy.’ But I say there’s no American that’s my enemy!” she crowed, to resounding cheers from the audience. She added—to even louder whoops, “I’ve always been conservative in the head, liberal in the bed.” In the crowd, GOProud board member and Fox News regular Margaret Hoover fist-pumped to the music, while her husband, former Rudy Giuliani speechwriter John Avlon, told the guy next to him, “Great fucking show! I hadn’t heard her since, like, high school.”
Backstage after the concert, Barron declared, “This turned out exactly how I wanted it. … Totally upbeat, totally a celebration.” He looked awash in relief. “We’ve been through the fire this last year,” he admitted. “Behind the scenes, Jimmy and I take turns having meltdowns.”
Meanwhile, lounging on a sofa, glass of red wine in hand, Hawkins spoke of her status as a “bipartisan omnisexual.” (She has had a female partner for many years.) “Maybe that’s the thing about me—I don’t like to be put in a box,” she noted. GOProud, it seems, doesn’t like boxes either. Problem is, the conservative movement does. Indeed, GOProud may have come out in a big way, but it has yet to fit in.
Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.