Low in the polls and near absent in the debates, pro-marriage equality GOP presidential candidates have struggled to gain footing in a news cycle dominated with threats to revive “don’t ask, don’t tell” and anti-gay marriage pledges — of which Newt Gingrich became the latest to sign in Iowa at the behest of the social conservative group The Family Leader. (Gingrich’s married, gay half-sister, Candace Gingrich-Jones, told Michelangelo Signorile in a recent interview of the new frontrunner, "For someone who has publicly and financially opposed marriage equality, he has not so far treated us any differently than a married couple.”)
Gary Johnson, the former Republican New Mexico governor who’s eyeing the Libertarian nomination and has been allowed in only two GOP debates during the campaign, has taken an opposite stance to Gingrich & Co. on marriage, speaking recently in online town halls for Republican gay groups GOProud and Log Cabin Republicans.
“As I have examined this issue, consulted with folks on all sides, and viewed it through the lens of individual freedom and equal rights, it has become clear to me that denying those rights and benefits to gay couples is discrimination, plain and simple,” Johnson said at the GOProud online forum. Though he believes the government should ultimately get out of the marriage business, the sheer number of federal benefits and privileges made implementing a marriage-lite alternative — Johnson had previously advocated some form of civil union recognition for same-sex couples — too burdensome, as well as unequal, he said.
Johnson remains open to the possibility of running on the Libertarian ticket, he told The Advocate in a recent phone interview, and has discussed it with former Georgia congressman Bob Barr, the party’s 2008 candidate who authored the Defense of Marriage Act and publicly reversed his position years later. Libertarian Party chair Mark Hinkle told Politico late last month that he expects Johnson to re-register with his party prior to the New Hampshire primary, now less than four weeks away (the former governor has said he’ll stay in the Republican race through January 10).
But Johnson said he also wanted to distinguish himself among the GOP field by supporting marriage, with openly gay candidate Fred Karger the only other person to do so. His exclusion from the lion’s share of debates — appearances that required a minimum threshold of public support on some national polls that Johnson wasn’t included on — left him with one overriding sentiment: He’s been “hung out to dry” by the Republican Party.
“I’ve been in the Republican party my entire life,” Johnson said. “And I don’t feel like I’m leaving the Republican Party as much as the party is leaving me.”
Of vitriol against LGBT rights on the presidential campaign trail, candidate Johnson has a two-fold take: Frontrunners assume that pandering to the social conservative base is still key to primary victories, he said, though many remain oblivious to the harms that such rhetoric can cause. “I think that they don’t think this is necessarily offensive, when in fact it’s deeply offensive,” he said.
“I don’t think I’m different than a lot of Americans, in that when you grow up, there’s a negative prejudice built against gays. You’re just bombarded by it,” Johnson continued. “And then, in my life, I’ve come to find out that I have friends who are gay. And it makes me feel horrible that I would in any way potentially add to discrimination against them. Every single candidate talks about equality, freedom, liberty: Doesn’t that all start with a person’s right to conduct their own lives as they see fit?”
Growing support for marriage rights, as Gingrich-Jones told Signorile, appears to be an irreversible trend, and “[m]aybe what really is an aberration is people's opposition to marriage equality," she said. Johnson concurred. “When you have Laura Bush come out and say that we should allow for gay marriage,” he said, “I think it’s safe ground to be talking about and supporting this issue.”