Iowa voters will finally head to nearly 1,800 precinct caucuses in the state today as they begin winnowing the Republican presidential candidates — some striding toward the finish line, others positively limping. And aside from a few who declined to pander to the social conservative base, nearly all hopefuls have been the target of LGBT activists, both seasoned and impromptu, with an arsenal ranging from undercover operations to frank discussions over mugs of diner coffee and boxes of glitter dumped at book signings.
However questionable some of the tactics employed, reporters were given the required drama for a story, and YouTube hits accumulated as LGBT campaign interlopers created a persistent and disruptive narrative for candidates who support overturning “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal, invalidating lawful marriages (as the surging Rick Santorum recently told MSNBC), and ousting judges who ruled on the side of equality.
Troy Price, executive director of One Iowa, the state’s LGBT advocacy group, has bristled at the antigay rhetoric spewed in his state during the past several months, most notably the barn jacket-clad Rick Perry’s now-infamous “Strong” ad and Newt Gingrich’s September assertion at a Fort Dodge campaign stop that marriage equality is but a “temporary aberration that will dissipate.” Perry has been incessantly parodied, Gingrich excoriated — and previously glitter bombed — for his pronouncements on marriage.
“Some of these tactics may not be what I would do, necessarily,” Price said of the activism he’s seen in his state and elsewhere. “But I think it all works toward the greater goal, which is highlighting who these candidates really are.”
The campaign trail confrontations in Iowa and New Hampshire have been particularly symbolic, given that the first two battles for the nomination are in states where gay marriage has become legal following the last presidential election yet faces continued attack from antigay groups. Groups such as the National Organization for Marriage are likely to target Iowa senate majority leader Michael Gronstal, who has fought legislative attempts to force a ballot measure on marriage and faces reelection in November. Meanwhile, the New Hampshire legislature is poised to vote on a bill after the January 10 primary that would dilute marriage rights.
Dogging antigay candidates has provided a definite boon for smaller gay organizations that are both nimble and willing to take risks. Such has been the case for Truth Wins Out, founded by Wayne Besen in 2006 with an objective of exposing dubious ex-gay therapy and those who promote it. The group proved to be a formidable antagonist of Rep. Michele Bachmann, exposing last summer the “reparative” methods practiced at a clinic owned by the Minnesota congresswoman and her husband, Marcus. “[The Bachmanns] owe it to all Americans to provide a full and honest explanation for their embrace of these dangerous and fraudulent practices,” Truth Wins Out director of communications John Becker wrote in July.
Such an explanation never happened, and how the exposé ultimately affected Bachmann’s slow demise in the polls is unclear. But the storyline during the summer shifted from surging GOP candidate to co-owner of an “ex-gay quack clinic,” and that itself was a success, Besen said.
“People who fund us don’t want boilerplate statements,” Besen said of Truth Wins Out supporters. (Mitchell Gold, the Arcus Foundation, and New York philanthropist Henry van Ameringen are among those contributing to a $250,000 annual budget, he said.) “They want high impact. They want to fund us to say things that other people won’t. And everybody’s thrilled. We have extremely happy investors over the past year."
Impact during the campaign hasn’t always been the product of highly coordinated maneuvers. Romney’s December campaign stop at Chez Vachon in Manchester, N.H. was remembered not for an endorsement from the city’s mayor that day (the original point of the event), but for the candidate’s run-in with Bob Garon, a 63-year-old gay veteran who grilled Romney on his marriage stance over scrambled eggs. “I went and fought for my country, and I think my spouse should be entitled to the same [benefits as they would] if I were married to a woman,” Garon said following the exchange. “What the hell is the difference?”
In Iowa, Price said the campaign has been difficult to stomach, however unsurprising the talking points against LGBT rights from many in the race. “To see so many presidential candidates who claim they want to lead all Americans score cheap political points on the backs of gay and lesbians has been tough," he said, "but at the same time it’s also put into focus what’s really at stake here.”
As for the candidates today, Price added, “I’m just looking forward to them getting out of town.”
On the next pages, some of the campaign trail’s most memorable LGBT activist moments — so far.