Unlocking the Conservative Closet



 For Sarah Longwell, being privy to antigay strategizing sped up her coming-out process. Though the then–25-year-old had confided to her friends and family about her sexual orientation in 2005, her publishing company colleagues weren’t aware of it when, that same year, she took on the task of promoting a book by a right-wing senator from Pennsylvania who had his eyes on the presidency.

It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good was Sen. Rick Santorum’s answer to Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village. As Longwell sat in a planning meeting one day and discovered that Santorum had dedicated a section of the book to skewering marriage equality, her heart sank. “At that moment it clicked that I was going to be part of a team working very hard to promote a book in which a strong argument would be made against gay marriage,” Longwell says. She admits that when she was working on the book, she wasn’t thinking much about activism and equality. “But I certainly believed in gay marriage and was hopeful that one day I would be able to get married.”

Longwell had always been drawn to conservative principles and hadn’t necessarily considered them to be incompatible with marriage equality prior to the 2004 election. In the vein of Ronald Reagan, she says, “I saw the Republican Party as a big tent at the time. I thought it was about limited government, teaching people to be self-sufficient, the government not playing a role in your personal life.”

She quickly realized that 20 years after Reagan’s presidency, those primary Republican political ideals were being personified in politicians like Santorum. Worse yet, Longwell says she found the senator’s argument for the benefit of two people making a lifelong commitment to each other tremendously convincing. “He always made such a compelling case for the role of family in society and for the way the institution of marriage enhanced an individual’s life, kept him or her from being dependent on the state, which is a good conservative argument,” she says. “And I always wanted to ask the question, ‘Where did that leave me?’ ”

Longwell never did come out to Santorum, nor did she ask him to square his position. Instead, she quit her job shortly after a publicity event for the book that drew a small group of protesters. As a lesbian couple stood with their young daughter, who held a sign reading “My Two Moms Take Me Bowling,” Longwell felt a simultaneous sense of pride in them and disgust with her own betrayal.

“I made a promise to myself that, from here on out, I will be out and I will always defend my fundamental belief that gay people should be allowed to get married,” says Longwell, who now works for a conservative lobbying and consulting firm in Washington. “Politics is all about compromise and what you can live with, and I realized that I couldn’t compromise on my identity.”

As she continues to watch pro-gay conservatives like Mehlman, Olson, and Steve Schmidt—McCain’s senior campaign manager in 2008, who went on to make an airtight case for marriage equality at last year’s Log Cabin Republicans convention—Longwell hopes her younger counterparts will reach the same conclusion she did, only earlier. “I think that it’s so much easier to scapegoat gay people if you don’t think they’re in the room when you’re doing it.”

Tags: Politicians