A Free-Thinking Republican Woman

By Julie Bolcer

Originally published on Advocate.com April 12 2012 4:00 AM ET

Kathy Potts had a complicated introduction to gay people, even by the standards of her Mississippi upbringing and Bible school education. She remembers that her maternal grandparents, whose last name happened to be “Gay,” received hate mail and phone calls in the 1970s after the Stonewall riots brought national visibility to the burgeoning rights movement. When her uncle’s wife left him and came out as a lesbian, family members joked that his ex had only married him for the surname. Her first in-depth discussions about homosexuality occurred in the early 1980s with a neighbor who identified as “ex-gay.” And there was a time in the not-so-distant past when she would not watch Ellen DeGeneres on TV because she did not want to be “influenced to be like her.”

All that changed three years ago when her son met and married a young woman whose mother was in a long-term lesbian relationship. Potts met her future in-laws shortly before the wedding and left the meeting embarrassed about the stereotypes she had carried to the encounter.

“I was just freaking out: ‘This just can’t happen,’” she recalls thinking before their first conversation. “And then it dawned on me, this wasn’t worth losing my son over. And then once I started hanging around with them, I’m like, ‘This is insane.’”

A Charismatic Christian who now attends church sporadically, Potts attributes much of her former bias to her faith experience. Her conversations with other Christians focused almost exclusively on sexual activity and dehumanized gay people.

“I just thought it was all about sex,” she said. “That’s what everything was based on: sex, sex, sex, sex. You were expecting that they were constantly going to be hanging on each other and making out. I’d never thought of anyone as people. It was just all based on sex.”

The viewpoint did not extend to her son or three other children she raised with her husband, Tom. His employment brought the family from Mississippi to Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“I raised my children to be independent, thank God, so they didn’t necessarily go with everything I said,” said Potts.

Unconvinced of her mother’s sudden transformation, her daughter challenged gay friends to befriend her mother on Facebook. As Potts acquired more and more gay friends online and in person, the former Republican chair for Linn County started to understand their struggles in terms of her core political beliefs.

“It’s just plain freedom,” she said. “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.”

Potts wrote about her evolution last month in an op-ed for the Iowa Gazette. The piece, “Stand Together,” offered a stinging assessment of the Iowa caucuses that took place in January.

“I heard a lot of rhetoric about gay and lesbian Americans that didn’t fit with what I know to be true and what many Republicans believe,” she wrote. “As an evangelical Christian Republican, I know many people who hold conservative values like equality and freedom, but those voices were lost this year. However, I believe in my heart that things are changing. If it weren’t for the loud voices of a few in our party, I do believe more Republicans would stand up in support of marriage equality.”

In an interview with The Advocate, Potts said that many Republicans in Iowa support marriage equality but fear they could be “ostracized” if they speak up. She said that one husband of a party insider told her that he was glad she wrote the op-ed because it reflected his own feelings.

“The party here is being led by strong right-wing people right now,” she said. “A lot of them would like for it just to be church. They’ve very antigay, and with the abortion issue, too, they’re extremely loud spoken about it.”

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously for marriage equality in 2009, and since then, the state Senate has resisted Republican-led attempts to pass a constitutional ban. Some same-sex marriage opponents, including former gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, have built platforms around the issue, but Potts said the court decision has also sparked discussions that reveal large numbers of people are not opposed.

Individuals embracing marriage equality include former state senator Jeff Angelo, who once sponsored a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Last year, he founded Iowa Republicans for Freedom, which “supports individual liberty for same-sex couples seeking civil marriage recognition from our government.” Potts was asked to be an advisory board member, but there was one problem. She was serving as a committee chairwoman for the Rick Perry for President campaign at the time. The campaign asked her to postpone the announcement of her board membership until after the caucuses, and she agreed.

“I don’t really feel like I can make a difference if they put me on the outside,” she said. “I was trying to see which way would be the best for me to make a difference. If I’d been put on the outside, I would never have had that opportunity.”Her moment arrived in December, when the candidate released the disastrous video ad, “Strong,” that proclaimed, “there's something wrong in
this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids
can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in schools." Potts was asked to
spend time with Anita Perry during the Texas first lady’s stop at a
college, and as they chatted for 10 minutes, the campaign chairwoman
mentioned the commercial.

“I said, ‘I think the campaign’s been
hurt some by the ad that came out,’” recalls Potts. “‘I was extremely
uncomfortable with it. I understand the message that we’re trying to put
out, that everybody ought to have freedom, but that’s not the way it
came out. It came out as an antigay message, and a lot of people just
assumed that you hated gay people.’”

Mrs. Perry insisted that was not
the case, and she told Potts about the friendships she and the governor
have with gay people. She talked about meeting Suze Orman and her
partner at the Texas Conference for Women, an event sponsored by the
first lady where the finance expert spoke.

Potts never discussed the issue with Governor Perry, but she said that she believes the response of his wife.

“You
can usually tell if somebody’s just giving you a line,” she said. “She
was very sincere. They may quote some of the Republican Party line, but
it’s kind of mixed signals.”

Potts thinks that Perry received
“poor counsel” on the commercial, and she continues to feel he would
have been the best candidate among the Republican field on LGBT issues.

“I
think the fact that you could have a conversation with him and maybe
sway him with it,” she said. “I think he would be open minded. I think
he could change.”

When Perry left the race following a weak
showing in Iowa, Potts failed to develop a similar affinity for any of
the remaining candidates. She worked for Mitt Romney in 2008 but said
she "caught him in too many lies" to continue with the campaign. The
ascent of Rick Santorum, who suspended his bid on Tuesday,
"shocked" her, given that she found the former Pennsylvania senator’s
inclination to judge people and set strict limits on contraception
“repulsive.”

“Santorum is such a whiner,” she said. “He’s just way out there.”

Potts
said that her dissatisfaction with the Republican presidential field
would “probably” lead her to consider voting for President Barack Obama.


“He’s looking better than any of them,” she said. “I don’t see a
candidate that can beat him right now. I would have to consider it.”

Her
outspokenness and frustration bring to mind other Republican women who
recently announced they would leave politics over disgust with polarized
dialogue and extreme ideologies. The fed-up voices include Senator
Olympia Snowe of Maine, a proponent of “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal,
and New York Assemblymember Teresa Sayward, an early backer of the
marriage equality bill in her state legislature.

“They may just be tired,” said Potts. “It’s a hard fight. I think we can make a difference.”

Data
underscores her optimism, particularly with regard to equality, where
recent polls show that more women than men support same-sex marriage,
sometimes by as much as 10 percentage points.

“[That’s] probably
just because of relationships,” said Potts. “With me, it was with my
son. It got down to, ‘What’s really important?’ It gets down to a
personal issue a lot faster. For women, it becomes a personal issue.”

As
for her own political career, Potts said that she holds ambitions to
run for office one day. Some of her fellow Iowa Republicans would oppose the prospect, but she refuses to be silenced.

“I’m active in the party and they wish I’d shut up, but I’m not going away,” she said.