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When it comes to her brother Newt, Candace Gingrich-Jones might as well be living in 1994 all over again. The lesbian half-sister of the Republican presidential hopeful first spoke out when he ascended to the speakership of the House of Representatives 17 years ago, and now, as his campaign has unexpectedly picked up steam, she marvels at how little has changed about the "prehistoric" positions of the candidate known to enjoy studying dinosaurs in his spare time.
"It's kind of like back to the future," she says not just about her brother, but all the contenders for the Republican nomination, in an interview with The Advocate. "They're living in the '90s. They don't seem to be aware at all of where America is on these issues, and that is just really disappointing."
Asked whether she felt surprised by Newt Gingrich's sudden acceleration to the front of the Republican pack, she says, "Not really, knowing his kind of commitment, his kind of bulldoggishness when it comes to something that he's committed to and that he wants to do. I think there is a familiarity that people have with him, a sense of where he stands on issues. It would be a hell of a lot better if what he believed in was full equality, that's for sure."
When Gingrich served in Congress, he led the Republican majority that passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, and he voted for "don't ask, don't tell" while still a lesser-known representative from rural Georgia in 1993. Both laws took effect under President Bill Clinton, who has since renounced the measures, but just this week Gingrich reaffirmed his support for them. He endorsed pledges from the Iowa Family Leader and the National Organization for Marriage to push for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, among other anti-LGBT agenda items. He also compared being gay to a "choice" along the lines of celibacy.
Presented with his positions, Gingrich-Jones, who has worked for the Human Rights Campaign since 1995, references recent polling to argue that her brother stands "behind the times." Surveys indicate that strong majorities of Americans support gays and lesbians serving openly in the military and workplace protections for LGBT people, which he also opposes. Growing majorities of voters support marriage equality, and more and more Americans know a gay family member or friend.
"If you're trying to win the majority of people's votes, yet you don't have the same position as a majority of the people, that's going to be an uphill climb," she says. She also questions how her brother can defy one of his "political idols," Barry Goldwater, who staunchly opposed the ban on open military service. "I would wonder, What would he say to Barry about his position?" she says.
Gingrich-Jones, 45, is accustomed to debating her big brother, almost 23 years her senior, at a distance and through a filter. She launched into advocacy after years of living in "blissful ignorance" in Pennsylvania when the so-called Republican Revolution swept her brother into power, and since then, she has carried on very public conversations to rebut his views, playing the role of blood relative and counterpoint. The "handful of times" she tried to engage him about policy one-on-one, early in his career as speaker, she says she received no response to her faxes, "the technology of choice at the time."
"He and I have never lived in the same house together," she says. "We didn't grow up together. We've never really had a pick-up-the-phone-and-chat kind of relationship."
Gingrich-Jones and her brother have the same biological mother, Kathleen, who passed away in 2003. Their father, Robert, an army officer who died in 1996, adopted Newt when he was a boy. Robert and Kathleen's marriage also produced Susan and Roberta, Newt's other half-sisters, who are respectively 18 and 16 years older than Candace.
When Gingrich-Jones came out in 1987, she did not tell her brother personally, but their mother "quite conveniently" took care of that for her. The Republican congressman responded reasonably well. "'He said that it was your life and that you have the right to live it the way that you want to,'" she remembers their mother telling her.
Still, Gingrich-Jones says she and her brother share "some similarities" in their military brat upbringings, which meant both moved from place to place, albeit never together, and adapted by diving into their new climates. Her brother lived in France and Germany at points. "I think that both Newt and I, and our two sisters to an extent, took the perspective that it was better to be proactive and to be extroverted and to make friends, to be proactive. That's something that was kind of similar in our growing up."
Compared to her youth, when "years would go by" before she saw her brother, in the past decade, since he married his third wife, Callista, their families have made "somewhat more of an effort" to see each other "a couple, three, four, depending, times a year," for holidays or special events. Recently, Gingrich-Jones and her spouse, Rebecca, a playwright she married in 2009, went to hear Callista sing with the choir at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. Her brother also attended a play, She Said/She Said, based on a real-life lesbian child custody battle, that was the MFA thesis project of Rebecca, a "fairly progressive, liberal person." Political differences get checked at the door on such occasions. (Newt Gingrich, however, did not attend Gingrich-Jones's wedding.)
"The times that the family is all together are so few and far in between," says Gingrich-Jones, noting that the upcoming Iowa caucus makes the timing of this year's holiday gathering uncertain. "None of us usually talk too deeply about anything political. We stick to the things that we can converse about," like football and beer.
"I know that he likes Guinness," she says. "Not many people have probably got to see Newt giggle about something that's funny, and I've gotten to see that. We've all really got good senses of humor. Sometimes it tends to be on the drier, sarcastic side. But when the family gets together, there's a lot of laughter and there's a lot of joking. He can be a fun and silly kind of person just like the rest of us."
Her brother treats her and Rebecca the same as everyone else, she says: "What I've experienced as far as the changes in him have occurred more on a personal level than on a political level. When it's personal and when it's family I don't feel any different than my sister and her husband or my other sister."
For instance, she and Rebecca just received copies of Callista's book Sweet Land of Liberty, one of many titles published by Gingrich Productions, that they plan to give to Rebecca's new niece. Not an avid reader of her brother's work, she concedes, "I might read Ellis the Elephant," referring to the star character of the children's book.
As for whether this behavior suggests that Gingrich campaigns against equality for political reasons rather than personal convictions, she says, "That's a question I think that only he could ever answer."
The truce at family gatherings aside, Gingrich-Jones, who found it "kind of funny" when a gay rights activist glitter-bombed her brother in Minnesota this year, has committed to back President Obama's reelection bid. HRC endorsed the president in May, but she says she would have supported him regardless of what the organization did."What's at stake is whether we continue to move forward and stay in the 21st century or whether we get tossed back to the 20th century," she says. "There would be no, I don't think, positive movement for LGBT people in our country, and quite possibly and quite probably there would be motions undertaken to take away the things that have been accomplished."
This week Gingrich affirmed parts of the "Marriage Vow" from the Iowa group Family Leader. He sent a letter expressing his support for defending DOMA and passing a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, although he did not sign the entire pledge, which also includes "recognition of the overwhelming statistical evidence" that "children raised by a mother and a father together experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble, and less extramarital pregnancy."
"I am disappointed that he has succumbed to the Family Leader and this pledge, even though he didn't sign it," says Gingrich-Jones, who still recalls his comment two decades ago that it was "madness to pretend that families are anything other than heterosexual couples." She says that she and Rebecca plan on having a family, although it is not something she has discussed with her brother.
"I don't know how or if his positions have changed," she says of adoption by same-sex couples. "Maybe he was being smart by not signing it because he knows, and maybe I'm giving him credit here, I don't know, maybe he knows that it would be, you know, wrong."
The thrice-married Gingrich, who has admitted to cheating on his ex-wives, also pledged in the Family Leader letter to "uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity" to his spouse. Some social conservatives have expressed wariness about his marital past, and Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts has challenged him to a debate about DOMA on the same point, saying that his personal history would make him "an ideal opponent" for marriage equality arguments.
"That's a question that anyone who is considering voting for my brother needs to ask themselves," says Gingrich-Jones, who declines to take a stance on the matter. "I'm not one to judge other people's pasts and histories." She does add, however, that the prospect of a debate between the retiring gay congressman and her brother "would be awesome."
However, she says a debate between her brother and President Obama could be even more likely, as she says it seems "perfectly reasonable" that Newt Gingrich could become the Republican presidential nominee. She does not expect that he would win the general election, and she believes that his stances on LGBT issues would be one of the reasons why.
"One thing that I think we've known and that we've definitely seen is that he's really good at debating, so we would see, during those occasions, that he would prove to be formidable," she says of her brother. "But at the end of the day, there's absolutely no, no comparison, so when debating topics, issues of equality and things related to that, he's not going to get anywhere debating President Obama."