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View From the Hill

View From the Hill

Gay conservatives took center stage in Washington this week with the launch of GOProud, a Log Cabin convention, and marriage-equality endorsements from almost-first daughter Meghan McCain and former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt.

It's been a conservative kind of week here in gay D.C. with GOProud, a new gay conservative group, launching on to the national stage and Log Cabin Republicans hosting its national convention, which will wrap up on Saturday with an appearance by Meghan McCain -- yes, daughter of the senator -- who has practically burst on to the marriage-equality scene in the last month.

In case you haven't really been following Republicans -- who, admittedly, have seemed a little lackluster these days on the Hill -- Ms. McCain is an exception. In fact, here's a dose of straight talk from her Daily Beast blog post this week, "Memo to the GOP: Go Gay":

"Recently, I seemed to have rocked a few individuals within my party by saying that I am a pro-life, pro-gay-marriage Republican. So if anyone is still confused, let me spell it out for you. I believe life begins at conception and I believe that people who fall in love should have the option to get married."

Well, thank you, Ms. McCain, for revealing that the two positions are not mutually exclusive and, in fact, have little to do with each other. Although polling suggests that a growing number of millennials agree, the current leaders of the GOP haven't quite gotten the memo yet. But one person who did is McCain's former chief campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, who made a pro-marriage equality pronouncement shortly after Ms. McCain's revelation.

So ponder this: What do you get when two high-profile, under-40 Republicans come out for same-sex marriage in the space of a month? While it may fall short of a conservative revolution, I dare say it's the first salvo in a battle for the soul of the party. In fact, even as early 2012 hopefuls Palin, Huckabee, and Romney jockey for socially conservative positions, others like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. from the very red state of Utah are staking out moderate positions on gay issues. Huntsman delivered a Valentine shocker when he announced his support for civil unions even though about 70% of his state disagrees with him. No, it's not marriage, but it sure is a proactive, affirmative statement for a Republican in the early stages of plotting his path to the White House, and it sure is exactly the same position President Obama holds.

Now is the time -- when Republicans have suffered bruising and, in fact, demoralizing losses in the last two election cycles; when GOP ideas seem stale, outmoded, and unmoving to all but a slim minority of conservative stalwarts -- now is the time to embark on an inclusive discussion within the Republican Party. Which is why I wish our movement had nothing short of a strongly united, well-funded, energized group of gay Republicans who were cued up to take a central role in this transformative time.

Instead, the Log Cabin Republicans lost their executive director, Patrick Sammon, in January, and a new conservative gay group has been founded by two men who were passed over to replace him, Chris Barron and Jimmy LaSalvia.

Although the liberal left has numerous organizations engaging the fight for full equality, splitting up GOP gays was been tried once before, in 2000, when Charles Francis founded the now-defunct Republican Unity Coalition. Figuring Francis might have some insights, I e-mailed him to see if he thought the climate was any better nine years later. He didn't mince words. "On the national stage, at this point in the life of the GOP," he wrote, "there is not room for two groups; in fact, it is an open question as to whether there is a role for any gay group in the Republican Party, unless they totally de-gay themselves, and then what is the point?"

We better hope there's room for at least one gay Republican group because we are heading into a period where legislatures will supplant courts as the main battlegrounds for our rights and the movement will be increasingly dependent on GOP lawmakers to push pro-LGBT legislation over the goal line. Sure, liberals love to lampoon the gay GOP, but without six Vermont Republicans in the house who voted to override Gov. Jim Douglas's veto, the "Freedom and Unity" state would still be civil-union territory. Or consider New York, where Governor Paterson just announced his marriage-equality bill. With the senate's slim 32-30 Democratic majority and four Dems pledging to vote against the bill, we will certainly need a handful of Republican senators to stand up for marriage equality.

But even with the advent of this new conservative gay group, the state legislatures will be the sole domain of Log Cabin. GOProud will focus on federal issues, Chris Barron said at their Wednesday press conference. Their 10-point legislative agenda did not, however, include hate crimes, employment nondiscrimination, or relationship recognition. Barron -- who was a political director for Log Cabin and worked on hate crimes and ENDA legislation -- called those "laudable goals" but, added his counterpart Jimmy LaSalvia, "there are two dozen groups downtown already working on ENDA and hate crimes."

OK, let's give hate crimes a pass. It's not expected to be a particularly heavy lift in Congress and a number of people subscribe to the idea that our laws are already punitive enough for people who perpetrate violence.

But employment nondiscrimination? What a loss -- for a Republican who knows the issue inside and out -- not to be lobbying GOP members of Congress on behalf of LGBT people who work in 30 states across the country with no legal protections.

I know a number of gay Republicans and their ongoing struggle revolves around a question of whether they should be gay first or conservative first. GOProud's 10-point federal legislative agenda reads more like a group that has taken conservative principles on issues like tax reform, free-market health care reform, and privatized Social Security and found positive outcomes for gay people within those arguments. "Don't ask, don't tell" is perhaps the only pro-gay agenda item they list that might upset the conservative apple cart. (I am purposely excluding transgender issues here because there is no mention of them in their legislative agenda.)

On the positive side, Barron said that as e-mails from about 500 new members poured in this week -- he noted a "surprising" number of them came from women. As a female journalist who spends most of my time covering politics in rooms that are 85%-90% male, I welcome any group that finds a way to bring more women into the fold.

In fact, I welcome any group at this juncture that can grow the number of pro-gay conservatives. But I fear that Charles Francis is correct -- the movement doesn't have the bandwidth to support two GOP groups. And if pro-gay activists are going to support any group -- financially and otherwise -- I want it to be one that leans toward being gay first and conservative second. Otherwise, as Francis said, what's the point?

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