Many LGBT voters shy away from the GOP and its typically anti-gay agenda, but for some gay voters, conservatism trumps gay rights. But why? And will that continue if gay marriage again becomes a wedge issue in the presidential election?
The gay rights movement took a dramatic turn May 9 when President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex unions.
“I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” President Barack Obama said during an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts.
It was a welcome surprise for advocates of marriage equality. Obama had been “evolving” on the marriage issue for several years, but LGBT rights activists kept pressing the president for the evolution to complete.
Some had expected the president would change his position after the November election, when there was less political risk, but hardly anyone expected Obama to make such an announcement the day after North Carolina passed its constitutional amendment defining marriage as “a union between one man and one woman.”
Even before the marriage announcement, no president had done as much to advance the LGBT equality movement as Obama.
Since winning the 2008 election, Obama has signed into law a hate crimes bill that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. He has pushed federal agencies to make their policies more LGBT-inclusive and ordered the Justice Department to stop defending the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act. The military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is history.
How, then, can gay voters continue to justify voting for Republican candidates?
‘Greater principles than the fight for marriage’
GOProud is a national organization that advocates conservatism and gay inclusion in the Republican Party. Bruce Carroll, a GOProud boardmember and conservative blogger behind the website The Gay Patriot, told GA Voice in a recent telephone interview that despite the president’s work on LGBT issues, he would vote for former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, the likely Republican nominee, in the fall election.
For Carroll, gay issues like marriage aren’t the focus. Security and economic prosperity come first.
Carroll said that the terror attacks on 9/11, which killed a close friend, changed his perception of the importance of some political issues, including issues that affect him personally, like same-sex marriage.
“I had a good friend who was on the plane that his the Pentagon,” Carroll said. “In addition to the national mourning we all went through, I had to go to a memorial ceremony for one of my closest friends. I came out of it thinking to myself, ‘there are people out there that will kill us for just having our constitution. There are greater principals than the fight for marriage.’”
Carroll said he respects the work Obama has done on gay rights during his term but also offered a harsh criticism of the way the president has handled the economy and foreign policy.
“I think it’s fair to say he’s done enough to warrant praise,” Carroll said. “He’s done enough to keep the gay community sending him checks.”
Romney, at least the 2012 Romney, is no friend to the gay rights movement. He’s gone from “I’ll be better than Ted [Kennedy] on gay rights” in 1994 to a full-fledged supporter of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage.
“I can’t say I am enthusiastic,” Carroll said of the presumed nominee. “I doubt that Romney will take positions that are all that different from previous Republican candidates.”
Carroll said that acceptance for gays and lesbians would be a slow process, regardless of who was elected or what laws were enacted.
“It doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t legislate acceptance,” Carroll said. “We’re 50, 60 years out from the Civil Rights movement, and there are still people who don’t accept blacks in the same way they do whites.”
Still, Republican legislators are the ones who introduce federal laws like the Defense of Marriage Act, and constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and adoption bans at the state level —not Democrats, which makes justifying support for the GOP a tough sell for gay voters.
Carroll hopes to work within the Republican Party to advocate change toward gays and lesbians.
“My point in being a voice was to bridge people I know and care about on the conservative side with folks who I know and care about who are gay,” Carroll added.
It’s the economy, girl
Marriage equality has yet to be embraced by the Democratic Party as a whole, although there is a well-publicized petition calling on the Democratic National Committee to include marriage equality in its platform at this year’s DNC Convention in Charlotte.
Even some progressive Georgia politicians, like Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Athens Mayor Nancy Denson, personally oppose same-sex marriage, while supporting domestic partnership agreements or civil unions.
But why would LGBT voters go against their personal interests by embracing the GOP’s platform?
In short, money.
“It’s still a race about the economy,” said Dr. Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University.
“The debate about same-sex marriage was originally not going to play much of an issue in this race, but it’s happened now after Obama’s announcement,” Gillespie said.
Yet Gillespie said that gay Republican voters had already made up their minds about the election well before Obama’s same-sex marriage endorsement.
“They’ve known for a long time that the establishment in the party doesn’t support same-sex marriage,” Gillespie said. “They’ve already reconciled their vote.”
Gillespie said that despite the prominent role the economy will play in the fall election, voters may be reminded of the candidates’ positions on gay rights, thanks to issue-specific Super PACs that operate outside of campaigns.
“It may not be from President Obama, it may not be from Mitt Romney,” Gillespie said. “Parties and candidates have less control of the message than ever before because this is the first presidential election where Super PACs are in play.”
Jamie Ensley, former chair of the Georgia Log Cabin Republicans and an Atlanta resident, said that he would not vote for Obama this fall, but added that he hoped Romney would back off gay issues.
“Are Democrats better on gay issues than Republicans? Of course they are,” Ensley said.
Ensley said he believes that the tide is turning and that within the next few years, the Republican Party will be forced to accept LGBT equality as it becomes a mainstream position.
“It’s going to take a couple of national elections and losses in the culture wars they’re fighting to see they’re going to have to change,” Ensley said.
Some Republicans, especially those who are most religious, will likely never embrace gay rights.
“The right-wing Republicans, you’re never going to change their minds,” Ensley continued. “Just move on, go to the ones whose minds you can change.”
Ensley said he believed fixing the country’s economic situation outweighs the gay rights movement.
“If you have equality, but you’re broke and live in a third-world socialist country…” Ensley said.
Are gays and lesbians even welcome in the GOP?
Romney was praised by gay conservatives earlier this year when he appointed openly gay Richard Grenell, a former Bush administration official, to serve as his spokesman on foreign policy. Gay conservatives hoped it would begin to heal the divide between the GOP and its gay constituents.
Grenell lasted just a week in the position before pressure from prominent social conservatives forced him to resign from the campaign.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, wrote that he feared Grenell would advocate pro-LGBT policy abroad and dismissed his conservative credentials simply because he was a gay man.
“While past performance is not a guarantee of future results, there is strong evidence that Grenell would lobby for foreign policy more in line with the current administration than the last Republican one,” Perkins wrote on the FRC website.
Other social conservatives piled on the criticism and Grenell was gone just a few days later.
Republican Fred Karger is the first openly gay man to run for president from a major political party. He made waves when a recent campaign video featuring bikini-clad girls and kissing boys went viral, but never got any serious attention within the party, and was not allowed to participate in televised debates. (Publicity photo)
“He [Romney] caved in to the far right and didn’t support his staff member,” openly gay GOP presidential candidate Fred Karger told GA Voice in a recent phone interview. “Mitt Romney, as he started to move a little more to reach out and get LGBT support, really let us down.”
Karger, 62, is attempting to do what no openly gay man has done before: secure the Republican Party nomination for a fall run at the White House. Of course, his campaign was over before it ever began.
Yet, he presses on.
In a contest that’s seen many of the GOP’s current crop of stars rise and fall, many before a ballot was ever cast, Karger flew under the radar. So far under, in fact, he was never a consideration for the majority of the GOP’s primary voters and was not invited to participate in a single Republican debate.
That’s probably because Karger is not a typical Republican.
Karger told GA Voice that his focus is the California primary on June 5 and and the Utah primary on June 26, two contests where he hopes to have a strong showing among the state’s moderate Republican voters.
Karger has been campaigning heavily in California in the last few weeks. It’s his home state and likely the primary contest where he can claim the largest share of votes.
“Any vote I get is significant,” Karger said. “It’s major to have someone vote for you for President of the United States.”
Karger has been handing out free frisbees, coordinated with a state-wide commercial called “Sexy Frisbee” that features several bikini-clad ladies and a few shirtless hunks playing beach games while he overlays his political positions, which make him sound more like a fiscally-conservative liberal than a socially-liberal conservative.
“I’m a moderate Republican, I have the best jobs plan, I’m pro-choice, support gay marriage and I want us out of Afghanistan now. If you’re not excited about Mitt Romney or the direction of the Republican Party, then I ask you to vote for me,” Karger says in the campaign ad.
The commercial has been viewed more than 50,000 times on YouTube and features an “parental advisory warning” and kiss between two men, likely the first-time two men have positively embraced in such a way in a presidential campaign ad.
“I wanted to, as I do with most of my commercials, deal with the fact that I’m an historic candidate,” Karger said. “I wanted to do a ground breaking commercial that included a gay kiss. As I do this, I’m also not taking off my civil rights hat, that’s what that’s about.”
‘Bring the Republican Party back to its roots’
When asked why a gay moderate with fiscal conservative views identifies as a Republican, Karger, like GOProud’s Carroll, said that he’s working toward changing the Republican Party from within.
“I’m trying to bring the Republican Party back to its roots,” he said. “There is a fine line in the two parties when we’re talking about moderates. I have moderate social views, but I believe in sound fiscal policy.”
Karger acknowledges that Romney, barring some kind of disaster, will be the GOP nominee come the fall. But he said he would have a hard time supporting Romney in the general election.
“Romney started out as a moderate,” Karger said. “He’s so driven to be president, he’ll say and do anything.”
At issue for Karger, Romney’s signature on a NOM anti-marriage pledge, where the former Massachusetts governor promises to fight against the spread of same-sex marriage should he win the presidency.
Romney, along with most of the other GOP contenders, signed the marriage pledge late last year. Karger, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Ambassador Jon Huntsman were among the handful of GOP contenders who did not sign the pledge.
“I’ve said that I cannot support a candidate who has signed and embraced a NOM pledge,” Karger said. “That’s just an affront to my community and to me. I’ve said they can endorse him, but he’s conversely endorsed them by signing that pledge.”
Karger gave President Obama credit for his accomplishments on LGBT issues, but said the president has failed the country with his economic policy — particularly the deficit — and must go.
“If Obama had seriously worked on the economy, that would have made a big difference. Politicians are causing havoc that’s going to be left with your generation,” Karger said. “It’s going to be a very difficult hole to get out of.”