After two consecutive years of exclusion, GOProud is returning to CPAC — sort of.
First reported by National Journal, representatives of the conservative gay group will attend as guests to next month's annual Conservative Political Action Conference, but GOProud will not be a sponsor nor have a booth present. The development comes after CPAC, organized by the American Conservative Union, and GOProud have experienced a tense relationship since a controversy that saw the group banned in 2012.
Although GOProud participated in CPAC in 2010 and 2011, the group for gay conservatives was kicked out of the conference beginning in 2012 after former GOProud board president Chris Barron labeled conservative attorney Cleta Mitchell a "nasty bigot" and blamed her for the decision by the Heritage Foundation to remove itself from the conference over GOProud's participation. Although Barron apologized, GOProud was not invited back. Last year, former GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia attended CPAC as a guest for a panel hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) titled "A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet."
But with GOProud under new leadership after the departures of co-founders LaSalvia and Barron, CPAC organizers appear to have warmed to the organization once again. This year, Matt Bechstein and Ross Hemminger — former GOProud interns who are part of the organization's new leadership — will attend as part of a compromise reached with CPAC organizers.
"We are participating at the level we wanted to participate at," Hemminger said in an email to Metro Weekly. "We have had a very respectful and mutually beneficial dialogue with the folks at CPAC for some time now, and we're excited about turning over a new leaf in our relationship with them, they have been wonderful to work with."
According to Hemminger, GOProud reached out to CPAC organizers and were "very warmly" received.
"We had asked to attend the conference, and have a presence there, and they were receptive to that ask," Hemminger continued. "We did not ask to have a booth, nor did we ask to be a part of a panel. We simply wanted to have a presence on a level that worked best for us, and they were willing to accommodate that ask."
It remains unclear if Log Cabin Republicans (LCR) will attend the conference as well. While the organization did not attend last year, Log Cabin Republicans Executive Director Gregory T. Angelo told Metro Weekly plans are still being finalized.
"Any Log Cabin Republicans presence at CPAC would need to be meaningful," Angelo said.
The inclusion of gay conservatives at CPAC comes as the Republican Party and conservative movement continue to grapple with a rapidly shifting landscape on LGBT-rights.
Last year's widely attended CPAC panel on gay rights took place hours before Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio) became the first Republican member of the U.S. Senate to openly endorse same-sex marriage. Since then Portman has been joined by Sens. Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). The GOP's morphing on LGBT rights extends beyond marriage equality as well. In November, 10 Senate Republicans voted to outlaw anti-LGBT workplace discrimination in what was the most Senate Republican votes ever cast for a piece of gay-rights legislation, let alone one that contains gender-identity provisions. In comparison, only eight Senate Republicans voted for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2010. Polling also consistently shows widespread support for same-sex marriage among the next generation of voters, including young conservatives.
Although no panel will be exclusively devoted to gay rights at this year’s conference according to the most recent schedule, issues such as marriage equality and gay inclusion will likely come up at the event, which has become a mandatory pitstop for Republican presidential hopefuls. Not invited to last year's conference, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who recently abandoned his administration's legal fight against same-sex marriage and signed a bill banning "ex-gay" therapy for minors, is expected to attend.
"Of course there will be objections to our involvement, but ultimately the conservative tenets of free markets, limited government, and respect for individual rights benefit all families, and that includes LGBT families," Hemminger said. "That's what we're fighting for, and I think everyone at CPAC would agree with that."
[Photo: Rick Santorum. Credit: Gage Skidmore.]