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Gay-rights orgs find new visibility at RNC

TAMPA, Fla. — Hours after Rick Santorum took the stage at the
Republican National Convention and referred to an “assault on marriage,”
hundreds of conservatives packed into a nightspot in Tampa’s historic
district, with go-go boys dancing in half-length t-shirts that read
“Freedom is fabulous” and spheres of light from a disco ball flashing on
the mixed crowd.

This was Homocon, a heavily promoted latenight bash
hosted by GOProud, a conservative action group pushing for gay rights.
And the org’s presence — as well as that of several other
right-leaning gay orgs, including Log Cabin Republicans — is much
more visible than in years past, even 2008.

That increased profile
was underscored by the stream of conservative celebrity pundits who
attended Homocon, including Dana Loesch and Margaret Hoover, as well as
Grover Norquist and former congressman Mark Foley. And even with a tough
party platform opposing same-sex marriage and calling for
Constitutional recognition of nuptials as only between a man and a
woman, there is a confidence, maybe even a near certainty, that the
shift in public opinion — driven in no small part by pop culture —
will only accelerate in the party.

GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s
stance against same-sex marriage and even civil unions is an
irreconcilable deal killer to many in the gay rights movement; to many
gathered at Homocon, the focus of the Obama campaign on it and other
social issues is a distraction. The message: The economy trumps all.

Jimmy
LaSalvia, GOProud’s executive director and co-founder, took the stage
early Wednesday morning and told the partiers, “Most of you know that I
happen to support civil marriage for gay couples, and marriage is
important, but before you can get married you have to have a date, and
everyone knows you can’t have a date without a job.”

LaSalvia may
sound flippant, but there was a degree of certainty among those in
attendance that while Romney may hold a position on same-sex unions that
defies their own, it will not make much of a difference if he is
elected president and takes office with a laser focus on the economy.

“I
just don’t think he’ll do it,” said James Kolbe, a former Arizona
Republican congressman who came out in 1996, of the prospects that
Romney actually would press an anti-gay rights agenda. “I just hope to
heck he doesn’t because we’ve got other priorities like the economy and
jobs and solving our fiscal crisis, which is why I remain a Republican.”

Kolbe
was speaking from the 41st floor of a downtown Tampa law firm on
Wednesday morning, where the Log Cabin Republicans and Young
Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry packed a law firm’s conference
room for an elaborate brunch at which speakers pressed gay rights as a
conservative talking point, i.e. less government intrusion on personal
rights. Several times, references were made to Dick Cheney’s support of
gay marriage. Copies of a newspaper ad placed in the local Tampa paper
were handed out. Red cones were handed out as makeshift megaphones to
make sure their voices are heard.

Kolbe himself called it a
“generational issue” that was “not likely to be an issue” in future
party platforms. The year he came out, the GOP’s nominee Bob Dole
returned a donation from the Log Cabin Republicans.

“That certainly doesn’t happen today,” Kolbe said. “They actively seek those contributions.”

“The
main things are that gays are more outspoken and willing to come out,”
Kolbe said. “As you come out, people know other gays. They realize that
their perceptions of them are incorrect.”

Kolbe acknowledged the
influence of primetime TV in swaying opinion as “huge,” and perhaps
these was some comfort from a recent “Entertainment Tonight” interview
with Ann Romney. Asked what her favorite TV show is, she said “Modern
Family.” That prompted the show’s creator Steve Levitan to offer her,
via Twitter, a role on the show to officiate lead characters Steve and
Cam’s wedding “as soon as it’s legal.”

R. Clarke Cooper, executive
director of the Log Cabin Republicans, said the org has not yet
endorsed Romney, a decision that will be made this fall.

Next
week, when the Democrats convene in Charlotte, there will be a
substantial focus from Hollywood celebrities and industry activists on
President Obama’s support for same-sex marriage. The party platform
supports gay marriage, as well as a repeal of the Defense of Marriage
Act, and the contrast with Republicans will undoubtedly be underscored
throughout the three days. In fact, the contrast is likely to be framed
as a party progressing vs. one that’s regressing. Romney in May said
that he opposed civil unions “identical to marriage.” President George
W. Bush supported such unions in 2004.

Rather than struggling to
resolve their position with their party, some gay conservatives said
that the greater problem was with those on the left.

Kathryn
Lehman, who pressed for same-sex marriage in the Republican platform,
said that as it was debated, “I fully expected someone on the right to
tell me, ‘You’re going to hell.’ I’m still waiting. … No one has said
anything like it.”

“We get more anger from the left, and ‘How can you be a Republican?” Lehman said.

Newsweek
may have called Obama the first “gay” president, but that doesn’t make a
difference at the GOP confab. Anti-Obama rhetoric was still apparent in
words and even a bit of snark over the Hollywood adulation that has
come his way. At Homocon, as one partier looked to the stage, his focus
was on two pairs of columns, props set up for the event.

“Where did they get those, from Obama’s big speech in 2008?” he said.

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