Advocates supportive but cautious in face of party's official platform

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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