Michele Bachmann kicked off CPAC with “We’re gonna party!” Newt Gingrich talked about the country’s threat to freedom. And Rick Santorum warned of the evils of jihadism.
But there is one distinct rabble-rousing Republican voice missing this year. Sarah Palin declined top billing at the conference for the fourth year in a row, sparking speculation that she would not go because GOProud, a gay Republican group, would be there.
But she denied those charges on the Christian Broadcast Network, once again highlighting her ambivalent stance on gay rights.
“Should conservatives not reach out to others, not participate in events or forums that perhaps arising within those forums are issues that maybe we don’t personally agree with? And I say no,” Palin told David Brody.
For GOProud's Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia, those comments showed that the “the conservative movement is united.”
This is just the latest example of winks she gives to her small, but vocal group of gay supporters while staying away from a full-throttled embrace of gay rights that would cause a backlash with her social conservative base. She is already feeling the heat from her CBN comments from the conservative group American Principles Project, who sternly asked her to clarify her stance on traditional marriage.
Although Palin has small support among the gay community, she has maintained conflicting positions on issues going back to her time in Alaska. When she first became governor, a bill that denied health benefits to gay state employees and their partners was on her desk, ready to sign. But she vetoed the bill, after her attorney general warned her it would be unconstitutional—a move gay supporters often point to. But then she turned around and called for a public vote on the same issue.
She also backed Alaska’s constitutional ban on gay marriage and during the 2008 campaign made headlines when she broke with John McCain by supporting a federal amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman.
This is just the latest example of winks she gives to her small, but vocal group of gay supporters while staying away from a full-throttled embrace of gay rights.
But, gay supporters like Kevin DuJan who runs a popular website Hillbuzz, says the former Alaska governor is a supporter of gay rights. His site started to support Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, but then shifted to one devoted to the defense of Sarah Palin.
“I think she’s a defender of gay rights because she is a defender of all rights,” DuJan said. “She’s always taking a stance…that the government should not be intruding on people’s private lives.”
He’s not the only one: other gay conservatives, including radio talk-show host Tammy Bruce and the website Gay Patriot also loudly voice their support of Palin.
DuJan points to Palin’s high-school friend and college roommate, who is a lesbian. They are still close friends and, according to DuJan, she even joined Palin on the Going Rogue tour. She mentioned her in one of the Katie Couric interviews, saying she is not her “gay friend,” but simply a best friend. But that comment stirred controversy because she suggested that her friend “made a choice” to be gay.
“This is the kind of thing that’s indicative of someone who is supportive of gay issues and supportive of friends or they wouldn’t have her out like that,” DuJan explained. He says he’s even seen shows where drag queens make fun of and celebrate Palin with both sides playing up the camp.
“In the gay community, women who are really embraced in gay circles are women who are strong and very confident,” Dujan said. “She doesn’t take any nonsense. She always hits back.”
But, her support is not explicitly clear and instead seems to be nods and winks to what she really believes. On the biggest gay rights issue of last year, the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which prevented gay and lesbian soldiers from serving openly in the military, she sent mixed messages.
First, she said the ban shouldn’t be repealed “ right now” But, she seemed to change her mind last month when she took to Twitter to re-tweet a message by conservative radio-show host Tammy Bruce that read, “But this hypocrisy is just truly too much. [Enough] already—the more someone complains about the homos the more we should look under their bed.”
Another hint at Palin’s pro-gay stance came from Rebecca Mansour, her top aide when she tweeted that Palin’s views on gay marriage were the same as President Obama’s, one of the few times the Palin team has ever pointed out the similarities in their policies.
So why doesn’t she just come out and say it? Dujan says it will cause a “firestorm” because of the gay community’s opposition to her. He lives in the gay neighborhood in Chicago known as “Boystown” and says he has gotten into arguments with people there that can’t stand her. He believes they want to paint Palin as the next Anita Bryant, but he thinks it isn’t working.
“She’s not giving them ammunition to do it and there’s nothing factually for them to base it on,” Dujan said. “They are trying to cast her in that part like it’s a big Broadway show.”
There’s also the worry that she would be committing political suicide if she were to come straight out in support of gay rights.
Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans, R. Clarke Cooper, said Palin’s libertarian home state of Alaska is why she’s been open to gay rights issues in the first place. He admits there’s some political pragmatism going on.
“It’s several things, it’s a political calculus as well as a legitimate terrain,” Cooper said. “There’s been a general shift in the party.”
Of course, most gay rights activists don’t buy it.
“I mean the problem with her tweets is that they bring up more questions than answers,” said Fred Sainz at the Human Rights Campaign about the Bruce tweet. “Could that have been a slip of the thumb?”
Palin has had opportunities to vocally stand up for gay rights, even in her own family, he said, referring to a gay slur her daughter Willow used on Facebook, but has not.
“These are all relatively elementary issues that an awful lot of elected leaders and even prominent conservatives and liberals are on the record for or against so it’s not an altogether irrational standard to hold Sarah Palin to that same standard,” Sainz said.
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.