Gay Republican groups were not invited to this year’s CPAC. Yet at the end of the first day, perhaps the most crowded conference room turned bar at Maryland’s Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center was the one occupied by a panel called “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.”
The event was hotly anticipated—and overly crowded—as the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank actually invited to the Conservative Political Action Conference, circumnavigated the snub by hosting its own panel on same-sex marriage and asked GOProud co-founder and executive director Jimmy LaSalvia and others to speak.
“A new conservative coalition starts here in this room. Will you join us? Will you stand up to forces of intolerance?” LaSalvia implored the crowd. “Join us in building a better coalition that can win and use it in making America better.”
The message projected by LaSalvia and, echoed by his fellow panelists, was that government intervention in how people live is not the conservative way.
“As a conservative, whenever the federal government imposes one vision of how people want to live, that’s wrong, whether liberal, conservative, straight or gay,” said Jonah Goldberg, editor of the conservative National Review Online.
Goldberg made sure to clarify right off the bat that he is not a “compassionate conservative.” He criticized CPAC’s decision to exclude gay groups and Chris Christie from this year’s convention as evidence that the conservative movement is experiencing a “purity panic” and admitted that he’d declined the invitation to speak, but changed his mind when he heard that Donald Trump was coming.
“I just couldn’t get my mind around it,” he said to laughs. “I know he has a lot of fans and a lot of people watch his clownish reality show. But a guy who gives money to Democrats and abuses eminent domain seems to be more of a problem than a straight-ticket conservative who just happens to be gay.”
The panel also brought home the point that turning away any constituency of potential voters is not a winning strategy for the Republican Party.
“I think we’ve forgotten that in order to win the next election, we have to convince people who didn’t vote for us last time,” said Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin. “Just getting the people who voted for us last time more excited doesn’t work. I would say if you in this room are not doing something to grow the Republican Party, the Republican Party will die.”
Conservative political commentator—and gay-rights activist—Margaret Hoover pointed out that the Supreme Court has declared marriage a fundamental right 14 times since 1866. “If you are a prisoner, you are a murderer in jail, you have a fundamental right to get married,” she said. “But law-abiding, patriotic, gay Americans who want to commit their lives to each other and generate this stability and this economic prosperity can’t get married.”
One woman in the audience asked how she can defend her pro-gay marriage stance against religious friends and family members who jump down her throat and tell her she is a bad person. “No government should ever make religious institutions do anything,” Hoover clarified. “We’re not actually talking about religious marriage. This is civil marriage.”
After the discussion broke up, Chuck Clothier told The Daily Beast he felt it was wrong for CPAC to exclude gay groups this year and he wanted to attend this panel to show support for their cause. Clothier, who is not gay, came from Washington, Illinois, a small town outside Peoria, to attend the conference for his first time. “Years ago, when I was younger, I was much more socially conservative. I was raised Catholic, so I stuck to the party line about what the Bible said about marriage being only for a man and a woman. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been leaning more and more libertarian,” he explained. “I am in favor of gay marriage at a civil level. There are gay conservatives coming to the Republican Party saying, ‘We want to vote for you, we want to like you, we want to support you’—and I think we need that to win.”