Outrage

06.06.14

Inside the Implosion of GOProud, the Right’s Most Notorious Pro-Gay Group

GOProud was the loudest gay voice on the political right. They were the talk of Republican circles—and not all of it nice. Then it all fell apart.

There was a time when GOProud was the loudest gay voice on the political right. Then, a year ago, after it lost its foremost donor and couldn’t find a successor, its brand was sold off for scraps.

Reports began trickling out in the press this week that GOProud had decided to close up shop. In truth, the original organization functionally folded a year ago, The Daily Beast has learned. And the attempts to reboot GOProud are being actively mocked by the men who founded the group.

The decline of GOProud is a prime example of what happens to an organization that rises to prominence through confrontation—and never bothers to do the grunt work needed to sustain the outfit, once the outrage dies down. It was feisty and controversial—a Tea Party, of sorts, to the more establishment-minded Log Cabin Republicans. It was an organization running on a shoestring budget that elbowed its way into the conservative conversation.

They outed a Rick Perry pollster in December 2011; they endorsed Mitt Romney, who opposed same-sex marriage; they got into social-media fights with all comers; and they called conservative activist Cleta Mitchell a “bigot,” not especially helpful considering she was on a board that would decide whether they could sponsor the Conservative Political Action Conference, a longtime GOProud goal.

For many supporters of GOProud, being called a “troll” was a badge of honor. Their goal from the start was to plant a flag in the ground: There are gay conservatives, and here we are.

Others, even those sympathetic to the group, accused it of being a vanity project for its cofounders, Christopher Barron and Jimmy LaSalvia, a platform for the two to pick fights. The two split from the Log Cabin Republicans, which they viewed as too moderate, to form GOProud in 2009.

Unsurprisingly, Barron sees it differently, saying their organization was a voice on “one of the fastest-moving issues of this generation, the gay-rights fight… before GOProud, there was no conversation about gay people being part of the conservative movement.”

But after LGBT rights megadonor Paul Singer stopped funding them, the gig was up. 

Over the course of GOProud’s existence, Singer donated $570,000 to the group—representing two-thirds of its fundraising since its founding. He made his last contribution in August 2012, according to federal campaign-finance documents. It was around this time that Singer was changing his strategy: divesting in certain groups to focus on state-based gay-rights initiatives in places like New York, New Hampshire, and California.

“There was donor discontent, the organization was broke, they were having difficulty raising money, and they ruined just about every relationship possible.”

Barron and LaSalvia, who had been the faces of the organization since its start, couldn’t make up the difference. Said a GOP strategist who works on gay-rights issues, “GOProud’s issues actually began before Chris and Jimmy exited the organization… donor unease had been building,”

GOProud had been a group known for its pugilism, not its donor development.

“There just wasn’t time for [LaSalvia] to do donor cultivation,” said Lisa DePasquale, who served both on GOProud’s board as a member and as its director. “If I had to do it all over again, we should have [spent more time on it].” (Full disclosure: Margaret Hoover, wife of Daily Beast Editor in Chief John Avlon, was on GOProud’s advisory council for a time.)

Singer’s unwillingness to donate further and the group’s financial situation, multiple sources say, led to the departure of cofounders Barron and LaSalvia.

Both of them argue that they were simply burned out after four years at the helm, and it was just time to move on.

“Paul was a big donor to the organization for a couple of years, but GOProud was never an organization with deep pockets. We were able to do a whole lot on an incredibly tight budget for years,” Barron said.

In the summer of 2013, LaSalvia and Barron sold GOProud’s brand name, one of the organization’s computers, a contact list, and some posters to three former interns, and stepped away from the day-to-day management of the group.

Matt Bechstein, now the executive director of what is left of GOProud, said they purchased it for less than three figures. Barron said it was a nominal amount, $1. “It certainly wasn’t fair market value,” Barron said.

In a way, GOProud had already died last summer. The former interns only filed the necessary paperwork to organize “GOProud 2.0” in January 2014. Bechstein had purchased a brand that was in bad shape.

“There was donor discontent, the organization was broke, they were having difficulty raising money, and they ruined just about every relationship possible,” Bechstein said, referring to the former management.

The future of GOProud, once a leading voice for gay conservatives, looks bleak. The organization still exists in theory, but it now faces the possibility of shutting down, changing its name, or changing its organizational type. “There’s high amounts of chaos and confusion,” he said, since any remaining donors have been spooked by reports that the group is closing down.

There’s no love lost between the former leadership and the current leadership.

“Most people assume GOProud died a year ago. GOProud was constantly part of the conversation, shaking things up. Over the last year… I never heard from GOProud. Quite frankly, I don’t know what they’ve done over the past year. I’ve seen nothing,” Barron said.

Countered Bechstein, “They’ve been antagonistic to me since Day One… we came to be the antithesis of Jimmy and Chris, who ruined the organization.”

GOProud first elbowed its way into the conservative movement in the spring of 2009, but struggled in its early days as a startup. Really, it was nothing more than Barron and LaSalvia and a Twitter account, crammed into a Capitol Hill basement office for which they paid $800 a month. The group’s first acts were small. Fundraising during its launch netted only about $3,000, LaSalvia said.

But GOProud’s prominence really emerged in 2010, after conservative activist Ryan Sorba denounced them from the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“I’d like to condemn CPAC for bringing GOProud to this event,” Sorba told the audience at the annual conservative gathering, to a smattering of boos. “The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you. Bring it.” 

LaSalvia, sitting outside the room, looked down at his phone. Just moments after Sorba’s rant, a $500 donation came into GOProud’s account. Many major news outlets at CPAC, eager to write about something other than the typical rotation of politicians coming up to speak on stage, covered Sorba’s outburst.

“That’s really when we got famous,” LaSalvia said. Momentum flowed from controversy. They spent their last few hundred dollars on a trip up to New York City, obtaining donor commitments that kept them alive.

That summer, they held a prominent event with Ann Coulter and some 150 supporters at the New York City apartment of billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel, which attendees nicknamed “Homocon.” Months later, GOProud targeted four congressional districts with an ad parodying the television show Real Housewives, targeting gay men and women on Bravo and Lifetime, even running the ad during the Project Runway finale. 

The 2012 presidential cycle smothered GOProud, LaSalvia argued, saying that the organization’s endorsement of Mitt Romney was a low point. The support of a candidate who opposed same-sex marriage—and the noise of the presidential campaign—combined to make them feel sidelined.

“We were following, we were falling in line… no one was out front that year,” he said.

The highlight of that year, LaSalvia said, was when more than 900 people showed up to GOProud’s 2012 Republican convention party in Tampa Bay, at a gay bar.