Being Gay at CPAC

by Betsy Woodruff

Here’s a weird CPAC moment: I’m sitting in a hallway in the Gaylord Convention Center with Cynthia Yockey. Between the two of us, I think we got a total of five hours of sleep last night, so we’re sitting on the floor, talking about what it’s like for her to be a lesbian at this conservative confab, especially when GOProud, a leading conservative gay group, wasn’t invited this year. 

While we sit back and watch the scene, Yockey begins tearing into social conservatives and the religious Right. As if on cue, Rick Santorum walks by, followed by a small entourage of sorts. Once he gets a few feet past us, he stops around on the other side of the hallway to pose for a photo with a group of boys who look to be high-school age.

Yockey looks up, uninterested. “I hadn’t recognized him,” she says. She pauses for a few seconds to watch the photo-op, then picks up where she left off. For gay attendees, the Conservative Political Action Conference is a little odd this year, full of spaces where the Right’s libertarian and social-conservative wings awkwardly abut. One gay reporter, who’s covering the weekend for a conservative-leaning publication and preferred to remain anonymous, says this year’s event felt a touch more hostile than in previous years. 

Two years ago, at CPAC 2011, it was all about the libertarians, with a straw-poll victory for Ron Paul; 2012 was mostly about electoral politics. This year, though, is a little different. The Right is still reeling from the Great Unpleasantness that was November, and when it comes to new policy stances, almost everything is on the table. So there’s a slight tension that a few attendees, especially gay conservatives, picked up on.

“People are courteous,” says Yockey, “but there is no courteous way to say, ‘You don’t deserve to be equal because you’re gay.’ That is intrinsically offensive.”

That said, nobody I spoke to complained about rudeness or anything that could be construed as bullying. Most gay attendees don’t exactly advertise their sexual orientation on their lapels. “You don’t wear a symbol saying, ‘Hey I’m gay!’” says one conference-goer. Still, it’s hard for gay attendees to avoid some slightly uncomfortable confrontations.

But yesterday had a moment that, as far as Yockey is concerned, might mean a sea change for conservatives. She says that the “A Rainbow On The Right” panel, hosted by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, represented a point of no return. For the first time ever, CPAC had a panel composed solely of speakers who support same-sex unions in some way, shape, or form (including National Review’s Jonah Goldberg). Yockey says it was a deliberate shot at the event’s organizers: When GOProud had been denied as a conference sponsor, Fred Smith of CEI realized that his group’s sponsorship status entitled it to host whatever kind of panel it chose, and decided to cobble together a group of conservatives who supported gay marriage.

So this is CPAC: A place where Cynthia Yockey, author of a blog called “A Conservative Lesbian,” and Rick Santorum, one of America’s most prominent social conservatives, inadvertently end up face-to-face. 

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