Every winter since 1973, Washington D.C. has braced itself against a ragtag mob of Joe Six-Packs and corporate bigwigs; aunts and grandfathers; libertarians and people who just like Ayn Rand. Often referred to as Woodstock for conservatives, the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, is an annual conference put on by the American Conservative Union Foundation. Associating CPAC with free love and superhuman levels of drug use may surprise people: are CPAC’s attendees really capable of cutting loose like that? No, they are not, though it matters little to the people of CPAC; they’ve got their own party train, fueled by domestically drilled petroleum and driven by Hank Williams Jr. I’ve kept up with the events of the conference via internet videos.
The first clip I came across was one of master of ceremonies Steven Crowder, best known for his work as The Brain on the children’s TV show Arthur. These days he gets by as pundit and rumor snake Andrew Breitbart’s pet comedian-cum-protégé, making regular appearances on YouTube channel PJTV and Fox News’ late night comedy, Red Eye. The clip cut in at the middle of one of his sets: “I do think it’s important to acknowledge the gay elephant in the room.” He looked around with the half-smirk made famous by George W. Bush, pleading for a smile from someone in the audience. Crowder was referring to GOProud, an organization of gay conservatives whose presence at the conference had drawn the wrath of numerous high profile pundits and organizations who condemned CPAC for compromising conservative values. Causing particular angst was GOProud’s stance against a federal ban on gay marriage and its support for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. A handful of major players, including the Liberty Counsel, the Family Research Council, and the Heritage Foundation refused to sponsor the event.
Crowder clarified that he did not support gay marriage before tossing around some platitudes about diversity. “We’re not the party that tells you that you have to agree with us 100 percent and follow lockstep, otherwise you don’t get to sit at the cool kids’ table. Let’s leave that to the Democrats!” A few people shouted yeah and the confidence boost was visible in his face. “That being said,” he continued, “gayness is still funny.” He clarified: “And that’s ok, that doesn’t mean that I hate anybody. Let me tell you why to a straight man gayness is funny... Nowhere in the natural realm of [a straight man’s] reality does it occur to be attracted to another man. It’s absurd.” Crowder went on to compare seeing a gay man say (in his best gay voice) “Hellooo! You look delicious,” to seeing a duck in pajamas, in that both are totally unnatural and hilarious to him. The rest of the bit consisted almost entirely of people laughing at things that are gay—makeup, Anderson Cooper, limp wrists and effeminate lisps—and Crowder looking like he just won a lock of Ronald Reagan’s hair.
Ann Coulter was more direct; when she took the stage she raised GOProud’s spine above her head before letting out a Predator-esque victory cry. Responding to a question about whether or not she thought GOProud should have been allowed to participate in the convention, she added, “I talked them into dropping the gay marriage plank, Coulter gets results.” She went on to assert that not supporting gay marriage doesn’t make her a homophobe because the liberals “just made up this gay marriage thing.” According to her, liberals simply make up causes for minorities in order to co-opt the same minorities. Why? Because liberals want to use gays to destroy the (heterosexual) family. Even more mind-boggling than her claim is the assertion that the conservative party is the place for these minority groups. Apparently conservatives will not co-opt your cause; if you’re lucky, they’ll convince you that your cause doesn’t even exist.
The awkward applause from people unsure of whether they should be clapping after she earnestly said “I am friend of the gays” stood in contrast to the rapturous exultation following her earlier declaration that “there should be more jailed journalists.” Her credibility as ambassador to homosexuality established, Coulter launched into a wonderfully uninformed and unintentionally revealing description of the debate. According to her, gay people argue that their sin is no worse than any other sin, and conservatives argue that they shouldn’t be setting up booths at a conservative conference promoting any sin. “But,” she said, “it’s different being gay—you have all of culture telling gays ‘you should be liberal.’” Coulter’s argument is not that gays should be welcomed as human beings with a natural and equal lifestyle, but as a victory over liberals. If she really is trying to convince homosexuals that they are “natural conservatives,” labeling their lifestyle as sin (and saying that gays do the same) may have been a miscalculation. Tactics notwithstanding, Coulter was as sincere in her efforts as she was ignorant when she told everyone: “There is something to being gay apart from the sodomy. That’s what I want their new motto to be, by the way” —she paused to take in the big laughs—“gays without the sodomy."
But as far as Coulter and Crowder are concerned, these events have no roots in harmful prejudice and injustice; they are simply acknowledging a difference of opinions like civilized people. These broadcast thugs don’t realize (or simply don’t care) that any opinion that would deny equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation is far from civilized. They have distanced their particular brand of bigotry from more ignoble types of hatred by turning to more professional and pragmatic means—no one allows him or herself to be labeled a hate-monger. Instead, they have learned that as long as they vigorously deny all claims of prejudice and never actually say the words “I hate ______,” they can claim they are simply acting in accordance with their religious beliefs, or for the more suave pundit, the laws of nature. Then the argument becomes one of infringing on the civil liberties of conservatives by destroying traditional family values, the sacred institution of marriage, and religion.
I started watching CPAC coverage hoping for some bad jokes or maybe a repeat of Karl Rove’s MC Rove rap at the 2007 Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, but I was genuinely surprised by the meanness of the whole thing. CPAC wasn’t ignoring GOProud’s opinions on homosexuality—it was rewriting them. The more I watched, the more it seemed like the plot for a B-list political drama starring Gene Hackman. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for this group of gay conservatives who existed in total political isolation.
GOProud wanted to attend CPAC not just because they supported small government and individual liberty, but also because they wanted to advocate for gay rights (under the umbrella of individual liberties) among their ideological brethren. Rush Limbaugh and Mike Huckabee frothed around about the sanctity of marriage, but GOProud took the heat and gave it back. The organization’s leadership knew what they were getting into; executive director Jimmy LaSalvia told NPR before the conference, “They’re boycotting because we’re gay. It’s not just that they may disagree on one issue or two issues.” Then Anne Coulter persuaded them to drop the gay rights stuff. And then Andrew Breitbart got up on stage and gave everyone in the room a pat on the back for being so tolerant of diversity right before pointing out that the existence of gay people is absurd and hilarious. Crowder is right: the people at CPAC aren’t the ones who don’t let you sit at the cool kids’ table; they’re much more vicious than that. CPAC are the ones who are happy to let you sit down so they can mock you to your face. And, in this case, try and get your vote.
Plenty of kids are willing to accept the abuse just for a place to sit, and it seems like GOProud is no different. In one video, a GOProud volunteer described his frustration with “stereotypical gay people,” saying that conservative values were all about being true to yourself and not pretending to be someone you are not. He must have forgotten that his organization ended its official opposition to a federal gay marriage ban shortly before the conference because Anne Coulter told them to.
The final act played out in the days after the conference. Rumors were circulating that Al Cardenas, the new president of the American Conservative Union Foundation, was not going to allow GOProud to return next year. In a post-event interview with C-SPAN he said that CPAC would not host organizations which support gay marriage or the repeal of DADT. (I know it was already repealed, but that’s what he said.) “There are a number of gays in America who don’t advocate gays in the military or gay marriage. They’ll fit within the tent.” And apparently, GOProud is just happy it can squeeze in. Referring to GOProud’s new, less gay approach for the new year, Chairman Chris Barron said, “If it’s a question of policy, based on our 2011 Legislative Agenda there shouldn’t be a question. Should be a slam dunk that GOProud is back next year.”
DANIEL STUMP B’14 would rather be watching Arthur.