Okay, show of hands: who laughed when they heard that GOProud was going to attend CPAC? I know I did. The story couldn't have been more nonsensical: a gay group attending one of the foremost rally points of the anti-gay circuit? How daft! How absurd! How self-abusive! We pointed our fingers and laughed at what we thought we saw: self-hating gays running to the lobby attempting to strip their rights and saying, "Love us! We're cool people, really!"
Now that the event is over, and we've all had a chance to take in the event highlights, I think we need to take a second look at GOProud's CPAC strategy. Tactically, it was a counterintuitive move: why waste time, money, and breath on people who would rather see you dead? Strategically, however, I think their presence at CPAC was one of the worst things that could possibly happened to the antigay lobby. As much as we wanted to poke fun, and as much as we wanted to be angry with their decision, their presence forced a question that isn't often asked at these conferences: "do Conservatives actually care about gay people and their crazy 'Homosexual Agenda'?"
Even in this group of hardline social conservatives, the answer was a resounding "meh."
The Anti-Gay Industry
To understand this response in context we have to step back and look at how the anti-gay industry actually works. The industry relies on misinformation, perceived threats, and badly manipulated scholarship to push against the normalization of LGBT people. They then capitalize on LGBT people's internalized shame (the law hates me, my family hates me, and these people really hate me: what do I do?) with snake-oil promises of change and cures - all at a competitive market rate, of course. Fundraise on fear, and sweep up cash from the fallout in the community: any way you slice it, it's a damn fine business model.
The trick to this process, however, is that LGBT people have to be seen as this horrible, faceless enemy. By dehumanizing our sexuality and gender identity we become perfect strawmen for their saber-rattling tactics; tell people that a group is out to get their children and the wallets open right up. They rely on bandwagoning to disseminate their message: "we are conservative, therefore we all hate gay rights, therefore we need money to fight gay rights." Up until this point nobody at CPAC was willing or able to challenge this presumption.
GOProud's presence at the CPAC threw this dehumanization for a loop: after all, some people may want to hear the "those evil gays are gonna get you" story from the horse's mouth, right? Their very presence at the conference, in the face of years and years of institutionalized and sanctioned homophobia, threw the usual narrative for a loop. Awkward PR moments and terrible gaffes ensued, and at the end of the conference the attendees left with a feeling of ambivalence to the idea of gay rights. While this may not seem like a lot, it's a darn sight better than the usual "gays are the end of the world" rhetoric we see coming from this conference.
But GOProud's presence at CPAC wasn't just born in vacuum. It's been coming for a long while.
Polling trends, XPAC, and Focus's image-restoration campaign
Socially conservative groups - specifically, anti-gay groups - are dealing with the terrible problem of shrinking market opportunities. Young people are increasingly leaning toward social liberalism, equality, and fairness, potentially due to the decreased influence of socially rigid religious thought in our society. For associations like NOM and FotF, this is especially troubling: in all walks of life - rich and poor, rural and urban, old and especially young - the power of the anti-gay vote is trending downward. Neutrally-worded polls show that a majority of voters support basic civil rights legislation, DADT repeal, and the equal treatment of LGBT people.
The youth's push toward a live-and-let-live mentality can't be overstated. People in my generation - the millenials - have grown up knowing gay people: they are our friends, our compatriots, our best buddies. It's hard to hate a faceless sexuality when your best friend, your uncle, your sister, or any important figure in your life comes out as gay. Age, another factor that correlates to degrees of LGBT acceptance, is also phasing out much of the anti-gay core crowd.
To reduce it to the core worst-case scenario for the anti-gay cottage industry: no admonishment of LGBT people by majority means no pressure to not be LGBT, which means no more ex-gay therapy, which means no more political fundraising, and suddenly the Maggies and the Bam-bams and the LaBarberas and the Camerons of their industry have to go out and find big-boy and big-girl jobs.
The nicknamed-ten-years-too-late XPAC (which, incidentally, brings me back to my days as a WWF fan) attempted to woo the young crowd with Xboxes and conservative hip-hop concerts. (Oh, and some anti-gay sentiment from the youth outreach leader, lest we think it was without an angle.) The focus of Sean Waltman XPAC? Fight back against academia and the suits, play xbox, be "totally radical."
Maybe the anti-gay agenda was hidden, right? Maybe those XPAC folks were having way too much fun with Wii Golf and meet-and-greets with Skeletor Ann Coulter to mention "oh yeah, screw those gays." I'm sure the straw poll will show CPAC's commitment putting them uppity gays back in their place:
Oh. Wait, it wasn't that important at all? Really now. How queer!* I'm just certain that a little pot-stirring about those evil gays will get at least a round of applause, right? I mean, we're all gettin' Rowdy Up In Here, right?
The traditional values groups appear to have seen this coming for quite a while now and have started shifting their platform to keep the fundraising money flowing. Focus has especially downshifted from their anti-gay rhetoric, choosing instead to attack the much more black-and-white issue of abortion as a kitchen-table fundraising tool. Their latest advertising, and the hiring of a kinder, gentler, more progressive-leaning head of youth outreach all point to a downplaying of their anti-gay agenda. It's still there, yes, and we should by all means work to diminish their impact wherever we can; however, in the grand scheme of things our rights are becoming a non-issue.
In the middle of all this, not two tables away from the group whose "evil-gays-out-to-get-you" platform is starting to spring leaks, sat GOProud, the symbolic reminder that times are changing.
Putting it all together
Look, I'm not going to try and tout CPAC as an up and coming bastion of tolerance and acceptance. It is what it always has been: a hotbed of paranoia, spurred on by racism, homophobia, governmentophobia, and more Other-isms than one can count on two hands. I'm sure the straw polls don't tell the entire story, and that many of the attendees at the conference would probably want to see us arrested.
However, I ask you this: would the downshifting of anti-gay animus at CPAC been an interesting mainstream media issue had GOProud not been there to turn it into a "strange bedfellows" human interest story? GOProud's presence did two primary things: one, it turned into a PR nightmare for anti-gay groups; and two, it forced the CPAC group as a whole to revisit the gay question.
The point is simple: gay and lesbian people are becoming a non-issue in the eyes of conservatives. Do people still dislike us? Yes, in many cases. However, that GOProud was even able to get a seat at the most conservative of conservative conferences is a tacit nod to the present political climate, at the very least. They understand that up-and-coming conservative youth (read: their future voting block) has grown up around gay people, been friends with gay people, and are, generally speaking, equality-minded. The "shove gays back into the closet" platform is no longer the slam-dunk issue it once was, and that is very good news for us.
The sudden and violent implosion of democratic power over the past few weeks has created a nasty, dog-eat-dog legislative climate. Conservatives are looking to sweep votes and gain some seats in the midterm election - votes that they probably will get - and to do that they may need to do more than just fire up the base. Who knows? Maybe some enterprising Republicans will wave the rainbow flag and try to sweep up the dollars clogged up in the DNC's gAyTM. Crazy, yes, but a girl can dream, right?
I just wish I could be a fly on the wall at the latest anti-gay strategy meetings. If CPAC's new direction isn't enough, right-wing bloggers are starting to put the pieces together: if the Right gets over their homosexual hangups, the Dems are in big trouble. The walls are closing in on the anti-gay industry, and no matter how hard they thrash they are going to close up shop eventually. GOProud's presence is just the first symbolic step toward that demise.
* - No homo, of course. Gotta keep up my XPAC cred.