Evolving sense of direction for GOProud, GetEQUAL -- gay groups on right and left

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 24, 2010; C01

Under a portrait of a smiling Dick Cheney, the new gay right digs in its heels.

(Not gay rights. Gay right. As in gay conservatives. As in homocons -- their word, not ours.)

The portrait hangs in the English basement of a townhouse off Stanton Park in Capitol Hill. Obscuring the opposite wall is a gigantic yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flag, the ubiquitous emblem of federaphobia. Between Cheney -- "freedom is freedom for everyone," he said last year, referencing his own lesbian daughter -- and the flag's coiled serpent is Christopher Barron, in khakis, polo and navy blazer. He lives in Georgetown and married his boyfriend, Shawn, on St. Patrick's Day. The grooms wore black suits and matching green ties.

"Look, marriage is important to me," says Barron, 36, chairman of GOProud, an advocacy group for gay conservatives. "I support marriage equality. But it's a state issue, and states ought to be able to work through this process. And we're winning. The left seems hellbent on pulling defeat from the jaws of victory by focusing on this courts-only strategy. It's a complete and total turnoff to a huge segment of the voting population."

Everything's a turnoff these days. The right for the left, the left for the right. Conservative gays got nitpicky with the language in Judge Vaughn Walker's Prop. 8 decision. Liberal gays slapped their foreheads after agreeing to hinge "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on a Pentagon troop survey.

It's been a big, loud gay year, and a pair of young gay rights groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum have tried to be heard above the noise in Washington: GOProud, from its basement office in Capitol Hill, and GetEQUAL, a nationwide, direct-action network of activists co-captained by Managing Director Heather Cronk, 32, who lives in Maryland. The groups are not analogous in size, strategy or mission, but each aspires to commandeer the causes championed by the establishment -- embodied by the Human Rights Campaign on the left and the Log Cabin Republicans on the right.

"We intend to agitate from the outside," says Cronk, who joined the protest group four months ago. "Not just because we're angry but because agitation will give the people at the table more power. They'll be able to say, 'Hey you've got all these angry people outside the White House.' "

It's been a busy gay week, too. On Tuesday, Democrats failed to break a Republican filibuster of the defense authorization bill, which included a repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Both GetEQUAL and GOProud support repeal, but they reacted differently to defeat.

GOProud ripped Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for refusing to extend debate on the bill, then headed to New York for Homocon, a $250-to-$2,500-a-plate dinner at the home of billionaire and GOProud donor Peter Thiel, the libertarian co-founder of PayPal, with conservative instigator Ann Coulter as the group's keynote speaker.

GetEQUAL retrenched by pulling 80 people onto a conference call Wednesday night, soliciting the tactical ideas of supporters from Montana to Arkansas to Connecticut. Suggestions mirrored the actions that have already garnered publicity: sit-ins, walkouts and traffic blockades.

On April 20, Lt. Dan Choi and five other service members handcuffed themselves to the White House fence as part of a GetEQUAL operation. The day before, members organized an interruption of President Obama's speech at a fundraiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). The goal is to convey crisis, to make demands, to create iconic moments, says co-founder Robin McGehee, who lives in Fresno, Calif. And GOProud banks on winning hearts and minds by respecting a conservative philosophy that's strict but also inseparable from equality in marriage and the military.

GOProud co-sponsored the Conservative Political Action Conference in February and was assigned a booth near the National Organization for Marriage, which opposes same-sex unions.

"We thought we'd talk about inequalities in the tax code, but we ended up talking about marriage for three days," says Barron, who counts 7,000 people on the group's e-mail list. "That's what people wanted to talk about. There were tons and tons of young people, too, people hanging out at our booth for hours at a time, conservative grandmothers coming up to me saying, 'My grandson's gay and I don't care. I just want him to be conservative.' "

Barron and GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia both left the Log Cabin Republicans in 2008 after each was passed over for the job of executive director. In their opinion, Log Cabin became too liberal, too indebted to meddlesome funders and party stalwarts, too focused on hate crimes and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which they say affect only a sliver of the gay population and unnecessarily expand government reach.

"They don't know our legislative agenda," counters R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin, which has 19,000 members and won a federal lawsuit against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" earlier this month. "We're actually helping get the party back to basics, getting it to a point where it's attractive to gays and lesbians. Our legislative issues of interest right now are the DOD authorization bill and a tax equity bill."

GetEQUAL was born out of the National Equality March last year, when march organizers McGehee and Kip Williams paired with Washington progressive consultant Paul Yandura and Miami philanthropist Jonathan Lewis to form a group centered on direct action and results. The group now has five full-time employees salaried by a grant from Lewis.

In the '90s, the gay rights movement got in bed with the Democrats financially, according to Yandura, who worked on LGBT issues for the Clinton White House, and the results have been scant ever since.

"You end up worrying more about what stature you have in the administration and in Democratic leadership and within the social world of Washington than you do about wanting to get equal under the law," says Yandura, who often hosts out-of-town GetEQUAL organizers at his home in Columbia Heights. "Once you're at a high-level meeting, it's them telling you what'll happen, and if you fight that, you'll never come to another one."

But change needs to happen both seismically and incrementally, says Fred Sainz, vice president for communications at the Human Rights Campaign, which has 750,000 members and a $35 million budget.

"I think all social justice movements -- including ours, and especially at this pivotal time -- need an awful lot of simultaneous paths to same goal," Sainz says. "I do think that [GetEQUAL organizers] are effective agitators, and the imagery of what they can do is oftentimes a very powerful weapon in our arsenal, in order to make very vivid to leaders what the consequences of inaction are."

It comes down to misbehavior in the midst of the establishment -- GetEQUAL stopping traffic in Las Vegas to get Reid's attention and picketing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Capitol Rotunda, and GOProud targeting openly gay Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) for defeat and enlisting Coulter as a mascot.

The continued splintering of gay rights groups shows the movement is hardly uniform. But neither GOProud nor GetEQUAL has proven effective on their own, according to activist Bil Browning, founder and editor of the Bilerico Project, which calls itself the largest LGBT group blog and has nearly 100 contributing writers.

They're showing promise, though, because "they're actually taking the fight to the politicians," says Browning, who lives in Adams Morgan. "That's something that's been missing. There's been a lot of cozying up and a lot of donations made and currying of favor, but there's been nobody holding anyone accountable."

Both groups have weekend plans. GetEQUAL will host another conference call Sunday to plan actions pegged to upcoming presidential events, continuing the effort to force an absolute decision on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And at GOProud's Homocon in New York on Saturday night, Coulter plans to "forge the conservative/gay peace of westphalia!" she says via e-mail. "Conservatives will: 1) stop treating gay sex any differently from premarital sex, 2) stop blaming nice, conservative gays for the [actions of] hateful, angry, leftist gays . . . and 3) agree to do something about their hair. Gays will drop this business about gay marriage and pushing pc rules on the military."

Sounds like GOProud's guest of honor is opposed to two of its core issues.

"This isn't a policy event," Barron explains. "It's a party. I don't agree with Ann on everything. I don't agree with everybody on everything. . . . We understand there are people who won't be with us on everything. . . . We don't live in a world of absolutes."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company