Fred Schein is used to being seen as an outsider for his political orientation. At times, he draws stares from the LGBT community and from members of his own party.
“When I am at a party, they’ll make a joke and say, ‘Here’s Fred, a big conservative! Say something like a conservative!’ said Schein, president of San Francisco Log Cabin Republicans. He is used to such remarks from liberals.
“We are conservative Republicans who happen to be LGBT. We are unique. We are a minority numerically,” Schein said. “There are many people in the LGBT community who either resent us or strongly dislike us. … They believe there is an inconsistency in being gay and conservative.”
For Schein, the fundamentals of being a conservative are rooted in being tolerant of others and allowing for individual liberty with minimal government intrusion. The right to express oneself as one wishes and the freedom to marry for consenting adults is part of this ideology. Thus, he aligns himself with the right and the Republican Party.
According to the group’s website, the Log Cabin Republicans started as a collection of separate groups in California in the late 1970s. The groups mobilized against a statewide ballot initiative aimed at preventing gay and lesbian teachers from teaching in public schools. The criticism of this initiative was echoed by former California Gov. Ronald Reagan, and the initiative was eventually defeated. The groups continued to organize through the 1980s and united under the name “Log Cabin Republicans” in 1993. Schein said some issues like LGBT acceptance at the workplace and sodomy laws were important issues for the group in the past. Repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was also an important milestone.
California continues to be an important state for the group. San Francisco’s chapter is the oldest one in the nation, Schein said. In March, the group was recognized by the Republican Party as an “official volunteer organization.” The chapter holds monthly meetings and endorses candidates.
“Our endorsement has become well-sought after. Last year, 18 candidates came to our endorsement meeting to seek our endorsement. … It was a demonstration of our significance,” Schein said. Volunteers help with campaigns of endorsed candidates.
He adds that members do not often end up joining the group by accident. Members usually go through their own thought process before joining the group. Losing friends and drawing unwelcome stares are just some potential outcomes.
“When you announce yourself to the world as a gay conservative, you are taking a certain risk. There will be people who’ll be offended and challenge you on that,” Schein said.
Political commentator Guy Benson recently became the latest national figure to be classified as a “gay conservative.” The Fox News contributor and Townhall.com political editor mentioned his sexual orientation as a footnote in one of his books. According to a BuzzFeed article, the message to the reader said, “Guy here. So, I’m gay.” Benson adds that his identity consists of more than being classified as a gay man.
“Being gay is, of course, a salient part of my identity — but it doesn’t primarily define who I am as a human being. My political ideology is also a major component of my life. I believe that politics, leadership and ideas matter, for our country and for the world. While I embrace the sentiment that neither ‘side’ has a monopoly on the truth, I lean decidedly to the right because I see conservatism as best equipped to handle most of the issues I prioritize,” he wrote in an email.
Since coming out, he said the response has been mostly positive. “Of the relatively few nasty and negative responses, I’m sorry to say that most have come from the gay left. Some people have chosen to see me as the ‘wrong’ sort of gay person, and therefore deserving of special opprobrium,” he wrote. “Ironically, certain elements of the hard right and hard left actually agree that I ‘can’t’ be both conservative and gay. Yet here I am.”
A lot of stereotypes boil down to a lack of understanding of intersecting identities. Gender identities and sexual orientation are distinct from political orientation. The LGBT community as a whole is also diverse in different aspects. According to a 2014 Gallup report, LGBT Americans tend to identify as liberals. Yet, a significant number, more than a third, identify as independents or conservatives.
“I believe in the complexity of humanity and I want to be all of it. I want to be a Christian, a gay, a Republican. I work on social change and I love that complexity. I don’t buy the stereotype from the left,” said Richard Tafel, founder of the Log Cabin Republicans. “We are all complex, and we should be looking for politics that allows for our complexity, not squeeze people into stereotypical boxes.”
The purpose of the Log Cabin Republicans was to bring the gay conservative voice to the table. “To get anything accomplished in American life, it required engaging both political parties,” Tafel said. “In the gay and lesbian movement at the time, we didn’t have the drive to even gain access to the Republicans. So, the logic was someone has to educate the Republicans.”
He also had a new perspective for the gay movement. “What surprises people is that the gay movement was not very interested in gay marriage. They saw it as too traditional and too patriarchal. Yet, you had a conservative push for gay marriage,” he said.
Gay Republicans just like any other conservatives tend to look at the world from a conservative perspective, said Tafel. Free markets, faith and limited government intervention form bedrock principles for this worldview.
Tafel’s background serves as a reminder that identities are complicated. With a degree from Harvard Divinity School, he is a Christian theologian and minister who was one of the early activists in the same-sex marriage movement and debated pastors on this issue. Tafel did so by describing how his Christian faith was as important to him as it was to his opponents.
Tafel emerged on the political scene during the “culture wars” of the 1990s when LGBT issues were deeply contested. He got involved with politics while managing a campaign for his friend in Massachusetts. With the help of William Weld, the onetime Republican governor of Massachusetts, Tafel established the first Gay and Lesbian Youth Commission as well as some of the first domestic partnership benefits for state employees in the country.
Reactions to his political orientation were noteworthy.
“The Republicans did not know what to do. It was no longer a gay liberal activist attacking. That was easy. Here was a Christian minister who was a Republican who had worked for a Republican governor. They couldn’t write me off,” Tafel said.
“The liberals were in many cases more upset, more angry. They really felt that if you were going to be a gay person, you must be a Democrat. If you were a Republican, you were a sellout to the community. You were a Jew working for the Nazis. There was a lot of negative feedback,” Tafel said.
Tafel said the Log Cabin Republicans played a strategic role in reaching milestones in the gay rights movement. Apart from arguing for same-sex marriage in the 1990s, they also convinced the pharmaceutical industry to look for scientific solutions to HIV/AIDS. He said that the gay conservative movement helped the movement reach a broader base because it wasn’t seen as a leftist revolutionary plot anymore.
For a lot of gay conservatives, their conservative political background was part of their upbringing. Both Schein and Tafel grew up in traditionally Republican families. Their sexual identities did not trump their political worldview. After being “out” as a conservative in the public eye, Schein and Tafel do not encounter as many stereotypical assumptions.
Schein also said being a gay conservative means that their organized efforts often go unnoticed.
“We are not only as gay as you are, but we are also doing more work than you may be to make the world better for LGBT people. We use our knowledge of politics; we use our organizational structure to change minds,” Schein, a Vietnam veteran, said. “Once the Republican Party came to see us as workers, as people who can get things done, they accept us.”
Seeking coalition with religious conservatives who form a major voting bloc of the Republican Party and oppose same-sex marriage can be a challenge, though.
“This is an issue of broad prejudice entrenched in some people. It is often expressed by religious people, but it is expressed by non-religious people, too,” Schein said.
He added that even though these people are incorrect in the views they hold, they are still good and sincere at heart. With other members like those in the Tea Party, he said the best approach is to find common ground. He said members from this wing of the party have more issues with the government than with sexual orientation of some members.
“I don’t want to mislead you to believe we don’t have opposition. We do. But we are so used to that it is not awful, it is just unpleasantness we deal with on occasion,” Schein said. Just like other conservatives, he said he is optimistic about changing people for the better.
Looking ahead to the future
Schein, Benson and Tafel all agree that social acceptance of gays has improved over the course of their lives and will likely continue in the future. This would be the case even in the absence of political change. They feel upbeat about the younger generation that is more accepting of gay rights.
“I have observed that politicians are always followers, never believers,” Tafel said. “You should lead your movement and the politicians will follow. … Barack Obama came after gay marriage after a certain percentage of Democrats said it was okay. … If you want to change the world, don’t look to your political leaders to make it happen. Do the grassroots effort and they will follow.”
Correction (Sept. 8, 2015): An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the San Francisco chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans. It is the largest chapter in the nation, not the oldest. Also, the group is recognized by the Republican Party as an “official volunteer organization,” but it is not the only one.