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Gay conservative group tests GOP unity at conference

Some participants in this year's CPAC conference in Washington, D.C., aren't happy about the presence of GOProud — a group for gay conservatives.
Image: Tea Party Caucus
Sens. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., left, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., right, join Tea Party supporters in saying the Pledge of Allegiance during the first meeting of the U.S. Senate Tea Party Caucus on Jan. 27, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.Win Mcnamee / Getty Images
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Grassroots conservatives are often quick to say that you don't have to sport a Tri-Corner hat or wave a Gadsden flag to be a Tea Party fan.

And, according to some Republican activists gathered at the annual CPAC confab in Washington, D.C., you don't have to be straight either.

"A lot of the things that we talk about are the exact same things that the Tea Party talks about," says Chris Barron, one of the founders of two-year-old organization GOProud, a group for gay conservatives. "We're about limiting government, getting the government out of peoples' lives."

GOProud — which advocates for "individual liberty" and argues that the issue of same-sex marriage should be left to the states — is one of over 100 organizations participating in this year’s conference, a 38-year-old gathering of conservative activists sponsored by the American Conservative Union.

Not everyone is happy about their inclusion.

The group’s presence prompted a handful of socially conservative organizations to opt out of participating in this year’s event, including Concerned Women for America and the American Principles Project.

The Family Research Council, led by Tony Perkins, is another organization that will not be attending the conference. (Perkins notes that the group has not attended CPAC for the past several years because of what he perceives as its “leftward drift” — including its tolerance of lawmakers that support online gambling or legalized marijuana. FRC sponsors its own annual conference — the Values Voter Summit — which attracts conservative organizations and presidential hopefuls each year.)

Debate over gay rights, Perkins says, can certainly take place in the public sphere, but he contends that a Reagan-inspired event for Republican activists isn’t the right setting.

“This is not a conference in which people on the left and right come together,” he said on MSNBC Wednesday. “This is where conservatives come together.”

A group called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property distributed flyers at the conference urging attendees not to “betray principles” and allow “the liberal media’s … homosexual agenda” to be forced upon conservatives.

That’s the kind of sentiment that just makes GOProud’s Barron roll his eyes.

Unlike other conservative positions on issues like ending federal funding for abortion or facilitating greater access to home schooling, he says, gay rights issues no longer resonate with most conservatives.

“This is the one ‘social issue’ that’s losing traction every single day,” says Barron.

So far, the event’s speakers appear to agree.

This year’s three-day-conference will include speeches from rising conservative stars like Sen. Rand Paul, presidential hopefuls like former Govs. Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty, as well as famously astringent commentator Ann Coulter.

Few of the famed conservatives on the conference’s agenda are the type who cheered the repeal of "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell" or who lobby for civil unions.

Yet halfway through the first day of the cattle call — between solemn invocations of Ronald Reagan’s legacy, fiery denunciations of “Obamacare,” and a smattering of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the president’s birth certificate — references to sexual orientation from the podium were virtually nonexistent.

Potential presidential candidate and former Senator Rick Santorum, who once famously compared homosexuality and bestiality, underscored "social issues" only in the context of judicial decisions allowing same sex marriage and abortion.

Even in a panel discussion entitled "Traditional Marriage and Society," participants offered statistics on "marriage culture" and implied that same sex marriage could undermine traditional families. But the word “gay” was uttered only once and “homosexual” not at all.