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Gay Rights Missing From CPAC 2014, Despite Growing Acceptance Among GOP

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Gay rights was largely a non-issue at CPAC in 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Gay rights was largely a non-issue at CPAC in 2014. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- Activists gathered on Thursday at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference for a panel called "Reaching Out," designed to offer advice on how the Republican Party can expand its appeal to minority communities. But the need to reach out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community didn't come up once during the discussion.

"Much to my dismay, there was not a single mention of even the word gay, much less LGBT, in a far broader discussion of basically every other minority community that the conservative movement needs to do conservative outreach for," said Log Cabin Republicans President Gregory T. Angelo. "In my opinion, the silence was deafening on that front.

"There are greater numbers of individuals who identify as gay or lesbian who vote for Republican nominees for elected office than perhaps we're often given credit for. Those numbers weren't a part of the discussion because gay conservatives were not a part of that discussion," he added.

The few times the issue of gay rights has come up at CPAC were indirect mentions -- and they weren't in the direction of inclusion. On Thursday, for example, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) referenced his support for the star of the reality TV show "Duck Dynasty," who faced a backlash after making anti-gay remarks.

The American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, has had a difficult relationship with LGBT groups in recent years. Angelo said the Log Cabin Republicans wanted to have a "voice" at this year's conference and specifically asked to join the Reaching Out panel, seeing it as "a simple, non-controversial way to integrate gay conservatives into a discussion that wasn't only about gay marriage and gay issues."

"I directly asked the executive director of the ACU for participation in this event," said Angelo, who attended CPAC in an individual capacity. "The response that we got from leadership of the ACU was nill. There was zero response from them."

ACU did not return a request for comment from The Huffington Post either.

Members of GOProud, another gay conservative group, attended this year as guests, but they were not allowed to become sponsors of the event or host a booth.

GOProud's clash with CPAC started in 2011, when the group was banned from having any formal participation after social conservative groups objected to the organization's inclusion. Al Cardenas, who had just started as the head of ACU at the time, said he wanted to prioritize the conference's relationship with its "true friends" in the movement instead.

The exclusion of LGBT issues at CPAC this year surprised many attendees, particularly the younger ones.

"I don't think you can be big tent without [gay conservatives]," said Mike Casey, 25, of Front Royal, Va. "I think the Republican Party has to slowly change. It's kind of like the way Pope Francis has been reasserting the way he approaches the issue. The Republican Party needs to follow his lead on that, because I think actually a majority of Republicans at this point are fairly tolerant, but they're afraid to be outspoken about it."

"I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be allowed to be here, as far as presenting and all," added Brent Furbee, 25, of Easton, Md. "We're going to hear all day today and tomorrow how we need to get the youth involved, we need to bring in the young voters. Right now, if you go out on the street and ask -- probably seven out of 10 will say gay rights is one of their top three priorities. If we're shutting that out here, that's not a good sign for us. I don't get it. It's kind of disappointing."

LGBT equality is increasingly becoming a non-issue for many Republicans -- especially those under the age of 30 -- making CPAC's insistence on shutting out groups like Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud even more surprising. According to National Journal, 65 percent of CPAC attendees are under the age of 25.

"It is a private organization, so they should be able to do whatever they want. But they need to expand their base. I think it's kind of stupid they're not allowing more groups in," said Benjamin Fuller, 18, a student at Binghamton University, who noted that most of his conservative friends support LGBT equality.

Howard Liu, 22, a student at George Mason University, agreed that among his friends, same-sex marriage just isn't that controversial.

"I think they should be allowed," he said of gay conservative groups. "It's part of my libertarian views -- socially liberal, fiscally conservative. But there definitely are some social conservatives [in the movement], I guess. I don't know many of them. Most of my friends just think it's not an issue."

The anti-gay National Organization of Marriage was allowed to have a booth at CPAC's exhibit hall this year. But if foot traffic to the group's table was any indication, the conservative movement may be leaving the fight against marriage equality behind.

Ryan J. Reilly contributed reporting.

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