A Time article about the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) three weeks ago offered the observation that the annual event of conservative activists was "mostly silent" on the issue of gay marriage, discussion of which was "brief or nonexistent." From the main stage Jeb Bush confirmed he'd not changed his mind, and still supported "traditional marriage," but, according to Time, he "curtly" moved on. Senator Ted Cruz criticized judges' rulings and said that marriage laws should be left to the states, Time reported, but it was a "brief response" to a question by Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Much of the media followed a similar narrative, and it sometimes had the misleading effect of making it seem as if attacks on LGBT rights and even gay marriage had been purged from the event. And as coverage of CPAC goes, so goes much of the coverage of the conservative movement and the Republican Party.
But I saw a much different CPAC. The event -- and much of the conservative movement -- has moved further into a dangerous phase, in which vilification of LGBT people is done by portraying Christians as victims of the aggressive homosexual agenda. And that, of course, is the crux of the argument promoting pernicious "religious liberty" bills in states across the country that target LGBT people. It was disappointing that much of the media didn't pick up on this at CPAC. And that's a warning that we should stop using discussion of same-sex marriage as the yardstick to measure whether people are "pro-gay," "anti-gay," or indifferent, and instruct the media to do the same. The Supreme Court will likely end the same-sex marriage issue by June, but as 90-year-old Phyllis Schlafly told me at CPAC, the Christian right crusade will hardly end.
From the main stage, where Brent Bozell lamented that there's only "one morally permissible position on gay rights," to the various panels, participants cast themselves as under assault. On a panel about the future of marriage that was ostensibly about single motherhood and the "absence" of fathers, there was despair about the supposed influence of gays. Heather Mac Donald of the conservative Manhattan Institute -- who has written about gay marriage's "unintended consequences" -- lamented that though she understands "the impulse of gays to get married," it's "going to be the final nail in coffin" with regard to talking about the importance of fathers, because that will be seen as "dissing the lesbian couples."
On Saturday, in the main ballroom, conservative columnist Cal Thomas -- who later told me in an interview that gay marriage was a sign of the "end times" -- led a panel discussion on threats to "religious freedom" that included Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. When Thomas asked, "How pervasive is the attack on religious liberty?" Perkins, referring to businesses fined for turning away gay couples, bellowed about, "photographers, wedding cake makers, and florists who are losing their businesses because they refuse to leave their faith at home."
"Our religious freedom does not stop at the door of the church or our home," Perkins said. "We should be able to take it into the workplace and everywhere we go."
FRC has been labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for putting out horrendous lies about gay people and making odious attacks. But the most bombastic, sensational comments on the panel came not from Perkins or Thomas, but from radio host Dana Loesch. This is significant because the media could, in their new narrative, dismiss Thomas as a somewhat kooky emblem of the old guard, and try to wave off Perkins as the waning power broker whose might in the movement is diminishing. But Loesch is 36, came up through the Tea Party as an organizer, and made her way into the mainstream as a caustic commentator on CNN, and even co-hosted The View once. She says she's heard on 67 radio stations, in addition to her other media outlets, and clearly represents a younger voice of the conservative movement.
"Work is a ministry," she ranted, whirling herself into a frenzy. "Christians view what they do Monday through Friday as a ministry. You don't just hang up your faith."
Loesch then hit on what we should take as a cautionary note when she talked about the callers to her radio show, saying that even many of those who are not religious agree with her. As a radio host myself, I believe her. By the views of my own callers, I know that the public is still very misinformed -- even among those who identify as "pro-gay" or who support gay marriage -- and many believe there is something different about a baker choosing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple. A recent Associated Press poll backed this up, in which a plurality of those polled favored marriage equality while 57 percent believed a baker or florist should be allowed to refuse service to gays for religious reasons. Loesch clearly knows what could be a new wedge, and where the battle lines on LGBT issues will be drawn moving forward.
"One of the things I find incredibly striking is that -- I'm a Christian and I'm a total partisan hack -- but I have a lot of people who call in and they understand," she said.
If not religious liberty, then what? This is one variable in a multi-faceted attempt for the government to grab individual rights...You don't have to be a Christian to be affected by religious liberty...They say, 'If I'm not taking up your losing rights, well, then what will happen to me when the day comes and someone comes to me? What if you're stoned for walking out in the street for being gay?'
And with that statement she preposterously, frighteningly attempted to turn the "religious liberty" argument into one that is actually defending gays. Yet still, she painted gays as the aggressors, and Christians as the victims.
"I feel like it's time to make Christians a protected class," she said to great applause, seeming not to know or care that religion -- yes, including Christianity -- is already a protected class under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. "We need to have a discussion about making Christians a protected class, and that seems to be the direction it's going."
Anyone who didn't see the homophobia at CPAC -- and the organizing around it that still animates much of the conservative movement, and is bowed to by the GOP -- must have been wearing blinders.
Michelangelo Signorile's next book, It's Not Over: Getting Beyond Tolerance, Defeating Homophobia, and Winning True Equality, will be published April 7 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.