The official agenda for the 2013 Young Republican National Convention this week includes several subjects near and dear to the heart of the GOP: the Second Amendment, voter targeting, campaign finance and even a session on "growing minorities in our party" (read: black and Latino voters). But there is no reference to one issue that some Republicans contend will be instrumental to winning in 2016: gay rights.
"It's discouraging and I expect more of everybody, especially young people," said Tyler Deaton, campaign manager for the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry, a project of the national gay rights group Freedom to Marry.
Deaton tried to get a spot on the official agenda, but, like many gay rights advocates before him who have sought an official place under the GOP's tent, he was denied. Instead, he plans to throw a Friday night reception at the Mobile, Ala., hotel where the convention is being held.
"We reached out a few months back and let them know we wanted to be a part of it," said Deaton, who is openly gay and previously served as secretary of the New Hampshire Young Republicans. He had approached the organizers of the Alabama convention with optimism, after his group served as an official sponsor at the College Republicans' national convention in June.
"Our premise is that it's a topic that needs discussing, no matter what your perspective is," he said. "The Republican Party must embrace this debate."
Deaton is one of a growing number of young conservatives, gay and straight, who believe that supporting gay rights is critical to future success at the polls. Recent additions to his group include former Mitt Romney and John McCain operatives, who point to the latest surveys showing that the majority of Republicans under 50 support legalizing same-sex marriage. In June, Deaton said, the College Republican National Committee released a report finding that more than one-quarter of young Republicans would not vote for a candidate who opposed marriage for same-sex couples.
Despite the writing on the wall, Deaton said, there is still significant resistance within the GOP. "Ultimately, I don't know if there was discomfort or whatever," he said of the Alabama convention brushoff, "but we weren't able to put together any formal discussion at all."
Nevertheless, Deaton is feeling positive about Friday's reception and looking forward to the conversation it will generate. "The whole country has been on a journey, you know, and we know that the more we talk about this issue, the more people support it," he said. "Some people have never even been exposed to the conservative case for the freedom to marry."
David Pinkleton, public relations chairman for the 2013 Young Republican National Convention and author of the official agenda, said that he was happy to have the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry host a reception, but that he personally didn't plan to attend.
"This is just my personal opinion, but I'm a one-man, one-woman marriage person," Pinkleton explained. "If this was part of the formal program, with a debate over the pros and cons of traditional marriage vs. gay marriage, I'd be more open to attending."
However, he said, there weren't many openings in the formal schedule, and most went to organizations or speakers with a local connection in Alabama.
Stephanie Petelos, a student in economics and environmental studies at the University of Alabama who joined the Young Conservatives for the Freedom to Marry a few months ago, said she thought it was OK to hold their discussion in a more informal setting at the convention. Petelos, who also serves as chairwoman of the College Republican Federation of Alabama, is straight, but joined the freedom-to-marry group because she believes that "all people deserve to be treated equally under the law."
Still, she recognizes how controversial the issue is. "There are just so many people who have such varying opinions on it, so I think candid conversations are good," she said.
As for whether the GOP's current stance against same-sex marriage was hurting the party, Petelos was firm. "I know very few people my age from my school that are only for traditional marriage," she said. "And I do know for a fact that this particular issue is why a lot of them don't vote for any Republicans."