09/03/2012 10:26 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

'Don't Say Gay' at the GOP Convention: A View From the Floor

There he was, the first person I literally ran into on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Tampa: Tennessee State Senator Stacey Campfield, the man who authored his state's notorious "don't say gay" bill, which, if passed, would ban any discussion of homosexuality in state schools because, according to Campfield, homosexuality is "dangerous."

"You made me famous," he quipped, referring to comments he made in an interview I conducted with him that caused a national uproar when he claimed it is "virtually impossible to contract AIDS through heterosexual sex. " (Among other things, he'd also idiotically claimed that HIV migrated from monkeys to humans because of "one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men. It was an airline pilot, if I recall.")

Campfield and I got in a similar discussion right there at the Tennessee delegation, in which he summoned up all kinds of erroneous or outdated statistics to defend his position, and, once again, promoted his "don't say gay" bill.

That was day one, and Campfield and that bill became the metaphor for the entire GOP convention: No one uttered the word "gay" from the podium, nor did anyone want to speak about the issue when asked.

Romney campaign chair John Sununu was at first jovial and surprisingly friendly when I ran into him at the Wisconsin delegation. But, usually combative and fully engaged in defending all of Mitt Romney's views, he suddenly clammed up, deciding that the issue of gay marriage and Romney's support for a federal marriage amendment were "too complicated" to discuss in a brief interview. He said, however, he'd be happy to sit down with "two cases of beer" to talk about it with me some time. (And he wanted me to buy!) This is a man who, as governor of New Hampshire, and in years following, railed against LGBT rights, including marriage equality, which the state eventually enacted. Now, he was at a complete loss for words.

But this was far from any sort of retreat, and very much about the GOP's every-four-years masquerade ball. Make no mistake: homophobia is enshrined in the party's platform and was promoted by speaker after speaker in coded language meant to telegraph to the faithful that Mitt Romney would protect the world from the homosexual agenda. From Ann Romney's mention of "real marriage" and Ryan's line about "defending marriage," to Romney's promise to "honor the institution of marriage," the message was clear to religious right base.

Speaking with social conservatives on the floor, it's evident that they understand, pragmatically, that blatant fire and brimstone rantings just don't cut it anymore -- and they blame the "liberal media" for that -- but they point to the very pointed party platform plank on gay rights, which the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins proudly touted that he had written. A Texas delegate told me that the platform was enough for her and that Christian conservatives have now been "forced to be stealth" about taking on gay rights, casting her lot as the victims. "It's appalling that we have to be very quiet about Biblical values, but that's the way it is now," she said. "I'm fine with that as long as we protect the sanctity of marriage. We just have to trust our leaders to very quietly keep the gay agenda back and defend traditional marriage."

Bombastic radio talk show host Brian Fischer, of the American Family Association, had been uneasy about Romney's commitment to social conservatives -- and still is -- but said the choice of Paul Ryan as VP running mate sent a strong message because his opposition to gay rights is "unquestioned." Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage was confident and cocky about the GOP upholding an anti-gay agenda. He described a brief "battle" with the gay groups GOProud and Log Cabin Republicans over the platform, when a delegate from Nevada suggested striking language supporting a federal marriage amendment. "But it went nowhere," he said.

Even Log Cabin seemed to be playing into the "don't say gay" mentality. Though they claimed, as they have in years past, that they felt more "accepted' this year, none of their events -- of which there were several all week -- were listed any official RNC schedule, something executive director R. Clarke Cooper chalked up to an oversight on his group's part -- an oversight that was quite convenient for the GOP.

Those in the party who support gay rights in fact seem to have the same attitude as the social conservatives, and it looks like both sides are being played by the party leadership: don't say gay and we'll get want we want. A Florida delegate who described herself as a Palm Beach hostess and said she has many gay friends, including former Florida Congressman Mark Foley who left office in 2009 after being outed in a page scandal, said everyone should just stop talking about "the gay issue" for good.

"Just stay quiet, and live your life," she said, before startling me with a hug and kiss.

But no one ever attained their civil rights from being quiet. Keep your hugs and kisses. Just give me equality.