In Fred Karger's Presidential Run, GOP Stands for Gay Old Party

The OC resident and onetime Republican hatchet man hopes his quixotic campaign can push his party to become more gay-friendly

In Fred Karger's Presidential Run, GOP Stands for Gay Old Party

Shortly after sirens alert residents to potential approaching tornados, an odd trio emerges from a Dallas hotel on a Saturday evening in late April: Fred Karger, an operative for three Republican presidents, an ex-Hollywood actor and Philip Morris spinmeister; Roy Ashburn, California's most vociferously anti-gay politician until 2010, when he was caught driving drunk after leaving a gay bar with a boyfriend; and me. Though Karger and Ashburn spent most of their lives frantically hiding their homosexuality while serving anti-gay candidates and causes, they are now unapologetically out of the closet. Newfound freedom allows them to do what would have once been considered career suicide: After a day of political strategizing, they invite a reporter to accompany them to a gay dance club.

But we have a problem.

There are no taxis in sight at the exit to the Hilton Anatole. Ashburn, once called "the biggest gay hypocrite ever," throws up his hands and asks, "What should we do?" He has to wake up at 6 the next morning to catch a flight, and he's anxious to mingle. Karger, who in March became the first openly gay major party presidential candidate ever, is about to speak when, in the distance, headlights flash on and a vehicle slowly approaches. It's a black stretch limousine.

Laguna Beach resident Fred Karger doesn't mind self-deprecation in his march to become the first openly gay U.S. president
Mark Graham
Laguna Beach resident Fred Karger doesn't mind self-deprecation in his march to become the first openly gay U.S. president
The candidate catches a Frisbee toss from a reporter in a Dallas hotel
Mark Graham
The candidate catches a Frisbee toss from a reporter in a Dallas hotel

"My presidential limo!" quips Karger, who has homes in Laguna Beach and Los Angeles. The driver—a portly, middle-aged man with a Mediterranean accent—asks for our destination. "A gay bar," replies Karger, who gives an address and negotiates a low fee.

During the trip to Station 4, Karger and Ashburn joke about becoming running mates. Their White House-dreaming banter is so lively the driver tells them, "I like you guys. You are very funny."

Perhaps the driver didn't understand that Karger and Ashburn are serious about getting a gay person into the nation's top elected office, or at least making sure an anti-gay candidate isn't elected president. In their view, the Republican Party has allowed itself to drift too far to the religious right and, in the process, abandoned the principle of individual liberty. They're in town for the convention of the Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), the nation's premier gay-conservative political organization. The perpetually jovial Karger, who headed the pro-gay-marriage Californians Against Hate campaign opposing Proposition 8 in 2008, is blunt about his goal.

"I want to open up the Republican Party," says the man partly responsible for the "Willie Horton" prison-furlough TV commercial that helped sink Michael Dukakis' 1988 Democratic presidential campaign. "I want to send a message to young people and gay people: You can do anything you want to do."

*     *     *

Among those gathered at the Hilton Anatole are conservative activists representing 17 national political groups. They've come to ridicule excessive taxes on the rich, Obamacare, Democratic Party socialism, reckless government spending and the liberal war on traditional values. It's two days before President Barack Obama is to give Navy SEALs a license to kill Osama bin Laden, and this crowd is comfortable berating the president for his wimpy foreign policy.

And then there are the Log Cabin Republicans. Though it doesn't always get respect from liberal gay activists, LCR has a daunting task: advance gay rights inside an often mean-spirited, anti-gay Republican Party. The group traces its roots back to the late 1970s in Southern California, when gay conservatives came together to oppose the Briggs Amendment—named for Fullerton state Senator John Briggs—that would have banned gays from teaching in public schools. Sean Penn's Milk, about the life of slain San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, featured the Briggs drama.

More than 30 years after the Briggs proposal, society is still wrestling with what roles it will allow gay citizens to play. Inside one hotel conference room during that weekend, LCR meets to discuss the Pentagon's Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy, which bans openly gay men and women from serving in the U.S. military. Panelists agree that despite DADT's repeal, the battle is—as LCR executive director R. Clarke Cooper notes—"far from over."

Another panelist, Los Angeles lawyer Dan Woods, says, "They [military brass] still have lesbian-baiting. That's when a male soldier hits on a female soldier, and if she doesn't agree to sex, he can say, 'Well, she must be gay. Otherwise, why wouldn't she have sex with me?'"

LCR convention attendees, mostly male and ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s, chuckle. Woods adds that the baiting is causing straight female soldiers to have sex with "alpha males" to avoid the lesbian label and potential discharge from duty.

For some activists in the room, talk of gay sex in the military visibly lifts them from a pre-lunch slumber. The majority of participants is wearing business suits, which makes it easy to spot pro-gay activist Kevin Miniter when he enters the room and looks for a seat. Eyes shoot away from the panelists onstage and stay focused on Miniter. The 27-year-old Karger campaign researcher is wearing a shirt-and-pants outfit that tightly grips his tall, slender body. His well-developed pecs and firm buttocks cause several attendees to audibly gasp in appreciation.

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