Stepping out from brother Newt's shadow

Candace Gingrich stands up for gay rights as Congress bashes them


Jonathan Broder
September 11, 1996 12:32PM (UTC)

WASHINGTON --

for the past two years, Candace Gingrich has been traversing the country as a spokesperson for gay rights. Until now, her newsworthiness was fueled in large measure by the fact that she is the sister of the Speaker of the House, who, along with his party, is no friend of gays or gay rights. But with the publication of her memoir, "The Accidental Activist" (Scribner), the short-haired 30-year-old activist has emerged as an articulate voice and an effective political agent in her own right. "She is that rare spokesmodel who has refused to submit to a makeover," wrote Le Anne Schreiber in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

Gingrich took a break from her book tour Tuesday to witness the
Senate vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, a bill that allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages performed by other states. The Senate narrowly rejected a second bill that would extend civil rights laws to protect gays in the workplace. We spoke with her at her office at the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based gay rights lobby.

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This could not have been a good day for you.

It's a mixture. On one hand, it will be a day that goes
down in legislative infamy. The Defense of Marriage Act brings
scapegoating of one group of Americans by another, just to score political
points, to new heights. On the other hand, history was made because the Senate voted on a gay civil rights bill for the first time. Especially when you consider that the past two years have shown us some of the most gratuitous gay-bashing rhetoric that I can remember in recent history.

Still, the vote for the Defense of Marriage Bill was pretty lopsided (83-14).

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Well, it's a campaign year. The main sponsor of the bill in the Senate was Bob Dole.
It's pretty odd, though, when you consider that the Republican mantra always has been less federal intrusion and more power to the states. Yet in this instance, Dole seems to think it's okay for the federal government to intrude upon something that's always been a states' rights issue. And what Congress has done is to pass legislation in reaction to an event that hasn't even happened yet. The state of Hawaii is looking at
recognizing same-sex unions, but the case, which just reopened, probably
isn't going to be decided for another two years.

Yet President Clinton says he will sign the bill.

We've known since 1992 that he does not support same-sex marriages. But at the same time, he's the first president ever to endorse a gay civil rights bill. Bill Clinton isn't perfect. But you've got to look at whom you're working with, how far they've come and what is their capacity to continue learning.

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And the vote on the employment bill was very close.

There are many senators who understand this isn't a partisan issue, or whether you condone gay or lesbian Americans. It's a matter of fairness. What we're saying is that when you walk into the workplace in America, you should be judged by your ability to do
your job and not prejudged based on something that has nothing to do with that
job.

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Will you try again with this bill?

Yes. In the Senate, one of our strategies is to try to attach it as an amendment to one
of the appropriations bills. In the House, there has never been a gay civil
rights bill, although the issue is being debated in several subcommittees.
In the short time that's left in this Congress, we will work to bring it
to a vote.

And you'll be going up to Capitol Hill to lobby your brother.

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So far, he hasn't been receptive to listening to anything
I have to say about gay and lesbian issues. I've faxed or called and left messages, but he's never replied. I faxed him a list of questions when I was researching my
book. I never heard from him. At one point, I cornered him in an elevator and
he said that maybe we could do a telephone interview the next week. I got a
call after a week from his deputy press secretary, saying he had refused my
request for an interview.

But he's your brother. Can't you just call him up at home?

Yes, he's my brother. And he has known that I'm a lesbian for nine years
now. He's knows that gay and lesbian Americans can be fired
for no reason other than the simple fact that they are gay or lesbian. He's
known for years that gays are second-class citizens in our country. So I think
my time is better served traveling around the country, motivating
other people to get their voices heard, rather than trying to discuss an issue
with a man who has shown himself to be receptive not one iota.

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When your family gets together, say over Thanksgiving or Christmas,
do you try to reason with him?

We have both stated that we accept each other. But his acceptance
does not translate into an understanding of my lack of protection in this
country. Before I became an activist, I never felt the need to confront him.
I didn't even know his stances on gay and lesbian issues, and I didn't feel equipped to discuss politics with him. Since I came out, I haven't had the opportunity to confront him. For the past two Christmas dinners in a row, he chose to go to his wife's parents. If he comes home this Christmas, maybe I'll get the chance.

You came out in 1987 when Newt was a Republican member of Congress.
What was his reaction then?

He said it was my life and that I had the right to live it
the way I wanted. A good libertarian view. Mind you, I had only come out to
my family and friends. For the next eight years, I felt if I were to come out
nationally, I could jeopardize Newt's career, as well as my family's love,
respect and support. So I kept a pretty low profile.

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But after Newt became Speaker of the House, there was a lot of media attention, and it wasn't long before a reporter looked at my short hair, my truck and my rugby pictures and figured out that I was a lesbian. She asked me directly, and I saw no reason to
lie. I felt I was helping dispel the myth that gays and lesbians come from
abnormal, dysfunctional families.

What turned you from a rugby player to an activist?

It was a family conversation at Thanksgiving in 1994, the same year Newt
became speaker. My sister asked how I felt about Newt's remark that gays
should be tolerated the way we tolerate alcoholics. I was dumbfounded. Later,
I found that was just the tip of the iceberg. After I joined the Human Rights
Campaign, which keeps very thorough records, I learned that he called for an
investigation into what he called the recruitment of school children by
homosexuals. His thinking was that since we can't reproduce, we go to the
schools and recruit people to become gay or lesbian. He also said that
homosexuals are incapable of having families. And when Congress was calling
for the compilation of hate crime statistics, he voted for an amendment that
exempted hate crimes against homosexuals from the statistics.

Is Newt homophobic, or do you think he takes these stands out of political expedience?

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Well, since he refuses to sit down and speak with me, that question
has yet to be answered. I don't like either possibility very much, but it's
my hope that he's at least educable.


Quote of the day

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning ...

"Family values. Cut to Chelsea. Family values. Cut to Chelsea. Cut to Chelsea. Cut to Chelsea."

-- Comedy writer John Simmons describing TV coverage of Hillary Clinton's speech at the Democratic Convention. (From "Enter Chelsea Clinton, at 16, Ready to Play Political Part," in Wednesday's

Wall Street Journal
.)


Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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