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Gay group in conservatives' gathering splits GOP

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gay group GOProud a sponsor of this week's Conservative Political Action Conference
  • Gay civil rights movement has finally reached GOP, John Avlon writes
  • Avlon: GOP fault lines exposed when "social conservative" groups pulled out in protest
  • Conservatives on wrong side of civil rights, he says, should not repeat that mistake

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America." Avlon's wife, Margaret Hoover, serves on the board of GOProud.

New York (CNN) -- The Conservative Political Action Conference's annual Washington convention this week is not where you'd expect to find a new front in the gay civil rights movement. But that's going to be the story this week at CPAC.

America has been going through a gay civil rights movement for more than a decade. One measure of its success is that it has finally reached the Republican Party.

Former first daughter Barbara Bush made news by announcing her support of gay marriage, joining the former GOP presidential nominee's daughter Meghan McCain.

Opinion: Bush daughter adds to Obama's problems

Last year, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman came out. These stands have exposed fundamental fault lines within the conservative coalition between libertarians and social conservatives, between a new generation and the old.

That's where CPAC comes in. This year, among the 50 co-sponsors of the event is a gay conservative group known as GOProud. Members believe in conservative principles from fiscal discipline to national security -- but they are openly gay, and this is apparently unacceptable in the eyes of some of their chosen political tribe.

When CPAC Chairman David Keene announced that GOProud would be among the co-sponsors of the convention this year, there was an outcry among social conservatives. And then began the resistance.

There was an outcry among social conservatives. And then began the resistance.
--John Avlon
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The far-right Family Research Council pulled out, soon joined by Concerned Women for America, the American Principles Project, American Values, the Capital Research Center, Center for Military Readiness, Liberty Counsel and Maggie Gallagher's National Organization for Marriage. Most surprising was the boycott by the influential Heritage Foundation, a think tank that traces its roots to the Reagan administration and professes belief in the principles of small government and individual freedom -- unless, apparently, it extends to the participation of gays and lesbians in conservative conferences.

The American Conservative Union -- the organizers of CPAC -- has "gone libertarian, that's their focus," Mat Staver, president of Liberty Counsel, told the far-right website WorldNetDaily. "Libertarianism is right on the economy, often wrong on national defense, and doesn't care about social conservatism. Libertarians only respect one leg of the Reagan revolution, and you can't stand for long on one leg."

The reference to Reagan is ironic and deserves closer scrutiny. In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan courageously campaigned against Prop 6, a ballot measure backed by social conservatives like Anita Bryant that would have blocked gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools. Reagan did this despite planning a run for president as the candidate of conservatives -- he was consistent. Self-styled small-government Tea-Party conservatives like Sen. Jim DeMint -- who opposes allowing gays to teach in public schools and is boycotting CPAC this year -- should take notes.

Conservatives -- not all Republicans, but conservatives -- got the last great civil rights movement wrong. They were on the wrong side of history. Some seem to be determined to make the same mistake again.

But other conservatives deserve great credit for standing up in favor of GOProud's right to participate in CPAC this year. Conservative figures like Mary Matalin, Andrew Breitbart and Grover Norquist -- and especially American Conservative Union president David Keene -- are consistent in their support for small government and individual freedom by standing with GOProud on its board. (Full disclosure: My wife, Margaret Hoover, also serves on the GOProud board.)

It's telling that last year's co-sponsorship of CPAC by the John Birch Society was considered noncontroversial by conservative groups that are pulling out over GOProud's participation this year.

The John Birch Society, among with other fright-wing conspiracy theories it espoused, declared former President Dwight Eisenhower a "dedicated, conscious agent of the communist conspiracy." Members have not moderated their views much over the ensuing decades.

William F. Buckley had the decency to kick the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement in the early 1960s by recognizing that its crackpot views diminished the integrity of the rest of the movement. But lately, conservatives are reluctant to condemn the absurd right; they seem to be afraid that the fringe is blurring with the base. This lack of courage only empowers the extremes.

"The mainstream media has missed the big story coming out of CPAC," GOProud Chairman of the Board Chris Barron told me. "The real story isn't about who isn't coming, but is instead who is coming. Despite the best efforts of a small band of anti-gay groups, this CPAC is going to be the biggest ever.

"Virtually every potential 2012 presidential candidate has confirmed, and virtually every conservative organization of note is participating," Barron said. "The fact is that the mainstream of the conservative movement is united and welcomes GOProud.

"Those who have chosen to boycott CPAC have marginalized themselves by trying to divide the conservative movement. This will be the best CPAC ever, and the angry voices of the political dinosaurs facing extinction -- like [Family Research Council's] Tony Perkins -- will not be missed."

Whether you're conservative, liberal or centrist Democrat, Republican or independent -- gay or straight -- you should welcome open debate and cheer people who defend the pluralism that is the basis of civil society.

You should applaud those who have the courage to challenge stereotypes and defend diversity of thought. The founders and organizers of CPAC deserve credit for allowing GOProud to co-sponsor its event in the face of so much criticism.

Here's what's certain: Opposition to a gay group's participation in a conservative conference will look as bad in the eyes of history as those who resisted the last great civil rights movement. We evolve to form a more perfect union.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.