Like most teenagers her age, 14-year-old Rebecka Green from Decorah, Iowa, keeps a casual ear on political goings-on but is far more preoccupied with learning how to play the guitar, rehearsing for a production of The Merchant of Venice this spring, and devouring Beatles albums.
Earlier this week, Green unintentionally found herself in the heat of the spotlight of a presidential campaign.
After viewing on television Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s ad decrying openly gay military service personnel, the high school freshman decided to confront Perry at a campaign event. Green approached him and asked, “I just want to know why you’re so opposed to gays serving openly in the military and why you want to deny them their freedom when they’re fighting for your rights.”
Perry replied, “This is about my faith, and I happen to think that there are a whole host of sins, homosexuality being one of them. And I’m a sinner, and so I’m not going to be the person to throw a stone.”
It’s a scene that has played out repeatedly on the presidential campaign trail this year. As Republican presidential candidates mingle with voters, they have been asked blunt questions about their views on rights for gay people and same-sex couples, making for some decidedly awkward encounters.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was pressed on his views on same-sex marriage by a middle-aged man at a diner in New Hampshire before being ushered away by his handlers. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Tuesday told a gay college professor at an event in Oskaloosa, Iowa, that if same-sex marriage was his top issue, he should vote for President Obama. And at a book-signing in South Carolina, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota was surprised by an 8-year-old who told her, “My mom is gay and she doesn’t need fixing.”
Political observers ascribe the spike in the frequency of these exchanges not to a groundswell of activism but to the fact that there are more openly gay Americans who are more integrated into society than ever before. “This isn’t 1978 anymore,” said Jimmy DaSalvia, executive director of GOProud, an organization that represents gay conservatives. “It used to be that the only gay people anybody had heard of were the ones they saw in the San Francisco gay-pride parade. It’s different now. Gay people are everywhere in this country.”
Polling data also show that taking ardently antigay positions now carries with it a degree of political risk, even for Republicans. The 2012 presidential election will be the first in which a majority of Americans—53 percent—say they believe that same-sex marriage should be legalized, according to the Gallup organization’s tracking of the issue. Moreover, 59 percent of independents believe it should be legal.
“Our party is shrinking because there are large demographics that view us as intolerant or not relevant to them,” said R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, another organization representing gay conservatives. “The divisive language and tactics as far as gay and lesbians is a tactic that has had diminishing returns for a Republican politician.”
Advocates said that divisions in the Republican Party itself are emerging, particularly between young conservatives who are breaking with earlier generations on gay rights.
Still, taking a hard line on issues like gay marriage and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on openly gay service personnel is still popular in early-voting states such as Iowa, where evangelical voters make up nearly two-thirds of GOP caucus-goers. In 2010, Iowan voters ousted three state Supreme Court judges involved in a ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in the state.
“It goes into the equation,” said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. “Most people that I know of think that social issues and economic issues go hand-in-hand, and if you’re not good on social issues, it gives an indication that they’re going to be weak-kneed on other issues as well.”
The GOP candidates are taking the same calculated risk—that wooing social conservatives in the primary and caucus phase of the election cycle will help them secure the GOP nomination and that by the time the general election rolls around, voters will be focused on the economy.
“If Barack Obama and the Democrats are counting on issues like same-sex marriage to help them in the general, they’re delusional,” said Keith Appell, a GOP political consultant.
For Green, asking Perry to explain his view on gay people in the military was not about attracting media attention or changing minds. It was, rather, about being heard. It was the first political event she had ever attended, although she said she would like to speak to Bachmann, who has made her opposition to gay rights one of her campaign themes.
Earlier this year, Green told her parents she is bisexual, and she first saw Perry’s ad at a gathering of friends who belong to her school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. In the spot, Perry decries Obama’s “war on religion” and says, “There’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”
“We were all completely outraged with what he was saying," Green said. "I was offended for people all over the world who are LGBT—I just felt like the whole group was being discriminated against.”
Green and her father, Todd Green, a professor at Luther College whose work focuses on anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, decided to go see Perry at a town hall in Decorah earlier this week. Todd Green said, “This is something she was very passionate about. She wanted her voice to be heard and to his credit, [Perry] stopped and heard her. We are appreciative of that, even though we wholeheartedly disagree with him about his beliefs.… She’s proud of what she’s done. We are just a bit shocked about the attention. That was not the plan.”
Rebecka Green says that her brief encounter with Perry left her dissatisfied. She was not convinced that Perry could hate the sin but love the sinner as he suggested. “I don’t think that’s possible, I really don’t,” she said. “I got why he was saying it, but I didn’t agree with it one bit.
“I just wanted to him to know that there are people willing to come up to him and willing to tell him what they think.”