Soon, she began a series of 48 town hall meetings across the country on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian advocacy group and political action committee. She's since become the poster child of gay activists, who now sport "Equal Rights for Newt's Sister" buttons at political rallies; an offbeat cultural icon, appearing in a cameo role as a gay minister on the 20-something sitcom "Friends"; and an author (The Accidental Activist; New York: Scribner's, 1996). Most importantly, she's a very visible full-time foil for her brother, whose party she calls the greatest opposition to the civil rights of gay Americans. She recently took time out to speak with Mother Jones.
Q: Did your brother ever ask you to hide the fact you're gay?
A: No, no. When my mom told him, he said it was my life and I had the right to live it the way I wanted to -- a kind of variation of the libertarian Newt that pops up every now and then. I nonetheless felt a variation of the fear that a lot of gay people have, that their families will reject them. I thought if I were to come out to the world then I would risk losing them.
Then when my brother became speaker of the House there was a lot of media attention, and even though I was not active in politics, I was a card-carrying Democrat and knew that the people who were my champions were Democrats. You know, Jesse [Helms] would try to attach some amendment, but Ted Kennedy would be there. I woke up that morning in November 1994 and realized I couldn't take their being there for granted anymore.
Then in the course of an interview a reporter asked me if I was gay, and I had not a single reason to not tell her the truth.
Q: Had someone tipped the reporter off?
A: Well, even though Mom didn't mean to [laughs]... Mom had this picture of me as a high school student on display, even though at the time I was 28. And she says to the reporter, "I have this one out because I like it so much better." But the other picture she had out was of me in college, and I had this crew cut...
Q: A lesbian stereotype?
A: Right. So I think the reporter thought maybe Mom meant, this is my daughter before she became a lesbian, and that is her after. In reality, Mom just really hates me having short hair. But it might have sparked the reporter.
Q: Was your haircut a political statement?
A: The truth is I got my hair cut really short before I came out, before I knew that I was a lesbian. I played field hockey in college, and I had to go right from practice to class. I was the goalkeeper and had to wear a helmet with a mask, and I had a perm with long hair that would always look really bad. So I came home over break and went to my hair person and said, "Cindy, this is my situation."
And I don't think Mom hates my short hair because I am a lesbian. That reporter interpreted it the wrong way, but I'm glad.
Q: What kind of impact do you think you've had?
A: There are still so many misconceptions out there, including that gays come from bad families. Maybe I don't completely change people's minds, but I make them think twice.
I was really touched that Mother Jones wrote about Kelli Peterson [a high school gay activist and Mother Jones' July/August Hellraiser] in Salt Lake City, and she said that she had been inspired by a town hall meeting I spoke at. There were tears in my eyes. I'm so proud of the youth out there.
Q: I don't know if you've read any of Mother Jones' stories about your brother, and the House ethics charges he's faced. The stories have been very critical of him.
A: As far as GOPAC goes and as far as...well, let's see...Medical Savings Accounts that would benefit [Newt and GOP contributor] Golden Rule Insurance? Take one of Newt's college courses and watch an infomercial about who happened to have donated the money for that day's session? I find it very questionable. To be honest, I look at that and am appalled that people don't realize the same people that support him and the Republican Party financially are the ones who stand to benefit if this gets passed and that gets passed. That's not to say there aren't other members of Congress who haven't done something unethical.
Q: So, what do you think of the Newt Gingrich revolution?
A: Well, let's see, what was the bumper sticker I saw? "Some people say Newt's revolutionary, I just say he's revolting." I was at the Republican National Convention and heard his speech. He talked about the American Dream. He talked about the opportunity and the ability for every American to take part in that dream. His vision does not include gay and lesbian Americans.
Q: Have you ever spoken with him about this?
A: While I was growing up he was already a congressman, and if at any time they'd start talking about politics at a family gathering, I always just removed myself. Now, if I were to sit in the same room with him over Christmas dinner and they started talking about politics, I don't know that I could hold my tongue. But we haven't had that situation. Last Christmas, he went to his wife's family instead of coming to ours.
Q: What kind of conversation would the two of you have?
A: One of two things would happen. He'd either say, "Well, Candace, I believe and feel truly everything I say, including the idea that gays recruit in the school system, and the idea that gays are incapable of having families." Or he would say, "I don't feel that way but I'm doing it because I'm the head of the Republican revolution, and if I don't, I'll lose the far-right wing's support." And either answer, you know, I don't want to hear.
I wanted to interview everyone in my family [for The Accidental Activist] because it's not just a political book, it's also about our family and how we can be so different and still get along. So I interviewed everyone except Newt. He refused. No excuse, except something about the budget, about having to negotiate.
I interviewed Steve Gunderson, the openly gay Republican representative from Wisconsin, and I get the impression my brother thinks we're the exception. He's close with Steve and Steve's partner, Rob, and he loves me, he knows me, and he accepts me. But he thinks we're different, and most gay people are running around stealing and corrupting children, getting their bodies pierced at every available outlet, and wearing leather. He doesn't realize we're actually the rule.
Q: Would you vote for your brother?
A: [Sighs] Well, I tell people to apply criteria in voting: Does the candidate acknowledge that discrimination exists? Is he or she doing something proactive to end it? There is still legal discrimination, and candidates have to be committed to ending it. If I were going to follow those criteria and apply them to my brother, along with the 8 billion other things we disagree on, then I couldn't vote for him.
Q: Do you think he'll ever change?
A: Look at Barry Goldwater. He was right there in the gays-in-the-military debate. He coined the phrase "You don't need to be straight, you just need to shoot straight." I see that and think [there's] hope. But Goldwater didn't change until he was out of office, so... I don't know about the prospects for Newt in the near future.
Q: Do you think your presence has hurt Newt politically?
A: I would think finding out Newt has a lesbian sister would make people feel better about him.
But it certainly makes people question why a man who talks about family values all the time doesn't seem to care that his own sister, not to mention thousands of other Americans, can lose her job just because of her sexual orientation. He's the one who said he wouldn't come to my wedding. He didn't have to say that. It was on "Meet the Press," and the reporter asked him whether, if I got married, he would go. He said he didn't consider it a marriage, and he wouldn't go.
It was like, look, when I went to your second wedding, I wasn't there supporting heterosexuality. I wasn't there to support what you did on your honeymoon. I was there to support you. You know, I didn't really know Marianne very well, but I was there because you're my brother and you're part of my family. It's sad that doesn't carry over.
Q: Do you have a partner and has your brother met her?
A: No, he hasn't actually. Kris and I have only been going out for a little over a year. My first partner I was with for seven years and Newt got to meet her at Christmas and at a couple of speeches. He has not met Kris yet, but maybe someday I will send him an invitation to the wedding.