By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor
Her book is called "The Accidental Activist," and Candace Gingrich is making the most of this accident. Her book tracks her Speaker of the House brother Newt like a lesbian version of the documentary Roger & Me, in which a laid off auto worker tried to meet the head of General Motors. But for Candace, she actually meets her brother. He doesn't say anything of merit, though. Just flip remarks about her busy speaking schedule and an offer for a face to face meeting he wouldn't honor.
Gingrich has been keeping herself busy, though. In addition to her book tour, she has been mobilizing voters for next month's presidential election, serves as a spokesperson for National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11) and is a staffer at the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay and lesbian organization lobbying Congress for gay equal rights.
I had been skeptical about talking to Gingrich, because I thought she was a media creation of Elizabeth Birch, HRC's head honcho. I always figured Birch saw an opportunity to take the 29-year-old sister of the homophobic Republican leader, pluck her out of her job at UPS, coach her and ship her around the country to counter Newt's misinformed anti-gay rhetoric. I'm not saying that would have been a bad thing, but it just didn't interest me to pursue the interview. But Gingrich says it didn't happen like that at all: "This is not a My Fair Lady situation," she insists.
Gingrich (who pronounced her name Ging-rick, as opposed to the way her brother pronounces it) took some time recently to talk to Oasis about her book, how she became an activist, her own coming out, Newt, outing and the importance of pulling a voting lever next month if you're able:
Oasis: How does someone go from being a UPS worker outside of Harrisburg to being one of the country's leading gay spokespersons?
CG: I don't think it's much different a transformation that anyone makes from being apathetic and unconcerned and relying on the work of others to becoming involved and aware and active. I don't personally feel as if I have changed, but I have a greater understanding and an awakening as to what the political realities are in our country and to what the realities to those of us who are gay in our country and have to live as second class citizens. Once you recognize the ability you have to change things, I would hope most people would jump at the chance to express them, and to exercise that ability.
Oasis: And why do you and Newt pronounce your last names differently?
CG: Dad was stationed in Atlanta at the time Newt was getting done with high school, going to college, falling in love with his wife and what-not, and my presumption is when you are a transplanted Northerner to the South, you don't want to remind people that you're a Yankee. So, people in Georgia were saying Gingrich and rather than correct them, he just kind of took on their pronunciation of the name.
Oasis: What was the experience like writing the book for you?
CG: That was another very educational experience for me. I had been aware that my brother was a Congressman for years, but I never paid attention to what he was saying or thinking or voting when it came to gay issues. So, that, for me, was one of the most eye-opening things about the book, was finding out really how horrid his voting record was, how many times he had gay-baited his opponents (not necessarily in campaigns, but people he disagreed with), some of the bills he had taken stances on and why he had taken stances on. It was like finding out about the other side of the person that you didn't know about before.
Oasis: What is your relationship like with Newt now that you have been vocal against his policies?
CG: The brother and sister thing hasn't changed. We've seen each other a couple times a year or somebody's birthday. But certainly in working on the book and trying to find out where his opinions come from, I have not been able to get any kind of response from him. As a sister, I still garner sisterly responses. But, as a citizen, and as someone who is treated inequitably in our country, the Speaker has not given me any kind of response.
Oasis: What was your own coming out like?
CG: I think the one thing that kind of got me through, even though I was clueless, I always felt confident with the values my family had instilled in me that I should be proud of myself, love myself and I had worth and value. Growing up, on those occasions when I felt different and felt unlike the other students, even though I didn't know why, I was able to not look at it in a negative way. There was something different about me that set me apart from the other kids, but it wasn't a bad thing. It was just something special about me that I wasn't able to figure out, obviously for lack of having an understanding ear, for lack of having any positive gay and lesbian imagery at all. Even those few times when I thought, "Gee, she's cute" or "I'm attracted to her," it was like, well, I don't really know why I'm thinking that. It wasn't until I was in college that I was able to acknowledge that the feelings I had were OK, that for me, they were the right feelings and they were natural. And the feeling we all finally have that we are not the only one.
Oasis: Considering your role on Friends, and other gay-friendly roles being portrayed on television. Do you think that makes it easier for youth to accept who they are?
CG: The media has been better. You can actually turn on the television and see realistic lesbian and gay people, and not the stereotypes, not the extreme sensationalist things you've seen before, but gays who have jobs, long-term relationships, families. In our everyday lives, when youth grow up in schools where the most hurtful thing someone can say to them is "faggot," and in schools where a teacher doesn't think twice about reprimanding a student for saying the n-word, they can say faggot and get away with it. In our everyday lives, no matter how much you see on TV or in the newspapers, what you experience day to day has the most profound impact on you and it's still far too negative and far too violent for our youth.
Oasis: You realize a lot of people think you are merely capitalizing on your brother's fame. How do you respond to those criticisms?
CG: Most of my circumstances would not have happened had my brother not been who he was. But my story is still, in a lot of senses a universal coming of age and coming out story. I had a 20-year coming out, knowing something about me, but not getting it; finally figuring it out as an adult but not acknowledging or realizing how gays are really treated in our country until I started getting more of a political awakening.
The book's called "The Accidental Activist," mainly because a lot of my brushes with activism were in a sense accidental. If I wasn't a lesbian, and my brother hadn't been elected Speaker, if I hadn't had a reporter ask me if I was gay... all of those things had to happen for me to get it. But no one is an activist by accident. There's an opportunity and chance to affect change and you either do it or you don't. In hindsight, there are a lot more reactivists in our world than there are activists. It takes something in your life for you to recognize the work that you can be doing. Hopefully other people can recognize no matter what stage of the closet you're in, or whether you're even gay or not, there are things that we can do to make things better.
Oasis: I had always thought you were just a well-rehearsed mouthpiece for HRC. People kept telling me they saw you speak, though, and that they took a liking to you. If you did this on your own, why couldn't you have done it earlier?
CG: I have always had these skills or abilities. There is this side of me that just never had any opportunity or reason to use it in the past. You have to take some things into account. First, in a country that has a lot of bad guys out there that think gays only come from bad families where something has gone horribly wrong... you've got the media and the people at large feeding on that. 'Hey look, the head of the Republican revolution has a blood relative who's gay.' That's a reminder that gays are in everyone's family. Second of all, you've got this media vulturism where they are waiting for one of us to say something bad about the other.
And a lot of credit is with HRC and particularly David Smith who is the communications director, because he very well understood when I go into towns and do town halls or a pride event, that itself is very important, but it's extremely important to access the media that's available. For too long, the media has been our enemy, showing just pride day and never showing gay people at any other time. The papers have sometimes been the most responsible for the stereotyping and the sensationalization of who we are. By talking to the media, it's a way to get some very important points across. For instance, it is legal to fire someone just because they're gay. No, we're not protected under the Constitution. No, we're not asking for special rights, we want equal rights. It's a very good way to get the truth out there.
Oasis: What are your opinions about Newt now? How do you interact with him?
CG: I tried to discover who the real Newt is and what does he feel. Does he truly believe the things that he says, or is it just his posturing because that's the stance required to be in the position he's in. And, in my everyday interaction with him, if something comes up that pisses me off, I'll fax him. I'll call him. I usually don't get responses. But when I started working on this book, it's very much about family and how our family is strong enough and secure enough to have people with such differing opinions and still be a family. So, obviously, I wanted to get his input. That's why I wanted mom, my dad and my sisters in it, because I wanted input, and he refused to talk to me, even on the most basic family-type of questions such as "What did Mom and Dad teach you about politics?" "What do you think you learned most from our family?" ... things like that. He said no. So, I have not had any kind of conversation with him.
Oasis: How do you feel about the reports that Newt warned openly gay Republican Steve Gunderson from seeking another term with a write-in campaign?
CG: That's an unfortunate characterization from the media. Steve was going to do a write-in campaign in the state of Wisconsin to try and win his seat. He had said two years ago, 'I'm retiring.' The Republican party in Wisconsin had already chosen a candidate they wanted to run for the open seat. He had been on all the ballots, so they already had a candidate for the seat and Steve decided to do a write-in campaign, which everyone was right behind him to do, because we don't want to lose an openly gay member of Congress. Apparently, the talk was that if he tried to do a write-in campaign that the far right would try to do a smear campaign to make sure he did not become the nominee ... whatever they had to do, such as starting rumors that he and Rob were HIV-positive, playing up that he's a gay member of Congress. And apparently, Newt told him about this ahead of time and they are friends. Friend-to-friend he told him, "Look, this is what you have in front of you. If you try this write-in campaign, these people have made it very clear that they're not going to make it easy for you." And in the end he told Steve, "Whatever you do decide, I will support you. I just want you to know about this ahead of time."
Oasis: Do you support outing closeted members of Congress if they are voting against gay issues?
CG: I still to this day can't really support outing people. I think every single one of us in our lives has experienced what coming out is like. You have to make decisions on your own. It's a private, personal journey and I don't think it's my right to tell somebody else when it's there time and when it's not. I can understand the frustration. I can understand the anger, with reps who vote the wrong way on thing. I just hope that now that he's out, he will be able to understand why the votes he made in the past have been wrong. To be blunt, unless it's Jesse Helms, I don't support outing. If Jesse Helms was gay, I could support outing in that one instance.
Oasis: What has it been like traveling around the country and talking to the community?
CG: In talking recently to both gay youth and non-gay youth, I've gotten more hope than discouragement. The things that happened in Salt Lake City this past year, for all the horrible way the government had chosen to handle it, knowing that in Salt Lake City, students would rise up and march to support a Gay Straight Alliance in their school is a great step forward. To his date, I still have not met anyone who says they regret coming out. It's never an easy process, and it does come with risks, but when we come out, we get a chance to educate them. Every day, it does get better, because every one of us is working to that day when it won't be wrong and bad anymore, it will just be different.
Oasis: What is your message when you try and get people to vote?
CG: One thing I tell people is 'I'm not asking you to be single issue voters. I'm not asking you to only look at one part of a candidate to decide to support them or not.' But I would hope that whether they believe gays should be second-class citizens or not should be part of the criteria in the list of things you look at whether you support a candidate or not. If I support a candidate, they must understand that I am treated differently and they must understand it's wrong and be committed toward ending that discrimination. My brother hasn't gotten there yet. He's nowhere near that understanding. I'm not sure if I were living in the same district I would vote for or against anyone, but I certainly couldn't support any candidate whether they are related to me or not if they don't believe I'm a complete citizen. That's an automatic disqualification for me.
Oasis: Are you supporting Clinton this time around?
CG: Absolutely. There's a difference between someone who completely does not understand that there is inequity in our country and somebody who gets part of it. Yes, in the past four years, there have been disappointments and there have been good things. One of my roadblocks is there are people who only know the bad things, and don't recognize that what happened in the past four years has brought us leaps and bounds forward. In the most basic sense, Clinton at least gets that there's discrimination. He understand that in the workplace, people should be judged on their ability to do their job. To me, that's a great place to start. Even if you, for whatever reason, can't support him, at least recognize that you would be supporting Supreme Court justices. Whoever we elect president is going to picking at least one, maybe two or three, and we can't afford to have more Scalias and more Thomases on the bench when our very lives are going to be decided in that court, probably. You don't just get Dole, if you support him. He, the man, may be educable. He may have the ability to "get it" in the next four years. But you don't just get Bob Dole, you get Pat Robertson, you get Phyllis Schlafly, you get Pat Buchanan. It's not just him, it's all the people he brings with him. We can't afford to let that happen.
Oasis: Are you optimistic that eventually we will win this culture war?
CG: Every single day, somebody somewhere comes out. Every single day, somebody picks up a pen and writes the president or member of Congress or mayor. Every single day somebody is educated about what the truths are, that we don't have the same rights and that what we're trying to do is to gain those rights. Why we don't see change happen over night, it's the little things happening in Smalltown USA that make the difference. And that is happening. There's nothing that I've seen that have stopped it or slowed it down.
Oasis: Since politics run in the family, do you have any aspirations to run, or do anything along those lines?
CG: I believe what I'm doing right now is the most effective thing I can do to get us closer to that goal of equal status in our country. If sometime down the line I'm convinced, or someone convinces me that goal would be best served by running for office or seeking office, then maybe I would consider it. But right now, it's nothing I am planning.