It’s Their Party

How the Tea Party Sustains the Anti-LGBT Right

About Pam Chamberlain

Tea Party members and Christian evangelicals at a campaign event for Rick Santorum, February 2012. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Reuters)


2011 was a frustrating year for the anti-LGBT Right.

Despite millions of voters and many millions of dollars generated by a loose coalition of conservative forces to oppose LGBT rights, the LGBT rights movement has made tremendous progress. While homophobia remains rampant in the culture, public policy is changing. Consider these recent achievements:

  • In February, the Justice Department announced that it would no longer support the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court.
  • In July, President Obama officially certified the repeal of the Defense Department’s 18 year-old “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.
  • Same-sex marriage is legal in six states as of 2011, and 40% of Americans now live in states where some form of same-sex marriage or civil union is allowed. For the first time in 2011, a majority of Americans indicated they believed same-sex marriage should be legal. In May, Gallup reported that a strong majority of Americans, 56%, believed that gay or lesbian relations were morally acceptable.1 51% of those polled by ABC News/Washington Post indicated they felt this way, up from 37% in a poll conducted by the same organization in 2003.2 And the rate of increased support for same-sex marriage has doubled in the last fifteen years.3
  • A federal hate crimes law has been in place since 2009.
  • There are now over 5,000 gay-straight alliances in U.S. schools, which are more open to LGBT students than at any time in the past.

Some organizations long opposed to LGBT equality have had to admit that the tide is turning. Jim Daly, the successor to James Dobson as president of the Christian Right organization Focus on the Family, admitted defeat to Right-wing strategist Martin Olasky in a June 2011 interview. Olasky asked what he felt about the campaign for same sex marriage. Daly replied:

We’re losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same sex marriage. I don’t know if that’s going to change with a little more age—demographers would say probably not. We’ve probably lost that. I don’t want to be extremist here, but I think we need to start calculating where we are in the culture.4

Some on the anti-LGBT Right may admit to defeat around same-sex marriage, but they are not about to throw in the towel. Social conservatives who are mobilized around religious principles or the fear that LGBT people remain a threat to their way of life are still a major part of the political landscape. In many cases, they have been able to subtly craft the messages they send to a broader public to avoid the appearance of overt bigotry by appealing to fundamental American principles of religious freedom or majority rule, even as they argue for what amounts to discrimination. “Traditional family values,” for instance, have evolved into more specific campaigns that oppose comprehensive sexuality education (a threat to “parental rights” since parents should teach their children their own values about sexuality themselves); welfare rights (shrinking the social safety net through “marriage promotion”); the legalization of same-sex marriage (a threat to “religious freedom” by allegedly “requiring” churches to sanctify same-sex marriage) and the need for “marriage protection” to codify discrimination against LGBT couples who seek to marry. These strategists know that a focus on issues dear to social conservatives brings voters to the polls. Once at the voting booth, they can be encouraged to support candidates with broader platforms than mere opposition to LGBT rights.

 Some on the anti-LGBT Right may admit to defeat around same sex marriage, but they are not about to throw in the towel.

The Christian Right, including both the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy and conservative evangelical Protestants, has been the driving force in opposing LGBT rights in the U.S. An effective infrastructure of grassroots organizations, charismatic leaders, media networks, and consistent funding provided the scaffolding for this Christian constituency to join with other burgeoning social movements in a powerful political force.

The rise of the Tea Party has reinforced the visibility and ultimately the electoral focus of the Christian Right. While initially galvanized around issues such as lower taxes, smaller government and national security concerns, about half of the Tea Party identifies with the Christian Right. This overlap has helped reinforce a political “litmus test” for candidates on so-called social issues like abortion, sexuality education, and the place of religion in public life. Right-wing strategists, and the candidates who follow their counsel, have targeted various groups such as immigrants, African-Americans, and Muslims as opportunities arose.  The ideas that LGBT and homosexuality are threats to society were constructed as part of its overall strategy to mobilize support based on scapegoating and fear.5 Ample historic precedence exists for blaming immigrant communities of color for economic and social problems.  LGBT people have been singled out both because they are easy targets based on fear of the “other” and that they represent departure from the idealized sexual norm.6

While anti-LGBT signs have been commonplace at Tea Party rallies, evidence of the apparently sanctioned homophobia within its ranks, the greater political danger to LGBT people lies with the leaders and Tea Party-supported candidates. These men and women craft positions and platforms to attract the broadest range of conservatives.

In anticipation of the January 2012 Iowa caucuses, Tea Party favorites Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry signed a controversial anti-gay marriage pledge promoted by the conservative Iowan group Family Leader. This cemented the candidates’ support of the Defense of Marriage Act and reasserted them as standard bearers for traditional values, a position for them as important as support for smaller government and lower taxes. These latter issues are attractive to voters who see their dream of economic stability destroyed by corporate and government greed. Traditional values are framed as the bulwark against an equal threat: those who live differently will eradicate the familiar, and superior, way of life. Together, these frames use the politics of fear to craft a potent platform.

In an election year that hinges on the state of] the economy, keeping contraception and same-sex marriage in the mix is an indication of the Tea Party’s strength.

There are indeed social libertarians within the Tea Party for whom homosexuality is not a principal political concern. On balance, however, the Tea Party represents a threat to LGBT people, both directly and indirectly.

Spilling Tea: Calling Out the Players

Those who support the Tea Party are almost exclusively White, better educated than the general public, older and more likely male, and more politically conservative than most Republicans. They are middle class, and they uniformly think Obama has done a bad job as president.  Depending on the wording of polls, we can estimate that by the 2010 midterm elections, between 20-28% of all U.S. voters supported Tea Party positions.7

The “Tea Party” is a loose affiliation of multiple organizations. Some are indeed grassroots organizations, emerging from locally organized efforts, and spearheaded by people often with little or no previous political experience. Such Tea Party organizations, as well as some larger national groups, include members and some leaders who openly espouse White supremacy and antisemitism.8

Others are national groups, well financed by corporate backers, like FreedomWorks, which attempts to influence the agenda and strategies of the Tea Parties from a national perch. While FreedomWorks insists it has a membership of over one million, it functions more as a fictional grassroots, or Astroturf, group because the policy decisions, positions on issues, and funding all come from the top. (It is no coincidence that the precursor to FreedomWorks was Citizens for a Sound Economy, founded in the 1980s by prominent right-wing funder David Koch.) FreedomWorks is today headed by Dick Armey, a former Republican member of Congress and one time majority leader. FreedomWorks has pushed its own preferred economic issues, primarily in the area of deregulation of corporations, and it is in the forefront of attempts to repeal The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Steve Forbes, the publisher of Forbes magazine, sits on the FreedomWorks board as well as on the board of the Heritage Foundation, a key framer of conservative ideas.

In February of 2010 a social networking group called Tea Party Nation convened a national convention of Tea Party members in Nashville. Sarah Palin and Tom Tancredo, a conservative Christian and anti-immigrant politician from Colorado, spoke, signaling that at least for this sector of the movement, the Christian Right’s social agenda was an effective draw. Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who refused to remove the Ten Commandments from his courtroom, got accolades for his speech, which included:

[Obama] has ignored our history and our heritage, arrogantly declaring to the world that we are no longer a Christian nation. He has elevated immorality to a new level, setting aside the entire month of June to celebrate gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pride. He now threatens to change our law to allow homosexuality in our military….9

While top-down Tea Party leaders such as Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe’s FreedomWorks still work hard to keep a secular focus on “big government, lower taxes, and more freedom,” conservative Christian leadership within the Tea Party has managed two major coups. It has promoted the vast majority of 2012 Republican candidate hopefuls, from Michele Bachmann to Rick Santorum, and their example pressured their fellow campaigner Mitt Romney to address traditional values questions like LGBT rights more often.  In an election year that hinges on the state of the economy, keeping issues like contraception and same-sex marriage in the mix is an indication of their strength. The alliance is working because the Republicans need social conservatives in order to win in 2012.

Paul Weyrich, the Christian Right leader, co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, and master strategist for the New Right for 35 years, recognized the value of bringing various parts of the conservative movement together with a shared project. In describing the 2002 founding of the secretive rightist Arlington Group, he said, “If we could all sing off the same sheet of music, we could be a significant force….”10 That project was a series of state ballot initiatives against same-sex marriage, one that united the Christian Right and showcased its renewed power.  It’s tempting to speculate: what if strong alliances to fight the Right had been in place in those states, as there was in Oregon in its successful 1992 campaign against Measure 9?

Plenty of evidence exists that illustrates how current Republican candidate frontrunners use same sex marriage as a litmus test of conservatism.

The 2010 midterm elections were a major show of that power. It remains to be seen what direction the Tea Parties will take in 2012. Plenty of evidence exists that illustrates how current Republican candidate frontrunners use same-sex marriage as a litmus test of conservatism. A Tea Party favorite, Rick Santorum, has campaigned on a sturdy platform plank of anti-abortion and anti-same-sex marriage. During the run-up to the New Hampshire primary, Santorum said that marriage was a privilege, not a right. “Not everybody or everything can get married.”11 Mitt Romney’s current anti-same-sex marriage stance is consistent with his opposition to a court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2003 when he was governor of that state. He has since courted social conservatives by attending convenings such as the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, where he boasted he was able to block Massachusetts from becoming  “The Las Vegas of gay marriage.” 12

No Republican presidential candidate can win without the combined support of economic conservatives, social conservatives, and independents, and the social conservatives are already organized through the Christian Right and the Tea Parties. Although we cannot see or predict what their staying power will be, there is no question that they bear careful scrutiny and warrant swift strategic responses by the LGBT community and its allies.


1 Linda Saad, “Doctor-Assisted Suicide is Moral Issue Dividing Americans Most,” May 31, 2011, Gallup

2 See Question #33 of the poll: 071711.html. For a summary of many different polls in LGBT rights, see

3 Nate Silver, “Gay Marriage Opponents Now in Minority,” New York Times, April 20, 2011. 2011/04/20/gay-marriage-opponents- now-in-minority/

4 Martin Olasky, “Refocused,” World Magazine, June 4, 2011.

5 Jean Hardisty, “Constructing Homophobia: Colorado’s Right-Wing Attack on Homosexuals,” The Public Eye, March 1993, vol. 7, no.1.

6 For instance see: Joseph Erbentraut,”Is the Tea Party movement really anti-LGBT?” Boston Edge, April 27, 2010, /index.php?ch=news&sc=&sc3= &id=105023 

7 Gallup Poll, “Tea-Partiers are Fairly Mainstream in their Demographics,” April 5, 2010, /tea-partiers-fairly-mainstream-demographics.aspx ;

Kate Zernicke and Megan Thee-Brenan, “ Poll Finds Tea Party Backers Wealthier and More Educated,” New York Times, April 14, 2010, politics/15poll.html?_r=1&ref=politics

8 Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, Tea Party Nationalism, Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (Seattle:IREHR) 2010,

9 Chelsea Schilling, “New ‘Bill of Particulars’ Cites Obama’s Failures,” World Net Daily, February 5, 2010,


11 John Swain, “U.S. Election 2012:Rick Santorum under pressure in New Hampshire over social stances,” The Daily Telegraph, January 8, 2012,

12 Igor Volsky, “Romney brags at CPAC: ‘We prevented Massachusetts from Becoming the Las Vegas of Gay Marriage,” Think Progress LGBT: February 10, 2012, 423167/romney-brags-at-cpac-we-prevented-massachusetts-from-becoming-the-las-vegas-of-gay-marriage

Pam Chamberlain is a former senior researcher at Political Research Associates, with an expertise in gender justice, education, and campus issues.