POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 26, 2012
In 1996, Kathryn Lehman was a soon-to-be married lawyer working for Republicans in the House of Representatives. One of her major accomplishments: helping to write the law that bans federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
Today, Lehman, 53, no longer has a husband, and is no longer straight. And she is a lobbyist for Freedom to Marry, which is devoted to overturning the very law she helped write, the Defense of Marriage Act.
But Lehman is still a fervent Republican.
"I'm trying to break the stereotype that all gays and lesbians, especially lesbians, are Democrats," she said.
Although the Republican Party has long drawn gay men who believe in the party's message of small government and a muscular military, Republican lesbians are a rare political breed.
"Oh, we're like unicorns," said Erin Simpson, 51, who cites "personal liberty" as a fundamental value and teaches firearms safety in Tucson, Ariz. Simpson, who came out in February, was "very disheartened" by Mitt Romney's loss — one fueled, in part, by overwhelming gay support for President Barack Obama.
There is no way to measure their true numbers, but gay activists say that in many cases, these "unicorns" were Republicans before they were gay — driven by conservative upbringings, economic issues and libertarian principles. They often did not acknowledge their sexual orientation, even to themselves, until middle age.
In interviews, these Republicans say they often feel like the odd women out, in their party and among other lesbians. But they are beginning to make their presence known, said Casey Pick, a program director and first woman on the staff of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay-rights group.
"There is a presence of mature, established Republican women who are being more vocal of late," Pick said.
These women fear that they are losing the younger generations, who are coming out earlier, and are even more likely to identify with the Democratic Party now that Obama has embraced gay marriage. The election results, including victories for same-sex marriage advocates on ballot measures in four states, offered ammunition for Lehman when she talks to Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Lehman said last week that some conservatives had already begun saying to her, "‘You know, it's not really worth pursuing a federal marriage amendment; this really should be left to the states."'
"That is the more consistent conservative position," she added.
Lehman said she felt no guilt over her role in the law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage. Her motivation, she said, is the gratitude she felt for those who fought for gay rights decades before she knew the cause was her own.
If it were not for them, "I would not be living the wonderful life that I am right now with Julie," Lehman said, referring to her partner, Julie Conway, a Republican fundraiser, with whom she lives in Alexandria, Va.
"I am uniquely suited to do this, so I really need to do it," she said.
The phenomenon of coming out later in life is not unique to conservatives, but it is more common among women, said Lisa M. Diamond, a professor of psychology who studies identity and sexual orientation at the University of Utah.
"Women are generally socialized to not spend a lot of time thinking about their sexual desires," Diamond said.
Republican lesbians rejected suggestions that they might have come out earlier if they held more liberal views. In Diamond's research, the delay usually has more to do with family and religion than political ideology. Cathy Smith's upbringing was "not rigidly Catholic," but when she came out in 2010, her mother said she that "she loved me, but she didn't want me to lose my soul."
Smith, a 53-year-old teacher in North Carolina, said that despite signs that she was attracted to women, she was "clueless" in her youth.
"I always wanted to find a husband because my mother felt that women should be married," Smith said.
At 18, she registered as a Republican, and though she briefly reconsidered her party affiliation when she came out, Smith voted for Romney, albeit reluctantly. Echoing the more than a dozen women interviewed, Smith said that liberal lesbians reacted more negatively to her political views than conservatives do to her sexual orientation.
"Mention that you're Christian or mention that you're Republican and suddenly you just get vilified," she said. "That may be one of the reasons for the lack of visibility of gay women in the Republican Party."
Still, she said, "What good are gay rights if your country is falling apart?"
Like many Republican women who have followed her same path, Smith is "still divided in the mind about whether or not gay people should be allowed to marry," though she supports civil unions.
Younger conservatives increasingly back same-sex marriage. A poll in June by The Washington Post and ABC News found that half of Republicans between the ages of 18 and 44 think it should be legal, compared with a quarter of those over 45.
This shift in attitude — not to mention the election results — led Sarah Longwell, 32, to fear that the Republican stance on gay issues could mean few younger reinforcements, even as older Republican lesbians raise their profiles.
"Now, it is increasingly hard for the Republican Party to attract younger people," said Longwell, the only female board member of the Log Cabin Republicans.
"One of the things that's interesting about these older people in general is that when they were coming up in the world, the Democrats were not any better," Longwell said. Because Democrats now support gay marriage, "it posed a much harder question suddenly for gay Republicans."
Lauren Yarbrough, 22, has, she says, "been lesbian my whole life, also been in church my whole life."
Yarbrough has been with the same woman since she was 15, but she prefers civil unions over gay marriage. She opposes abortion rights in most cases, and thinks the government should spend more on the military and less on food stamps and Medicaid. On those issues, she fits into her conservative town, LaGrange, Ga. But she keeps quiet about her sexuality, especially after being fired from a job after her boss found out.
"That's why I want to get out of this town," Yarbrough said. She dreams of moving to California, which she thinks would be more accepting of her sexuality, but not of her politics.
"I can't win for losing anywhere," she said with a sigh.