Gay, Republican, and running for president: Fred Karger’s historic campaign

Originally published May 17, 2012 in PQ Monthly.

Fred Karger
Fred Karger is the first openly gay candidate for President from any major political party.

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

Fred Karger knows his chances of winning the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are slim — his name is on the ballot in only six states and he hasn’t been invited to a single debate — but that hasn’t stopped him from campaigning as the first openly gay candidate from either of the major parties.

PQ Monthly chatted with Karger while he was on his way to a May 4 appearance on “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” It was his third appearance on national television in as many days — an oddity in a campaign marked by relative rejection from mainstream media. (The “Hardball” appearance was his first.)

The networks wanted him to talk about gays in the Republican Party — in light of the resignation of Richard Grennell, Mitt Romney’s openly gay foreign policy spokesperson — not his campaign. But that didn’t stop Karger from interjecting, “as the first openly gay candidate for president …” at every opportunity.

The 62-year-old activist is nothing if not persistent. And optimistic. As quick to laugh as he is to call people out on their hypocrisy, Karger manages to maintain a sense of humor about his outsider status while getting serious about fighting injustice.

Though he has never held elected office, Karger has extensive experience in both Republican politics and LGBTQ activism (though, until recently, these endeavors were not concurrent).

Why run for this office at this time? The way Karger sees it, a number of factors lined up to make 2012 an auspicious time to try to bring balance to the GOP and help pave the way for a gay president.

“The party got hijacked by the far right,” Karger says. “One of the reasons I decided to step up to the plate this time is because I thought it was time for the Republican Party to lead the way [in acceptance of LGBTQ people].”

The Californian outsider — whose campaign slogan is a fitting “Fred who?” — takes inspiration from the 1972 campaign of Shirley Chisolm, the first African-American, and first Democrat woman, to mount a serious campaign for the presidency.

“I remember that campaign very well,” Karger says. “She was largely shunned by the mainstream media … but she paved the way for Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama. I’m hopeful if it’s not me this time, there’ll be an openly gay or lesbian candidate long before 36 years.”

The former actor has worked on nine presidential campaigns and served as a senior consultant for Presidents George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford. Four years after retiring from political consulting, Karger came out publicly in 2008 and founded Californians Against Hate (now Rights Equal Rights), which investigated the role of the LDS Church and National Organization for Marriage in campaigns against marriage equality.

Having a foot in both the Republican Party and the LGBTQ community hasn’t always been easy. Karger has had to come out as gay among Republicans and as Republican among gays. He says the latter coming out was met with the most resistance.

“As I travel around the country and meet with Republican Party leadership … they are very courteous to me,” Karger says. “I’m sure I’m the first openly gay person that some of them have ever met with and I think that’s good. I have an impeccable Republican resume — it throws them. It makes it a little harder to disagree with me.”

He acknowledges that the reception from Republicans hasn’t been entirely rosy. He’s had meetings cancelled at the last minute (“I suspect they found out [I was gay].”) and there’s the whole matter of not being admitted to a single debate, despite exceeding the stated qualifications.

Still, he says, the response from the leadership of LGBTQ organizations has been worse.

“The LGBT community has been the coldest reception I’ve gotten,” Karger says. “I was hoping that because of all my aggressive activism that they would be a little more welcoming. I’ve done so much for the cause.”

Despite some LGBTQ folks’ apprehension about his political affiliation, Karger says he will “continue to be the conscience and try to put [groups like NOM and the American Family Association] under the microscope.” Though that activism is unlikely to take place in the Oval Office, Karger hopes that if he gets enough delegates he’ll be able to earn a speaking spot at the Republican National Convention.

Through all the roadblocks his campaign has faced, Karger presses on with a wide grin and a fierce determination.

“I’m gonna stick with it through [the] California [primaries],” Karger says. “I’m enjoying this new chapter in my life. I should have run for president years ago.”

To learn more about Fred Karger and see the first presidential campaign ad featuring a gay kiss (the “Sexy Frisbee” ad temporarily banned by YouTube), visit fredkarger.com.

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