Interview: Newt Gingrich's Activist Sister

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The GOP front-runner's gay younger sister has defined her life and career in opposition to Gingrich's politics -- but they still love each other like family

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Candace Gingrich-Jones, the lesbian younger sister of Newt Gingrich, has never seen eye to eye with her brother politically. And yet she owes her career as a gay activist -- she's been an official at the Human Rights Campaign for 16 years -- to the former speaker of the House and current Republican presidential front-runner.

Gingrich-Jones, now 45, is a tiny woman with short, sandy hair, a passion for rugby, and a disarmingly forthright manner. Over coffee near her Washington office recently, she talked about what she and her brother have in common and the power of coming out to both your family and the press.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What is your relationship with your brother? Are you close?

No. I'm 23 years younger, so he was married and had a kid and lived happily across the country by the time I arrived in the world. When I was growing up maybe we saw each other every couple of years. [The relationship is] more like uncle-niece than brother-sister. But we were raised by the same parents -- we have the same mother and my father adopted Newt when he was 3 or 4 and raised him. We don't say "half" or "step," just brother and sister.

We both grew up as Army brats, though he I think traveled a little bit more than I did -- my dad retired [from the Army] when I was 8. Being a military brat, the way I've always looked at it is, you get plopped down every couple of years in a new environment and you have choices. Either you allow yourself to be the new kid and fade into the background, or you develop more extroverted qualities. I know myself, and I think also Newt and my sisters to an extent, more adopted that [latter course].

Is it true, as has been reported, that Newt didn't get along with your dad?

I've read that too, but I don't have firsthand knowledge. My dad was an Army guy and so very strict and very clear and transparent about what he expected of people. I know there are times I disappointed him.

Have you and Newt gotten to know each other as adults?

Where things started to change was when he got married to Callista, and also when I began dating and then married my wife. There are some similarities [between the two spouses] -- they're both very family-oriented kind of people. Callista makes the effort to stay engaged and it's the same with my wife. Before we got married over the summer [of 2009], we had a barbecue, and [my wife's] parents came in from Columbus, my sister and my nieces came from Harrisburg, and Callista and Newt came to the barbecue so that the families could meet each other. I don't know if 15 years ago that would have happened. In the past 9 or 10 years we've seen each other more and been invited to more things I'm not sure we would have before.

You had two coming out experiences -- one to your family and another as a public figure in opposition to your brother. What were those experiences like?

My first coming-out, it took me 20, 21 years to get to the point where I could accept who I was and say who I was. I came out to my mother first, as an adult. I was in college, living at home over the summer, and my mom found a lesbian newsletter and brought it to me -- 'Are you trying to tell me something?'

When we were done having our conversation, my mom said, 'You're going to have to give your dad and I time to get used to this, because when we were growing up we didn't have gay people.' I was like, mmm, maybe color TV, maybe microwaves, Mom, but there were gay people when you were growing up. You just didn't know they were gay people.

As luck would have it, my mom was very efficient and quickly told everybody else in the family for me, which was fine -- I didn't really relish the idea of calling everybody up and telling them. My sisters had stayed in the Harrisburg area, so even though there were 16 and 18 years between us, we knew each other a lot better.

At that time Newt was a congressman from Georgia, and I figured if anyone was going to have something to say about me being a lesbian, it would be him. I asked my mom, 'What did he say?' She said he said, 'Well, it's Candy's life, and she has the right to live the way that she wants to.' And that was that, and I thought, all right, cool. And that's what I did.

Then 1994 rolls around, Newt becomes the speaker of the House, and reporters are interested in the family. A reporter was at my mom's house and saw a picture of me, you know, looking like me, and was like, huh, I think I really need to talk to her. We met later that week and she asked me if I was gay. I didn't have any reason to not tell her, so I said that I was.

Who was the reporter?

It was Jill Lawrence. She was at the Associated Press then. [Lawrence, a longtime political writer for USA Today, was recently named managing editor for politics at National Journal.]

It was the AP, so of course within 24, 48 hours, the whole country knew that the new speaker of the House had a sister who was a lesbian. Depending on who you were, that conjured up different images. I think there were some people who pictured me as some militant homosexual activist because I was bold enough to declare I was a lesbian -- marching at the head of the parade, trying to chain myself to the White House fence, stuff like that -- when in reality I was not an activist, at least not yet.

What were you doing at that time? Did you have a career?

No. I was a sociology major in college. I took jobs just to be working, to pay off my credit cards. I worked at UPS, I worked at a golf store. If I had a dream, it was to maybe open a women's bookstore-slash-brewery someday.

The politics of gay rights were so much different at that time, weren't they?

'Don't ask don't tell' was happening around that time, and a little later the Defense of Marriage Act happened. It was the culture wars and all of that, not that people aren't trying to revive them now, but [much more so]. There were still very few politicians or elected officials willing to speak out and be supportive. There were definitely some champions even then, but overall, it was still 'God, Guns and Gays' -- the three things the Republican Party used to campaign on.

Then what happened? What was the fallout?

The fallout was a lot of reporters then started looking at Newt's political past and career and statements and positions, and they were finding things that were egregiously anti-gay and not supportive at all. Things I hadn't been aware of. I'd always been a Democrat, and even when he was in Congress it was in a different state, and there was no Internet in those days.

That was eye-opening to me. Not that we were close or had spent a lot of time together, but that he would actually think that being gay was like being an alcoholic, that we should be [merely] 'tolerated,' that we weren't capable of being families. Things like that. That's what, for me, really sparked wanting to educate myself and others. So when the Human Rights Campaign asked me if I would work with them to do town hall meetings and talk about what the American family really looks like, I said sure, I'll give it a shot.

I looked back at the past 7 years, when I hadn't really been doing anything, just kind of happily living in my little bubble, where my family accepted me and I was out at work, and I realized it wasn't like that for most people, jobwise or family-wise. That's why now, when there's an opportunity to remind folks about the positions of not just my brother but almost all the Republican candidates, [I talk about how] when it comes to LGBT issues they are so far behind. They're behind history, they're behind the times, they don't jibe with what most people in the country think, but yet they still cling to them.

What did you think of Rick Perry's recent ad, in which he says, "There's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school"? Was it encouraging to you that it generated such a backlash?

The fact that he thought it was a good idea means that we're not that far from those times. That was very public, but you look back just 9 months or a year ago, my brother contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the [successful] attempt to unseat the judges who made marriage legal in Iowa. Iowa is important in presidential politics and my brother is a smart guy -- that was a way for him to gain an advantage in Iowa in the primaries.

What was Newt's reaction to the initial stories about you?

My recollection is way more people asked me about it than asked him. I'm not even sure if the question was posed to him. [In fact, Gingrich told reporters in 1995: "I have a sister who I love a lot, who is my younger sister, period."] I had never been a really confrontational person. I recall in the '90s, the amazing new technology was faxing, so I would send him faxes every now and then -- 'I heard you mention this, what's up with that?' I didn't hear anything back.

I've never been a bulldog about trying to have these conversations. I think my time is better spent talking to the other 99 percent of the population who are willing to have a conversation about it.

Have you ever talked about it?

No. When we do see each other, it's the time to be family. It is challenging, not just on queer issues, but other political issues too. But when it's family time, it's family time.

When you do spend time with Newt, what is he like? What's the side of him the public doesn't get to see?

He can be a lot of fun. I don't know that any candidate gets to really show that when they're engaged in running a campaign. He can be silly. We share a love of Guinness -- not that we sit around and talk about beer, but he likes a good pint of Guinness. He's been really supportive of our niece, Susan, who has gone to other countries to work on child trafficking issues.

Newt also has a daughter, Kathy, who was a pro-choice activist for a while. Between you and your two nieces, there seems to be quite an activist strain that runs through the family.

I think that what we did all get growing up, both my siblings and then we passed it on to the next generation, [is the idea that] when you believe in something and you're able to do something about it, you should. Don't be swayed by anyone who tries to steer you in a different direction. We may not agree with each other's positions, but we're very supportive of each other's right to have that position and to do what you can to advance it. I guess that is kind of a family thing.

Why do you think Newt hasn't gone as far as some other Republicans who have gay relatives, such as former Vice President Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter and supports gay marriage?

The question for me [with Newt] is, what would his positions be like if he didn't have a gay sister? How much more unsupportive would they be? Would he be out there with Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum?

Most people are changed by [having a gay relative]. They understand better the discrimination and how it hurts, the day-to-day life for a queer person in America. He's obviously known for quite a while that his sister is a lesbian. But he's also known gay people other than me. Steve Gunderson, the former gay congressman from Wisconsin, and he were good friends.

But remember, some of the supportive statements from Dick Cheney didn't happen until after he was out of the vice presidency. That'll be interesting, someday when Newt is not running for anything anymore -- where's he going to be on these issues then? Will it be different?

Newt rather famously refused to attend your wedding, but he told you he couldn't make it because he was out of the country. Which do you think was the real reason -- conflicting plans or taking a stand against same-sex marriage?

Without looking at when he purchased the plane tickets, I can't say. It was well publicized in 1996 when he was asked if I got married to a woman, would he go to the wedding, and he said no, he wouldn't, because he didn't consider that a marriage. But we got a card congratulating us when we announced our engagement. We got gifts [from Newt and Callista]. We had that family gathering and he and Callista came to it. So I really don't know.

Where has your career taken you over the course of your 16 years at HRC?

Since 2007, I've been directing campus outreach. I started out doing town hall meetings and connecting with people, and then I was able to move into the field department and doing grass-roots work. Then I was able to head up our coming out project. I still know the most powerful thing that happened in the last 30, 40 years of the queer movement is that people continued coming out. People growing up today know there are gay people. Whether it's their friends or teachers or relatives or neighbors or even just turning on the TV and watching 'Glee' or 'Modern Family,' they know there are gay people, and that is such a powerful thing.

You and Newt seem to have a mutual respect and even affection, despite how much you've been defined by your political differences.

I think it's how our family is. I could imagine how pissed Mom would be at me if we weren't mutually respectful of each other. [Looking skyward:] See, we're being nice, Mom! It takes more work, but it's how we are.

Image credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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