Interview: Newt Gingrich's Activist Sister


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


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.

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

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