Jimmy LaSalvia co-founded political action group GOProud to prove to America that the Republican Party is a safe home for gay conservatives. But he no longer believes his own arguments. On Monday, he announced on his blog that he could no longer take his own party’s refusal to stand up to bigotry: he was leaving the Republican Party and had registered as an Independent. “I am every bit as conservative as I’ve always been, but I just can’t bring myself to carry the Republican label any longer,” he wrote.
His condemnation of the GOP was even stronger when he explained his decision to TIME on Wednesday. The Republican brand, he says, is so tarnished that he no longer believes it is salvageable. “I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to pull the plug on the patient. It’s been brain-dead for a long, long time.”
In a wide-ranging interview with TIME, included before in an abbreviated form, LaSalvia explains the journey that led him to abandon the party ship:
TIME: You are someone who once had lots of hopes for the GOP. What happened?
LASALVIA: I have been my whole life the ultimate team player. I was ‘The Gay for Mitt’ last year. I think that what I did should cause the leadership in the Republican Party to ask themselves, How bad must it be if we’ve even lost Jimmy?
I spent my career working to create an atmosphere in the conservative movement where gay conservatives can be open and honest and live their lives and work within the conservative movement. I wanted it to be a place where straight conservatives could publicly support gay Americans and even eventually come to support civil marriage for gay couples. I feel like I have accomplished that. I had hoped that would be enough to melt the anti-gay bigotry that runs through the ranks of some in the Republican Party. I’ve come to realize that it is not, and that the leadership of the party tolerates bigotry, not just antigay bigotry, but anti-Muslim, any people who are not like us it seems like, because they are afraid of losing that sliver of their base who are anti-gay. And the truth is they are turning off millions more Americans by kowtowing to a group that frankly is losing and who most Americans think are wrong.
There were so many examples that happened during the 2012 election, when I saw Mitt Romney paralyzed with fear, he was afraid of doing anything that showed he was in touch with life in America in 2014 for fear of retribution from the antigay right. There were some big things, like when he didn’t stand up for his staffer Rick Grenell when he was under attack for being hired. They had a Noah’s Ark of a speakers list at the Republican National Convention—there were two of everybody on that stage except gays and Muslims. In all America you couldn’t find any gay people to speak at the convention. They couldn’t even bring themselves to bring a surrogate to the GOProud event at the convention. We had a 1,000 people, and they said no to sending anyone to come and say thank you for your support.
After that election loss, I thought, well, maybe they have learned their lessons, that the bigotry was going to drag them down and they’ve been out of touch with life in America today. I had hoped that they would address some of it in their autopsy and the new revamping of the Republican Party, but they’ve done almost anything but that to address the problems in the party.
We have seen lots of examples lately. Just recently a member of the RNC who has a long history of saying many anti-gay statements went on an anti-Muslim screed on his Facebook page, and the best that the RNC chairman can do is say we need to treat everybody with respect. He can’t say that that’s wrong and denounce it.
There were other things, like, the congressman from Virginia, Randy Forbes, recently trying to keep the NRCC from funding two gay candidates for Congress, and [Speaker John] Boehner said no we are going to fund them. He thought that that was a big bold move, but the truth is he should have said, ‘No, he’s wrong.’ But Boehner couldn’t bring himself to denounce the bigotry. He could only say that’s not me, he doesn’t speak for us.
You’ve touched on the final straws. Was there a tipping point?
I really think that the Romney campaign was a big wake up call for me. I had been very patient and strategic frankly during the primaries, but then after he got the nomination, I was told point blank on the phone [by the campaign], we are not going to meet with you, because we don’t want to look etch-a-sketch.
I was astonished when Ken Cuccinelli was embraced as an acceptable candidate. To me, his views about gay Americans or Americans who are different from him are simply unacceptable in this day and age. I was astonished to see the party embrace him as their nominee. I likened it at the time to David Duke running in the early ‘90s. That’s not acceptable now. The fact that that doesn’t register with them is disturbing to me.
I am not leaving because of one issue. I have never been a single-issue voter. If I were I would have left a long time ago, frankly. It is about a culture, and it is about what is acceptable in American life today and demonizing other Americans simply because of who they are, whether it is their ethnic or religious background or their sexual orientation, whatever it is, is not acceptable.
What else about the Republican Party is not consistent with your values?
The inability to offer real solutions to the problems affecting us is remarkable to me. The fact that their M.O. is to oppose Democrats at all costs and yet not offer any alternatives—I don’t agree with most everything Democrats propose either, but just opposing what they want to do doesn’t address the problem. They always let the Democrats define the problem and offer a solution, and then all they do is oppose it without even recognizing the problem.
The whole culture of the party is just not what I had always worked for, and I think though that the fact that they are so out of touch culturally is the biggest issue for me. That’s something that can’t be dealt with with policy changes or messaging changes. That’s about who they are. To me, that is the biggest issue, that the leadership in the party is so out of touch culturally that I don’t think there’s any hope for them.
Has anyone in the GOP leadership reached out to you in response to your decision?
No, they haven’t. That doesn’t surprise me, given that for the last couple of years I’ve done nothing but attempt to help, and most of the time I’ve been met with a face palm. I can’t say all the time. When they were doing the autopsy report, I had great conversations with some [Republicans], and that is why I was hopeful that there would be changes. But lately it’s as if they are doubling down on the cultural stuff.
What happens now to GOProud?
I left six months ago. They still exist, they are on a little bit of a smaller scale, and a couple of my former staffers run it. It is still a place where gay conservatives and their allies can go to work together. I can tell you that from the beginning of GOProud we always had a lot of independents as members. I’d say about a third has always has been independent, because I’m not the first [conservative] to give up on the Republican Party. I’ve stayed and fought for as long as I can.
The bottom line is I’m still a conservative, I still care about our country, and I still want to work to make it better. It just won’t happen in the context of working within a party that is frankly shrinking. You have a party that is shrinking and going under with no hope of repair. There comes a point when you have to abandon ship. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to pull the plug on the patient. It’s been brain-dead for a long, long time.
What would have to happen for you to rejoin the GOP?
I don’t know. I just don’t see anyone with the backbone to make the changes that have to be made in a bold way. I just don’t see anyone who can do that. Frankly, if I thought there was hope, I wouldn’t be leaving.