EXCLUSIVE | Fred Karger, first openly gay presidential candidate, says ‘Mormon Church continue to demonize LGBTQ’
Activist Fred Karger was the first openly gay presidential candidate, running as a Republican in 2012, and he even backed Pete Buttigieg during the Democratic primaries this year
While Pete Buttigieg was widely known and celebrated as being an openly gay presidential candidate in 2020, do not mistake him to be the first. Activist Fred Karger was the first openly gay presidential candidate, running as a Republican in 2012. He even backed Buttigieg during the Democratic primaries this year. In an email interview with MEAWW, Karger talks about how the scenario has changed since 2012 and what his future plans are. Here are the excerpts:
You have worked under former US Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. What did you learn from each one of them and who was the most difficult?
I was a longtime fighter within the Republican Party for a moderate approach to governing. That was where the vast majority of Americans were and for the most part still are. President’s Ford, George HW Bush and Reagan, while all very different, were able to get along with both Democrats and Republicans. In fact, President Reagan and then Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill got along famously and thus were able to get a lot done for the country.
That was one of my major themes when I ran for president. In fact, the first commercial that we ran in Iowa, called Independence Day, was all about getting along in Washington, DC.
When you campaigned in 2012 as the first openly gay presidential candidate, what was the response and do you think the reaction would have been different today?
As a first-time candidate running for any office, I had to prove that I was serious about running for president. I spent the majority of my time over my 2 ½ years of full-time campaigning in New Hampshire and Iowa, the first two states to hold primary contests. I knew that my run for president as a gay Republican in the 2012 primaries would be an uphill battle, yet newsworthy. I was very surprised by how well I was received in top Republican circles from the Chair of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus who met with me in his office in Washington, to nearly every state and county GOP leader. Where I hit roadblocks was with the television networks who sponsored all the debates and refused to let me participate, third party right wing anti-LGBTQ groups and individuals, and believe it or not, all the major LGBTQ national and state organizations with two exceptions.
In 2010 when I began my campaign, gay marriage was still a pipe dream and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell remained the law of the land. While the GOP has since been taken over by Trump, I think that the climate today would be much better for Fred Karger for President.
From then to now, how has the world changed on LGBTQ views? Do you think people now are more informed than they were eight years ago?
Yes, thanks to so much hard work over the last 70 years, the world has change with its embraces of LGBTQ rights. Pete Buttigieg’s success as a leading presidential candidate in the Democratic Primaries this year took what we activists have been doing for many decades to extraordinary new heights.
You call yourself "a different kind of Republican". Tell us a little about your ideas for the party. When and why did you decide to back Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg?
I called myself an “Independent Republican” when I ran for president eight years ago. More and more voters are leaving both parties to become an Independent, often because they don’t agree with party leaders and some of the issues embraced by the party. I left the GOP in January of this year after 49 years, primarily to vote for Pete in the California Primary on March 3rd, but with the rise of the far right and Trump, the Republican Party that I have long been working in has really changed and it may be beyond saving.
Although when I first became involved in politics in the mid 1970’s, Richard Nixon had just left office in disgrace, and it appeared the GOP was gone forever. But just six years after Nixon had resigned in 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan won the presidency. He brought the Republican Party back from the dead and even brought in millions of young people. Hopefully we’ll have another presidential candidate to do just that. We need a strong two party system in this country to keep our democracy strong.
You came out when you were 41. What is your advice to people who are still struggling to come out of the closet?
I have always been gay and came out to myself when I was 18 years old and told some close friends in my twenties. But in the 1970’s and 1980’s I was afraid to come out at work or to my family. I did eventually, but it was a slow process. I lived the classic “double life” for way too long and that has made me very angry. It’s an awful way to live and has a terrible impact on your self-esteem. So, after I retired in 2004, I became an out-front LGBTQ activist and have been aggressively taking on the opponents of LGBTQ equality ever since. I channeled that anger to help others, so they would hopefully not have the same struggle that so many others of us have had. That was one of my major reasons for running for president, I wanted to show the community, especially LGBTQ youth, that there was nothing they couldn’t do in life, they could even run for President of the United States.
At one point, you tried acting before being a political strategist. Why did it not work out and was there any other career path you wanted to follow?
My acting career was really more of an excuse for me to move to Los Angeles from Chicago. But I did have success in the three years that I gave it. I guest-starred on five network shows, did two television pilots, a movie and an iconic commercial for Edge Shaving Cream written and directed by John Hughes. Acting was not my passion, politics was. So, I gave up acting in 1976 and went into politics, which I loved and was far better at.
What projects are you currently busy with and what are your future plans?
I am continuing my pursuit against the Mormon Church which had funded and led all 26 state battles to ban same-sex marriage in this country. I was the first person to discover all they did to qualify and pass California’s Prop 8 twelve years ago and turned the story over to Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs at the Wall Street Journal, who broke it. For the past twelve years I’ve worked to get Mormon Church leaders out of the same-sex marriage business, which they have done. I am now working to get Church leaders to welcome all LGBTQ Mormons and their families back into the Church. Mormon Utah has six times the attempted youth suicide rate of any other state. They continue to demonize LGBTQ Mormons and I am working every day to get their leaders to stop the bullying and end all these tragic suicides.