When hundreds of gay and lesbian activists march on Capitol Hill this week to demand support for AIDS funding, Newt Gingrich's half sister, Candace, will be at the head of the pack. A 28-year-old computer technician from Harrisburg, Pa., Candace Gingrich has long had a relaxed, live-and-let-live relationship with her conservative sibling. But she is fast becoming a political symbol. As ever, the religious right is determined to make homosexuality a wedge issue. And the gay-rights movement wants to use Candace Gingrich to fight back.
A cheery woman who relishes playing amateur rugby, Candace has had little to do with politics -- until now. Although she came out to her family about five years ago, her new public profile didn't emerge until after the November election, when a reporter asked Candace about her sexuality. ""I had a short little mental struggle,'' she recalls. ""But I'm not ashamed, and I just told the truth.'' Sensing a public-relations payoff, gay activists began courting her. ""Candace is refreshing,'' says Elizabeth Birch of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, the nation's largest gay lobby. ""She's witty and speaks right to Middle America.'' In January, after joining the family to celebrate her half brother's swearing-in in Washington, Candace flew to Chicago for a gay political ball. And she recently agreed to be the spokesperson for the Campaign Fund's National Coming Out Day.
Candace's mother, meanwhile, worries that her daughter is being used to hector her son. ""She doesn't know what it's all about,'' Kathleen Gingrich told Newsweek last week. ""I don't mind her being gay, but don't start on Newtie! He's got enough on his shoulders.''
On a personal level, the speaker appears to be comfortable around gays. Though Gingrich is not particularly close to his half sister, who was born when Gingrich was 23, he chatted amiably with Candace's former live-in lover at a family gathering several years ago. ""Obviously, he didn't have a problem with it,'' says Candace.
But Gingrich also has to keep the peace with the religious right. Before the election, he promised to hold hearings this year on allegations that federal funds are being used for homosexual ""recruitment'' in the public schools. When asked about the pledge, Gingrich initially downplayed it: ""I don't want to have the sex police in the YMCA or the Central Park bathroom,'' he said. But he went on to argue that taxpayers should not have to support ""a program to teach the effective methods of sadomasochistic interaction.'' When Candace Gingrich heard about her half brother's comments, she was outraged. Candace faxed Gingrich an article about his remarks, scribbling ""What's the deal here?'' in the margin. So far, she hasn't received a reply.
Gingrich declined to be interviewed about his sister, but in the past, he has urged ""tolerance'' for gays. Candace Gingrich isn't satisfied. ""A leaky faucet, a barking dog -- those are things you tolerate,'' she told Newsweek. ""While Newt is promoting tolerance, his colleagues are preparing anti-gay legislation.'' Does Candace Gingrich worry such remarks may embarrass her famous relative? His comments, she answers, are embarrassing to her. Candace Gingrich may have chosen a life different from her half brother's, but it's clear she's just as outspoken.