President Obama and his lieutenants aren’t the only ones whose views on same-sex marriage are “evolving.”
Republicans — including prominent conservative office-holders, pundits and activists — are increasingly endorsing key parts of the gay-rights agenda.
What do former Vice President Dick Cheney, Governor Chris Christie, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, former Governor Sarah Palin, columnist Ann Coulter and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have in common? They’re all prominent conservatives, and they’ve all made overtures to the gay community.
Cheney publicly endorsed gay marriage years ago. In January, Christie appointed New Jersey’s first openly gay Supreme Court justice. Priebus has done fundraisers with the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay rights group. Palin hinted that she supported repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Coulter and Norquist sit on the advisory board of GOProud, a gay conservative advocacy group.
There have been noteworthy developments at the state and federal levels. In March, a majority of New Hampshire Republican legislators joined Democrats to reject a bill that would have repealed a gay marriage law and replaced it with civil unions. And in 2011, New York legalized same-sex marriage with the decisive support of four Republican senators, marking the first time in the nation that a legislative body controlled by Republicans approved either same-sex marriage or civil unions. According to a recent Politico story, House Republicans have “quietly worked behind the scenes to kill amendments that reaffirm opposition to same-sex unions.” Politico reporters interviewed House Republicans and found that gay issues “hardly register” with them.
Politico describes the change as “one of the swiftest shifts in ideology and strategy for Republicans, as they’ve come nearly full circle on same-sex politics. What was once a front-and-center issue for rank-and-file Republicans — the subject of many hotly worded House and Senate floor speeches — is virtually a dead issue.”
The easy explanation is that economic concerns have momentarily eclipsed social issues. But many conservatives are simply not interested in issues related to homosexuality. As Rep. Allen West told Politico, “I want my daughters to have the opportunities that I had, and that’s what concerns me. That’s what keeps me up awake at night, not worrying about who’s sleeping with who.”
I asked Jimmy LaSalvia, co-founder of GOProud, why Republican sentiment toward gay rights has changed so quickly. “It used to be that the only gay people most people saw were once a year on TV at the San Francisco gay pride parade,” LaSalvia said. “Today everyone in America has gay people in their lives. America is changing its mind. It’s happening very, very fast and conservatives are a part of that.”
Part of LaSalvia’s job is to convince Republicans and gay people that they are natural allies. LaSalvia seems to be having some success. Exit polls showed 19 percent of gay voters voted for Bush in 2004 and 27 percent for McCain in 2008. In 2010, polls showed 31 percent of gay voters voted for a Republican in their congressional race.
LaSalvia says most Republicans have welcomed GOProud to the fold. “I go all over the country and gay people come up to me and say, ‘I’m not ready to vote Republican yet, but I’m really conservative.'”
He continued: “I speak at colleges once or twice a month, and every single time I’ve gone to a college the speech has been sponsored by the campus conservative group or the College Republicans. Not that long ago that speech would have been sponsored by the campus gay group. Whenever I’m at a conservative event like CPAC, my experience is overwhelmingly positive. I always hear ‘We’re so glad you’re here.’ And I hear all the time from big names in the conservative movement, ‘I can’t say it publicly yet, but I support you’re right to marry.’ I also hear ‘it’s not an issue for me.'”
Tellingly, few conservatives are willing to make the fundamental moral argument against homosexuality. Instead, conservatives argue against repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” by asserting that open homosexuality erodes troop morale; against gay marriage by insisting it violates religious freedom by forcing religious social services groups like Catholic Charities to place children with gay couples; and against court-imposed same-sex nuptials by contending that voters should decide.
Those may be valid arguments. But they don’t get to the heart of the case against gay rights, which is that homosexuality is immoral and harmful to those involved and to society. Once the moral argument is conceded, it’s only a matter of time before the entire argument is lost.
So when we hear Mitt Romney say that gay couples are “just as loving and [can] raise children well,” as he did in one of the Republican debates, it weakens to the point of rupture his argument against same-sex marriage.
It’s difficult to imagine that the case against abortion would be anywhere near as powerful if the moral element were removed from the argument.
None of this means Republican voters have changed their minds. In fact, polls show declining support for same-sex marriage among self-identified Republicans. A recent Gallup poll found Republican support has dropped to 22 percent, from 28 percent in 2011.
And a recent Pew poll found support slipping from 27 percent to 23 percent over the last year.
Social conservatives will continue to claim some victories. Yesterday, North Carolina voters passed Amendment One, which will bring to 30 the number of states whose constitutions ban same-sex marriage.
But these may be the last gasps of opposition to a cause all but a few Republican lawmakers and conservative leaders seem uninterested in fighting.