Hard work by progressives, and a persistent demand for fairness is making a difference. There has been a cultural earthquake regarding gay rights in this nation, and now even the Republican Party is coming to grips with that fact.
It’s not like the GOP has become a bastion of progressiveness on gay rights, but there has been an evolution in the political approach — and an acknowledgment of a cultural shift in the country. Same-sex relationships are more prominent and accepted. There are more gay public figures — including politicians — and it’s likely that many Washington Republicans have gay friends and coworkers. Just as important — there’s also a libertarian streak of acceptance on people’s sexuality coursing through the House Republican Conference.
“In one decade, what’s shocking on TV is accepted as commonplace in the other,” said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a veteran of the culture wars of the 1990s. “It’s the same with sexual mores all over that if you look at campuses and universities, they have a lot of gay pride clubs and so there has been a deliberate and effective outreach to the younger generation about being more accepting of same-sex relationships.”
But there’s also a political strategy at work: The economy has displaced moral issues in today’s politics. Ask most House Republicans today if they have deep convictions about gay relationships, and it hardly registers.
“I personally have deep convictions about my children having a financially stable country that they can live in,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said in an interview. “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.”
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), a 32-year veteran of Congress, never a man of many words, simply said, “I don’t hear it discussed much.”
Even die-hard social conservatives like Texas Republican Louie Gohmert aren’t digging in.
“That’s not something we’re focused on now,” Gohmert said.
Social issues haven’t fully escaped the party. They’ve worked vociferously to ensure the federal government doesn’t spend money on Planned Parenthood and talked for weeks about the contraception mandate and religious liberty.
But there’s no question that for Republicans, the politics of gay rights has dramatically changed. In 1994, lawmakers say, there was “sticker shock” when President Bill Clinton created “don’t ask, don’t tell” for the military. They dashed to the House floor to rail on what they perceived as his immorality.
“It’s been realized that back in ’94, you could jump up on the House floor and pound your chest about [gay issues], and secure a good voter intensity, which you can’t do anymore,” Kingston said, describing the shifting dynamics of the issue.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released earlier this month showed a 9 percent increase in support for gay marriage among Republicans to 31 percent. Support among 18-to-34-year-olds was nearly 70 percent, according to a 2011 Washington Post/ABC News poll.
At Third Way, the prominent centrist think tank has undertaken a bipartisan “Commitment Campaign” pushing gay marriage. The group has made it easier for lawmakers to shift views on the issue, laying out steps for elected officials to change their position.
Leadership, too, has played a role. At the top levels of House Republican leadership, aides have tried to “quell” legislative proposals on the sanctity of marriage.