By Irene Morse
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) made headlines last week when he became the first sitting GOP senator to publicly announce his support for gay marriage. This was significant not only because of his party affiliation, but also because of his prominence within the party. He was considered a potential running mate for Mitt Romney last year, and is only outranked by former Vice President Dick Cheney in terms of Republican supporters of same-sex marriage.
With both Cheney and Portman, family ties ultimately moved them to change their tone. Cheney’s daughter, Mary, is a lesbian, and Portman’s son, Will, came out to his father as gay in 2011. But while there are only two prominent GOP members who publicly support gay marriage, there are larger changes afoot in the party. The 2012 election was a wake-up call for many on the right, and in an attempt to sell the Republican platform to a wider audience and attract more key demographic voting blocs, the party is changing its rhetoric on LGBT issues.
One of the key changes is a shift from pushing for federal legislation addressing LGBT issues (a la the Defense of Marriage Act) to seeing them as in the domain of individual states. For those who see LGBT issues within the context of a continuous fight for civil rights, this is reminiscent of the antebellum argument in favor of slavery, that it is a state’s right to decide the issue. But this still marks dramatic progress from 10 or even just five years ago, when Republicans were actively proposing legislation that severely abridged the rights of LGBT individuals.
It also seems that the GOP is giving individual politicians leeway in making their decisions on these issues. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, for instance, recently said Portman’s decision to support gay marriage would have no effect on Portman’s funding from the RNC “at all” and expressed excitement that the announcement would create “big inroads” within the gay community. The result will perhaps be less pressure to toe the party line when it comes to voting on legislation addressing LGBT issues.
Many politicians have simply chosen to de-emphasize LGBT issues and focus instead on deficit reduction and budget reform. Even Romney remained largely silent on issues such as the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during his presidential campaign. And more than 100 Republicans signed a legal brief in support of gay marriage addressed to the Supreme Court, which will hear arguments concerning the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Of course not all Republicans are on board. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) recently made headlines for his comment in a Politico interview, saying “I’m not gay. So I’m not going to marry one.” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, which adamantly fights against LGBT rights, opined that the changes in Republican attitudes toward gay marriage would prompt the creation of a splinter party for estranged evangelical voters.
But it increasingly seems as though history is against those who oppose gay marriage. A prominent Republican donor, Foster Freiss, who helped fund Rick Santorum’s presidential campaign, has declared his support for domestic benefits for gay couples. Polls conducted at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference meeting indicated that only 15 percent of attendants felt that their most important goal was the promotion of traditional values, including marriage. This is part of the larger trend seen among Americans and particularly Millennials, with 70 percent of the latter group now supporting gay marriage.
To stay relevant, the GOP must change its views on LGBT issues, or at least downplay them. It may be that Republicans fear the forthcoming results of the Supreme Court’s deliberations on gay marriage and are rushing to be “on the right side of history.” No matter their motivations, the recent support from prominent Republicans is a relief for Millennials who consider LGBT rights to be noncontroversial. When it comes to LGBT issues, the Republican Party may increasingly go both ways.