NOTE: This post incorporates some material contained in earlier posts. It is published here as the electronic version of my Sunday AJC column.
Back in the mid-’80s, a gay-rights victory was defined as getting government to take the AIDS crisis seriously. Fighting for gay marriage was almost incomprehensible. So it was an important sign of progress when President Obama announced this week that after years of qualms, he too has come to support the right of gay couples to marry.
“When I meet gay and lesbian couples, when I meet same-sex couples, and I see how caring they are, how much love they have in their hearts, how they’re taking care of their kids,” he said in an interview. “When I hear from them the pain they feel that somehow they are still considered less than full citizens when it comes to their legal rights, then for me, I think it just has tipped the scales in that direction.”
The personal evolution that Obama describes is probably common to a lot of people. As long as gay Americans stayed safely in the closet, they could be cast as the unseen and the unknown, whispered about but never acknowledged. But once they began to emerge and identify themselves as who they truly are, many of those fears and whispers melted away through human contact and the instinct for human decency.
In more and more communities, job sites, neighborhoods and families, gay Americans have become just another part of the mix. “That nice gay couple down the street” and “your cousin and her partner” just don’t seem as threatening as they did when gay people were mythological creatures.
In that interview, Obama also made it clear that while his personal position had changed, he fully intends to leave the matter to the states. Politically, it isn’t hard to see why. A day before his comments, voters in North Carolina, an important swing state, had voted by more than 20 percentage points in favor of a ban both on gay marriage and civil unions.
(That margin may itself be a mark of progress, though. Eight years ago, a similar ban passed in Georgia by 50 percentage points).
Mitt Romney, on the other hand, says that while he supports limited legal rights for gay couples, he would not leave the issue to states. Instead, he has pledged to push a constitutional amendment that would strip states of that option. That would be a significant expansion of federal authority, given that marriage has always been a state prerogative.
Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, told the press this week that they intended to campaign on gay marriage. “I think it’s an important issue for people and, you know, it engenders strong feelings on both sides,” Gillespie said. “I think it’s important to be respectful in how we talk about our differences, but the fact is that’s a significant difference in November.”
I’ll be surprised if the Romney camp follows through on that approach. They’ll use the issue quietly in social conservative back-channels, trying to drum up turnout. But in a sign of where we’re headed, they know that raising the issue among voters in general would be dangerous. Polling shows that support for gay marriage is strong and growing among independents.
And while Gillespie quite properly noted that “it’s important to be respectful,” once such issues are raised it’s hard to keep ugly and intolerant things from being said in the passion of a campaign, with so many voices being raised and heard.
Americans may still be split on the issue of gay marriage, but they’re pretty unified against intolerance. And that’s why, in the long run, we all know how this is going to turn out.
– Jay Bookman
UPDATE: Here’s the text of a memo sent out by GOP pollster Jan R. van Lohuizen to Republican politicians and staff, updating them on public opinion and suggesting talking points. It confirms the sense that this may be the last presidential cycle in which this issue will be “in play.”
From: Jan R. van Lohuizen
Re: Same Sex Marriage
Background: in view of this week’s news on the same sex marriage issue, here is a summary of recent survey findings on same sex marriage:
Support for same sex marriage has been growing and in the last few years support has grown at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down. A review of public polling shows that up to 2009 support for gay marriage increased at a rate of 1% a year. Starting in 2010 the change in the level of support accelerated to 5% a year. The most recent public polling shows supporters of gay marriage outnumber opponents by a margin of roughly 10% (for instance: NBC/WSJ poll in February/March: support 49%, oppose 40%).
The increase in support is taking place among all partisan groups. While more Democrats support gay marriage than Republicans, support levels among Republicans are increasing over time. The same is true of age: younger people support same sex marriage more often than older people, but the trends show that all age groups are rethinking their position.
Polling conducted among Republicans show that majorities of Republicans and Republican leaning voters support extending basic legal protections to gays and lesbians. These include majority Republican support for:
Protecting gays and lesbians against being fired for reasons of sexual orientation.
Protections against bullying and harassment
Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
Right to visit partners in hospitals
Protecting partners against loss of home in case of severe medical emergencies or death
Legal protection in some form for gay couples whether it be same sex marriage or domestic partnership (only 29% of Republicans oppose legal recognition in any form).
Recommendation: A statement reflecting recent developments on this issue along the following lines:
“People who believe in equality under the law as a fundamental principle, as I do, will agree that this principle extends to gay and lesbian couples; gay and lesbian couples should not face discrimination and their relationship should be protected under the law. People who disagree on the fundamental nature of marriage can agree, at the same time, that gays and lesbians should receive essential rights and protections such as hospital visitation, adoption rights, and health and death benefits.”
Other thoughts / Q&A:
Follow up to questions about affirmative action:
“This is not about giving anyone extra protections or privileges, this is about making sure that everyone – regardless of sexual orientation – is provided the same protections against discrimination that you and I enjoy.”
Why public attitudes might be changing:
“As more people have become aware of friends and family members who are gay, attitudes have begun to shift at an accelerated pace. This is not about a generational shift in attitudes, this is about people changing their thinking as they recognize their friends and family members who are gay or lesbian.”
“As people who promote personal responsibility, family values, commitment and stability, and emphasize freedom and limited government we have to recognize that freedom means freedom for everyone. This includes the freedom to decide how you live and to enter into relationships of your choosing, the freedom to live without excessive interference of the regulatory force of government.”