Attitudes toward gay rights keep getting more positive, but Republicans change slowly

Photo: Jamison Wieser/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Photo credit: Jamison Wieser/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Since gay rights emerged in the United States, Republicans as a set of individuals and the Republican party as an institution have been much less supportive of gay rights than Democrats and the Democratic party.

That statement can’t be remotely controversial. It’s obvious to anyone who has a passing interest in American politics. And it’s very easily demonstrated.

In 2012, the Republican party platforms in the U.S. and Maine denigrated marriage between gay men or lesbians, while the Democratic party’s state and national platforms supported marriage equality.

Having marriage equality in Maine, passed by the voters in 2012, hasn’t changed anything for the parties, at least not yet. About one in six marriages in Maine in 2013 wed same-sex couples. Yet the Maine Republican party still defines marriage in a way that makes marriages between two men or two women lesser and even less real, as seen in this language from the proposed Republican platform for 2014:

VII. The family is the foundation and strength of a stable society; therefore the government should not interfere, but rather support and protect the integrity and rights of the family:
A. Promote Family values;
B. Marriage is defined as the union of one man and one woman;

In 2011, Maine GOP Party Chair Charlie Webster used gay-baiting to try to defeat the referendum that restored Election Day registration. (Granted, Webster’s gay-baiting was less full-throated than what Karl Rove engaged in for decades, but that’s Maine’s generally civil political culture for you.)

Presidential nominees Mitt Romney and Barack Obama took their parties’ positions on marriage in 2012. Obama said he “evolved” to support marriage equality, while Romney opposed it.

Those differences in party platforms and nominees reflected the views of people associated with the political parties.

Here we see (below) that in 2013, more than half of all Americans thought same-sex marriage should be legal. But while 69% of Democrats believe that, along with 58% of Independents, only 26% of Republicans hold that position.

Gallup data, presented in ""Same-Sex Marriage Support Solidifies Above 50% in U.S.," May 13, 2013

Gallup data, presented in “”Same-Sex Marriage Support Solidifies Above 50% in U.S.,” May 13, 2013

Given the differences on these issues, how hard is it to be a gay Republican?

As with many questions, the answer is not simple.

Maine doesn’t have the same level of social conservatism as many other states. During the 2012 effort that led to marriage equality in Maine, some who worked on the campaign were gay Republicans.

As age is associated with opinion on gay rights, young Maine Republicans are much more likely to have more socially moderate views than older ones. While this is purely anecdotal, I can recall a debate a few years ago between UMaine College Republicans and Democrats. They disagreed on almost everything — except for marriage equality. Both supported it.

Furthermore, the marriage equality campaign included a group of pro-marriage equality Republicans under the banner of Republicans United for Marriage. While there was some pushback against that group, their presence signaled that the party included gay rights proponents.

However, the weight of the party went the other way. As noted, that year the Maine Republican party platform denigrated same-sex marriage. Furthermore, a Critical Insights poll from that period found support for marriage equality in Maine from 77% of Democrats, 63% of independents/unenrolleds, and just 30% of Republicans. 

And Maine recently saw the introduction (and defeat) of a Republican-sponsored bill purportedly about religious freedom, but much like similar pieces of legislation elsewhere that were designed to allow people to discriminate legally against LGBT people.

Nationally, efforts to get the party to change on gay rights haven’t made any real progress.

After Romney lost, various reports counseling “rebranding” the party were issued. One by College Republicans noted that young voters were turned off by the Republican party’s stance against gay people being able to marry. Libertarian leaning Republicans support the freedom to marry and oppose homophobia. But there is no indication that the party will change its position anytime soon.

Just last week a prominent gay Republican gave up on the party.

No, he doesn’t like Democrats either. But this is what Jimmy LaSalvia, the founder of a gay Republican group said:

“I just came to the realization that the Republican Party doesn’t represent my principles and values,” LaSalvia told POLITICO. . . . “I don’t tolerate bigotry of any kind, whether it’s anti-gay bigotry, anti-Muslim bigotry. And they do and that’s just not OK with me.”

And on whether Republicans can garner more support from the American people, LaSalvia said:

“They’re not going to listen to you if they think that you hate their family and friends. And you cannot change that unless you’re willing to stand up and tell the people in your party who aren’t inclusive that they’re wrong.”

Now, it’s true there are a few out and proud gay Republicans. But it’s telling that they have to reach back to Ronald Reagan to find an example of a party leader who openly and directly opposed discrimination against gay people.

In November 2013, the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). Of the 64 votes for its passage, 10 came from Republicans. But Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) refuses to let it come to a vote in the House of Representatives. More Republican identifiers support ENDA than do not, but critical groups representing key Republican constituencies, from the Heritage Foundation to Focus on the Family, oppose it.

Like many issues, Republicans are in a bit of a bind with gay rights issues. Their base doesn’t support extending rights, by and large. However, as the public as a whole changes, the party risks being more and more out of touch.

Republican leaders and strategists don’t want to annoy their base by moving toward pro-rights positions but, by staying pat or using inflammatory rhetoric, anti-rights Republicans turn off moderates. That makes overt gay-baiting anathema, but it doesn’t thwart more subtle (“dog-whistle”) forms, and nor does it shift the party decisively toward pro-rights positions.

Gay Republicans and the party members who support them will have to decide whether to stay and try to change their party or, if like LaSalvia, whether it’s time to leave. Whatever they do, without the party modifying its campaign behaviors and issue positions, any rebranding is doomed to fail.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.