In a notorious 2003 interview, GOP Sen. Rick Santorum likened gay sex to bestiality. And just last week, GOP Gov. Tom Corbett compared gay marriage to incest.
The difference is that Corbett apologized, and Santorum didn’t. For the past half-century, the Republican Party has been divided between people who want to live and let live and those who want to tell you how to live. But the libertarian wing is winning, which is good news for anyone who cares about the fate of gay people in America.
A majority of Republicans younger than 50 now support gay marriage, as a Washington Post poll found earlier this year. So do a whopping 81 percent of GOP voters under 30. That’s why the subject has become so dicey for Republican politicians like Corbett and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who vetoed a same-sex marriage bill last year and has challenged a recent state court order to allow gays to wed. But Christie also called for a referendum on the issue and has pledged to abide by the outcome.
It’s easy to forget that the GOP stood four-square against gay rights and same-sex unions for more than 40 years. Homosexuality was a “wedge issue,” uniting Republicans while dividing Democrats. Most of all, it brought otherwise dormant GOP voters to the polls.
Consider actress Anita Bryant’s 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign to reverse an anti-discrimination law in Dade County, Florida. A former Miss America runner-up and a spokeswoman for the Florida citrus industry, Bryant warned that the measure would require schools to hire gay teachers. She also told a television audience that the Bible called for homosexuals to be put to death, “and blood shed over their heads.”
Today, we mostly recall the ensuing gay-rights boycott against Florida oranges. Few remember that Dade County voters came out in high numbers to defeat their anti-discrimination law, by a gaping margin of 68 to 32 percent.
By the following year, five more municipalities around the country had repealed their own gay-rights statutes. Dozens of other jurisdictions passed anti-gay measures during the 1980s AIDS crisis, which televangelist and GOP presidential aspirant Pat Robertson called “God’s judgment against a nation that chooses to live immorally.” In a fund-raising letter, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell charged that HIV-infected gay men were donating blood so they can “take as many people with them as they can.”
By 1992, when the dark-horse candidate Pat Buchanan declared a “cultural war” at the Republican convention, anti-gay policies had become a centerpiece of the GOP. “Family Rights Forever/ Gay Rights Never,” delegates’ signs proclaimed.
President George W. Bush endorsed a federal amendment barring gay marriage in 2003 and kept hammering at the issue during his re-election campaign the next year, when a gay-marriage amendment on the ballot in Ohio helped him carry that crucial state. Thirteen states passed anti-gay referenda in 2004, galvanizing so-called “moral” voters behind the GOP. “I have never seen anything that has energized and provoked our grass roots like this issue,” one activist observed.
Shortly after that, however, the tide began to turn. In some ways, the GOP’s campaign for “family values” was a victim of its success: As more gay couples created families of their own, straight Americans came to know them as neighbors, co-workers, and friends. It also helped that a few prominent Republicans, including Ohio Rep. Rob Portman and former vice-president Dick Cheney, had out-of-the-closet gay kids.
Today, even GOP stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck back civil unions or gay marriage. “If it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, what difference is it to me?” Beck asked in 2010, quoting Thomas Jefferson. “Honestly, I think we have bigger fish to fry.”
For Beck & Co., the biggest fish right now is Obamacare. You don’t have to agree with their position on the issue — I certainly don’t — to applaud their shift away from the “cultural war.” During President Obama’s first term, Republicans tried to rally the country against his health care package by focusing on its requirement that contraceptives be covered. But that was a non-starter, too, because — surprise! — most American adults have used contraceptives.
So now we’re focused on the heart of the matter, which is how and why the federal government should regulate health care at all. Republicans claim that Obamacare will the burden American family, and I think they’re wrong. But I’d rather debate that question than whether gay people have the right to form families in the first place. Wouldn’t you?