Turning the Tables

Conservatives Remain Unsupportive of Gay Rights at Their Peril

A series of polls released over the past few weeks confirm what many Americans are witnessing in their homes, workplaces, and houses of worship—support for gay and transgender equality is on the rise. This polling data comes on the heels of the Department of Justice announcing it has determined the Defense of Marriage Act—which prohibits the federal government from recognizing the marriages of same-sex couples—is unconstitutional and will therefore no longer defend it in the several current federal court cases challenging the law.

Most Americans support the Justice Department’s decision as well as President Obama’s leadership against DOMA in general. Unfortunately, many Republican leaders, including the top likely candidates for the 2012 Republican nomination for president, still think it is 1996, when President Clinton signed DOMA into law after huge bipartisan votes in Congress.

Much has changed since then. According to a poll released by the Human Rights Campaign and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, 51 percent of voters now oppose the Defense of Marriage Act. The gap is even wider among independent voters, who oppose the law by a margin of 54 percent to 32 percent. Support for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans does not just end there. After reading statements for and against defending the law in federal and district court, 54 percent of voters stood in firm opposition to the recent announcement from House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) that the House of Representatives would take the place of the Justice Department and represent the government’s interest in the various DOMA cases.

Some conservatives, however, continue to be in denial about where the public is on marriage rights in general and DOMA in particular. Reacting to the Justice Department’s decision to stop defending DOMA, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a possible Republican presidential candidate, argued that it was an “an affront to the will of the people.” Similarly, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) told supporters in a fundraising email that the president “continues to push his far-left, socialist agenda on the American people.”

A new interactive from the Center for American Progress Action Fund highlights these and many other examples of inflammatory, anti-LGBT language among possible Republican presidential candidates. Just last year, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich told Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly “there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us.” And on the issue of marriage equality, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said that giving gay and transgender people equal rights was akin to “accommodate[ing] those who want to use drugs” or “believe in incest.”

This is obviously not the first time politicians have used anti-LGBT rhetoric to garner financial and political support from religious and social conservative voters. But it remains to be seen if this tactic will work this year, given how far the country has come in terms of support of equality for gay and transgender Americans.

These claims, and the others available in the interactive, do nothing more than to show just how out of touch these politicians are with the actual will of the American people. In fact, a Washington Post and ABC News poll recently concluded that 53 percent of Americans support legalizing marriage for gay couples, a first in nearly a decade of polling. This poll also found that support has grown most notably “among Catholics, political moderates, people in their 30s and 40s and men.”

This change is also happening rapidly among younger conservatives, who are finding it increasingly hard to support candidates who actively speak out against LGBT equality. Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign manager, came out in full support of marriage equality after the election. He also said the Republican Party would be better off affirmatively making gay rights part of its national platform. Ken Mehlman, George W. Bush’s 2004 presidential reelection campaign manager and former head of the Republican National Committee, offered a similar suggestion when he came out as a gay man after ending a lifelong career in conservative politics.

Thankfully, in addition to Republican leaders like Schmidt and Mehlman, some elected officials are also now supporting marriage equality and other rights for gay and transgender people. For example, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who voted for DOMA in 1996, has now signed on to sponsor Senate legislation that would repeal the law.

Like many people, Murray’s and others’ attitudes on marriage equality (and additional gay and transgender equality issues) have changed over the past 15 years, as gay and human rights advocates worked hard to educate and engage the general public. The struggle over gay and transgender equality is by no means over. But all indications are that those who oppose equality are fighting a losing battle.

Noel Gordon is an intern with LGBT Progress and Jeff Krehely is Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at American Progress.

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