It’s not just Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the conservative favorite who announced that learning his son is gay caused him to rethink and reverse his opposition to gay marriage, who is changing direction on gay marriage. Thursday evening, in a packed room at the CPAC gathering in Maryland (a state that voted for gay marriage), a pro-gay-marriage panel hosted by the free-market Competitive Enterprise Institute evaded CPAC’s decision to exclude the conservative gay organization GOProud by hosting an event titled, “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.”

The event featured, among others, GOProud Executive Director Jimmy LaSalvia. Former CEI chairman Fred Smith moderated the panel, which included Jonah Goldberg, GOProud and Freedom To Marry adviser Liz Mair, GOProud board member and author Margaret Hoover, and me. To his credit, NRA president and CPAC board member David Keene attended.

LaSalvia, who has been in a running battle with CPAC over several years, leaned over to me at about 5:45 p.m. and whispered, “I hope people come.” Boy, did they. A couple hundred conservatives, most standing, cheered and laughed and warmly welcomed the panel, which had managed to evade the CPAC ban and grab media attention that it might not otherwise have garnered.

LaSalvia began with a heartfelt thank you and a blunt accounting of the GOP’s attitude toward gay rights and gay marriage. “We have tolerated something in our movement for far too long – anti-gay bigotry. Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t believe that just because someone opposes same-sex marriage that that automatically makes them a homophobe. Let me say that again. Opposition to gay marriage isn’t, in and of itself, bigotry. There are, however, a few in our movement who just don’t like gay people, and in 2013 that’s just not okay in America anymore.”

LaSalvia made the conservative case for gay marriage (“We should want everyone to settle down, be monogamous, get married and be happy – even gay people”) and for the GOP to shed the image of intolerance toward gays, which “contributes more to conservatives’ image problem than any other, because it’s an issue that cuts across all demographic groups.” And he spoke more generally about the need “to seriously examine and recalibrate our movement to build a new coalition that can win,” one built around a common understanding of the centrality of liberty but one that allows for differences. (“There are countless other examples — from foreign policy to tax reform proposals — there are many issues where we might support different policy positions.”)

LaSalvia received a boisterous ovation. There were polite differences among the panelists, with Goldberg encouraging federalism and Hoover making the case that marriage is a “fundamental right” recognized in a host of Supreme Court decisions. But there was widespread agreement that support for gay marriage is consistent with modern conservatism and that opposition to it is a barrier to political success for the GOP.

As I told the crowd, gay marriage, regardless of the Supreme Court decisions, is unlikely to be an issue in another 10 years as state after state votes for gay marriage. No state will “un-vote” gay marriage. And we know that the trend in the United States is toward greater inclusion and tolerance toward every subset of the country. Republicans, as I said, cannot be at war with Americans on issues of fairness and equality, nor can it propagate a winning message that does not resonate with a broad cross-section of the electorate that includes women, minorities, gays and young voters, for whom gay rights is becoming gateway issue (i.e. they’re not listening so long as they perceive the party is exclusionary).

In the conservative movement at large, a shift is certainly underway. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) wants government out of the marriage business. Foster Friess, the mega-donor who supported presidential candidate Rick Santorum, announced that the party should not “demonize” gays or gay marriage. (Then maybe he should not bankroll the candidate infamous for anti-gay rhetoric?) The question is not whether the GOP comes to terms with gay marriage, but when and how many elections it will lose along the way. Edmund Burke, the conservative icon, would tell us to respect the habits, customs and morals of our fellow citizens; smart politics would tell conservatives not to dawdle in applying that maxim to gay marriage.