The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Activism convinced just enough Republicans to support same-sex marriage

LGBTQ conservatives spent decades building a case that enabled the Respect for Marriage Act to pass

Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) attend a news conference after the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act in Washington on Nov. 29. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)
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Perhaps the most historically significant aspect of Congress’s passage of the Respect for Marriage Act this week is that it received significant GOP support in both chambers, rare for a bill taking the liberal side on a hot-button social issue. Thirty-nine Republicans in the House and 12 Republicans in the Senate joined with nearly all Democrats in supporting this legislation.

These Republicans included longtime backers of LGBTQ rights, but there were some socially conservative surprises, most especially Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis (R-Wyo.), who previously held a zero rating from the Human Rights Coalition for what Time magazine described as her “terrible record” on LGBTQ rights. In explaining her unexpected decision, Lummis argued: “Striking a balance that protects fundamental religious beliefs with individual liberties was the intent of our forefathers in the U.S. Constitution” — and the bill “reflects this balance.”

These Republicans were in the minority of their party, and outside conservative and religious groups blasted the bill. “Marriage is the exclusive, lifelong, conjugal union between one man and one woman,” the Heritage Foundation’s Roger Severino declared, “and any departure from that design hurts the indispensable goal of having every child raised in a stable home by the mom and dad who conceived them.”

Yet the arguments offered by Republican supporters of the legislation reflected the success of a decades-long campaign led by LGBTQ conservatives — who began organizing in the mid-1970s — to build a conservative case for same-sex marriage. These voices didn’t brand opponents as bigots, and argued that same-sex marriage exemplified conservative principles on multiple fronts.

Members of Log Cabin Republicans, the nation’s oldest and largest LGBTQ Republican organization, began pushing for same-sex marriage rights in the late 1980s as a response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. Importantly, they framed the issue as one of personal responsibility rather than civil rights, contending that the institution of marriage could change gay male sexual behavior amid a deadly epidemic. “Instead of encouraging promiscuity in the gay community by forbidding legally binding relationships,” the writer Justin Raimondo argued in a 1988 essay for one Log Cabin publication, “we must encourage healthy behavior and the value of sexual fidelity by legalizing marriage between same-sex partners.”

These arguments got picked up and expanded upon by more prominent conservative LGBTQ writers, especially the British-born Andrew Sullivan. In 1989, the 26-year-old penned a cover article for the New Republic titled, “Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage.”

Sullivan echoed Raimondo’s contention. “In the wake of AIDS,” he wrote, same-sex marriage would “qualify as a genuine public health measure.” Given the dangers AIDS presented, Sullivan reasoned, Americans, especially those right-of-center, should want LGBTQ Americans to enter into the binding and restraining commitment of legally-recognized marriage. “Those conservatives who deplore promiscuity,” he wrote, “should be among the first to support” same-sex marriage.

Sullivan also argued that libertarian principles about personal freedom and limited government supported same-sex marriage. Only full marriage rights for LGBTQ people would prevent the misuse and fraud engendered by domestic partnership laws, which some liberal cities had begun to pass. Echoing the conservative Republican affinity for small government, Sullivan added that having just one form of civil marriage available to both heterosexual and homosexual couples also would help streamline government services and reduce government oversight and scrutiny.

Importantly, Sullivan and other prominent LGBTQ conservatives, including Bruce Bawer and Rich Tafel, treated conservative opponents of same-sex marriage charitably. It helped that like many of their opponents, these LGBTQ conservatives were people of deep religious faith. (Tafel, the former executive director of Log Cabin Republicans, is a Harvard Divinity School graduate and ordained minister.) Rather than labeling the opposition bigoted and driven by hate, LGBTQ conservatives enthusiastically endorsed religious liberty protections as fundamental to the extension of same-sex marriage rights. They also continually emphasized the difference between the government legalizing civil marriage for same-sex couples as an act of fairness and nondiscrimination and religious groups’ right to choose which unions they would and would not solemnize. Log Cabin Republicans’ consistent, if sometimes perplexing, position on religious liberty has even led it to defend the right of business owners to deny their services for same-sex weddings as a religious objection.

These positions earned LGBTQ conservatives respect and a hearing from Republican politicians.

Yet despite their efforts, through the late 1990s, polling showed that same-sex marriage was such a non-starter that none of the major LGBTQ rights organizations advocated for it.

But attempts by Republicans to outlaw or severely restrict same-sex marriage through the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and a proposed federal constitutional amendment in 2004 — along with passage of constitutional bans on same-sex marriage in more than a dozen states — galvanized LGBTQ Americans.

During the DOMA debate, a poll found 81 percent of LGBTQ people now wanted the legal right to marriage. Most LGBTQ rights organizations began stumping for a federal right to same-sex marriage.

LGBTQ conservatives pursued a different strategy, focusing on advancing marriage equality at the state level while working to keep Congress from passing the Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), which would’ve added a constitutional prohibition on LGBTQ marriage. They framed their efforts as embodying the conservative principle of federalism and the belief that the Constitution should be rarely tampered with. Log Cabin Republicans’ $1 million dollar advertising campaign against the FMA included a television commercial in which Vice President Dick Cheney, whose daughter Mary was an out lesbian, said that states — not the federal government — should decide what they wanted when it came to same-sex marriage.

A Log Cabin strategy document revealed the group believed this argument would resonate with “principled conservatives” and “fair-minded independents” by keeping the conversation focused on the Constitution rather than the question of same-sex marriage. With congressional Republicans, Log Cabin argued the FMA would represent constitutional overreach.

While anti-LGBTQ activists characterized their cause as “defending the family,” LGBTQ conservatives parried that they were the ones “defending the Constitution.” Their arguments resonated with a handful of Republican legislators — including the late Sen. John McCain, who called the amendment “antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans” — who ensured that the FMA never passed.

At the state level, Log Cabin directed its efforts to places where same-sex marriage looked most viable. These were often blue states where Republicans were a minority and where competing politically required taking more socially-moderate positions. This strategy paid off as a variety of states, especially in New England, enacted same-sex marriage rights. Log Cabin worked hard to get four Republicans to cast the deciding votes when New York legalized same-sex marriage in 2011.

The vote on the Respect for Marriage Act demonstrates the success of LGBTQ conservatives’ different arguments and strategies. For decades, they’ve framed same-sex marriage in conservative terms, emphasizing libertarian principles and federalism and backing religious freedom protections for those who oppose their own basic rights. And the structure of the Respect for Marriage Act, as well as arguments made by Republicans who favored it, embraced these arguments.

The bill itself didn’t enact a federal right to marriage; rather it built on a state-by-state approach, forcing the federal government to recognize the same-sex marriages performed in states where they are valid. Many Republicans who voted for the Respect for Marriage Act indicated they thought it was a matter for states to figure out as they saw fit — just as many of them argue about abortion rights, but in that case to eliminate federal protection. This paradox only serves to underscore the strength of LGBTQ conservatives’ successful framing and lobbying for same-sex marriage over decades.

Republicans voting for the bill also cited its religious liberty protections, revealing how LGBTQ conservatives’ willingness to protect religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage provided a crucial boost to the fight to protect same-sex marriages.

And without the Republicans won over by the arguments of LGBTQ conservatives, the bill couldn’t have passed the Senate.

GOP support for same-sex marriage may remain small, at least in Washington. (Republican voters indicate stronger endorsement for marriage equality and other LGBTQ rights than their elected officials do.) But Log Cabin Republicans and other conservative LGBTQ groups and activists have never expected to make the entire GOP into a pro-marriage equality party.

What they’ve done, however, is work to develop enough Republican support to ensure such gains. And they’ve succeeded. If and when more Republican politicians come around on marriage equality, it will be because of the efforts LGBTQ conservatives made to position same-sex marriage as embodying conservative principles, not antithetical to them.