Like other right-of-center parties, the British Conservative Party favors marriage equality and LGBT rights. (Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images)

Last week, the Washington Post ran an article headlined, “Why Conservatives Gave up Fighting Gay Marriage.” Was it accurate?

Recently, GOP presidential candidates have been tripping over themselves to defend  “traditional marriage.” In North Carolina and Michigan, Republican statehouses are passing laws giving public officials and state-funded institutions the right to discriminate against gay people.  And in Texas, 93 out of 98 Republican state legislators made it clear that they will ignore or try to override a SCOTUS ruling in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell, expected this month.

In other words, “American conservatives” may have given up fighting same-sex marriage, but the Republican Party clearly has not.

Why is the Republican Party still fighting LGBT rights, which puts it out of step with not just voters in America, but other right-of-center parties in established developed world democracies?

In other developed democracies, conservative parties increasingly support LGBT rights

Conservative parties in much of the democratic world have become more socially liberal while maintaining their fiscally conservative bona fides. In most places the political parties and politicians who have moved furthest towards support of LGBT rights have been on the right.

David Cameron oversaw the charge for marriage equality in Britain in 2013, in the face of considerable hostility from some of his own members. In return British LGBT voters were as likely to vote Conservative in the 2015 general election as they were Labour. Last month, every major party in Ireland, including the conservatives, campaigned for a Yes vote on its marriage equality referendum.  Tony Abbott, the right-wing Prime Minister of Australia is facing mounting pressure from his own MPs to drop his opposition to marriage equality.

Outside the U.S., parties of every ideology increasingly include openly LGBT politicians

On June 6, Nick Gibb, the Minister for Schools in the newly minted Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron, came out as gay. He did so first to his family and then to the gossip-hungry British media–so he could marry his partner of 29 years, pollster Michael Simmonds. After he came out in The Times, he was showered with praise and affection from constituents, colleagues and opponents alike.

The symbolism was powerful: A generation before, Gibb’s party, led by Margaret Thatcher, had systematically demonized lesbian and gay Britons and outlawed the teaching of the “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” through the much-reviled Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Now the Tory government had an openly gay man in charge of British schools.

Nick Gibb is no anomaly. British voters apparently no longer see sexual orientation or gender identity as relevant politically: The 155 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates who stood in last month’s general election did no worse than their straight colleagues.  In fact, in the fifty races where there were competitive LGBT candidates, Tory LGBT candidates performed considerably better; 72 percent had larger vote share increases than the national trend, and on average their gains were three times the Tory average.

Gibb’s coming out brings the Tory lesbian, gay and bisexual caucus in the British House of Commons to thirteen, equal in size to the Labour Party LGB group. (There were four transgender candidates, but none were elected.) The ascendant Scottish Nationalists have seven LGB MPs, more than 12 percent of their parliamentary cohort. In the previous Scottish parliament, Tories had more gay MPs than all other parties.

Nor is this a peculiarly British phenomenon. Of the 82 openly LGBT national representatives newly elected around the world over the last five years, one-third have been from right-wing parties, another third have come from left-wing parties, and the remaining third are centrists, greens and nationalists. Right-of-center politicians who identify as LGB are members of parliaments in Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, and Switzerland, and there is likely to be a gay Likud MP in the Israeli Knesset soon. In Scandinavia, this trend has gone on for while; in fact, openly gay Per-Kristian Foss was briefly the Conservative Party’s acting Prime Minister of Norway in 2002.

As the graph shows, the most rapid growth in LGBT representation has been among political conservatives.


(Data and figure: Andrew Reynolds)

Why are American Republicans so different from their conservative counterparts on LGBT issues?

Against this global trend stands a distinct outlier: the GOP. Republicans still have no openly LGBT office holder, either nationally or even statewide. And the party’s leading presidential candidates rail against gay rights. Scott Walker says he wants a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Ted Cruz says that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of marriage equality would be “fundamentally illegitimate.” Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Ben Carson have all made opposition to gay rights features of their campaigns.

In contrast to Europe, LGBT voters in America are overwhelmingly liberal. Three-quarters of self-identified LGBT voters supported Obama in 2012. But the Republicans aren’t losing only those few votes by opposing LGBT rights. Republicans’ antigay agenda limits their ability to reach out to moderates and independents. Although few voters say they decide whom to vote for solely on LGBT issues, they draw larger conclusions about the Republican Party’s core values based on its aggressively LGBT-hostile stance.

As American voters increasingly embrace LGBT friends, family members and neighbors, and in turn LGBT rights, Republicans increasingly are seen as out of sync. The most recent Pew polling shows that as many independents support same-sex marriage as Democrats: 65 percent. More than two-thirds of voters who identify as ‘moderate’ support marriage equality. Among both Republicans and Democrats, younger voters support gay rights in larger numbers than any other category.

And across the board, Pew recently found that nearly 60 percent of Republicans did not think their party was doing a good job of representing them on the issue of marriage equality.

Why is the Republican Party so out of step with voters? Indeed, why is the American right so far behind similar parties in other democracies? The answer may rest on a distinctive idiosyncrasy: the GOP is often beholden to evangelical Christians. “Evangelical” is key in that sentence. Mainline Christians, Catholics and Jews in the U.S. favor LGBT rights; that’s true elsewhere in the world, with Catholics (and Catholic countries) being notable supporters.  But evangelicals are a particularly powerful constituency within the Republican Party, and can threaten to “primary” a candidate who does not stay close to their position.

But while evangelicals may help win GOP primaries, they are not enough to win a general election.

One way or another, Republicans’ pronouncements about the coming Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage will influence the general electorate’s sense of whether or not the party is in touch with modern Americans. Right-of-center parties in much of the world have recognized that opposing LGBT rights makes them less electable—and now seek to portray themselves as modern, inclusive, and LGBT-welcoming.

What will the Republicans do?

Andrew Reynolds is a Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Director of the LGBT Representation and Rights Research Initiative. His book The Children of Harvey Milk will be published by Oxford University Press early in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyReynoldsUNC.