How will Republicans deal with growing gay rights issues?

On same-sex marriage and "don't ask, don't tell," Republicans and other conservatives increasingly are at odds with public opinion. Will the tea party movement help gay rights?

Ed Andrieski/AP/File
In this 2006 photo, Ken Mehlman, then-chairman of the Republican National Committee, addresses the RNC state chairmen's meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo. Mehlman, who was campaign manager for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential campaign, said recently that he is gay and is now willingly to talk about it publicly because he wants to become an advocate for gay marriage.

Chances are, there are just as many gay Republicans as there are gay Democrats – why wouldn’t there be? – even though one might assume otherwise based on commonly-held assumptions about what it means to be “conservative” or “liberal,” particularly when religion and “family values” are thrown into the mix.

But no matter how one argues those points, the GOP finds itself in a rapidly evolving situation regarding sexual orientation and gay rights.

In Washington the other day, the group Log Cabin Republicans honored what it called “allies in its fight to create a more inclusive Republican Party.” Among them were six Republican members of Congress, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas, chairman of the Republican National Congressional Committee.

The group’s mission statement includes standard conservative boilerplate: “balanced budgets and fiscal discipline,” comprehensive tax reform, Social Security “allowing individuals to invest in their futures,” strong national defense, and “market driven health reform.”

But the main aim of the Log Cabin Republicans (named for Abraham Lincoln’s legendary home) is “to work within the Republican Party to advocate equal rights for all Americans, including gays and lesbians.” That includes “marriage equality for all Americans,” a “broad, inclusive definition of family in America,” and repealing the “don't ask, don't tell” law preventing gay and lesbian Americans from openly serving in the military.

Gay Republicans versus their party leaders

The irony, of course, is that neither Cornyn nor Sessions supports same-sex marriage or doing away with don’t ask, don’t tell.

Public attitudes are moving inexorably in the opposite direction regarding don’t ask, don’t tell – especially among younger people. In 1993, 44 percent of Americans polled said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military. By 2001, that had risen to 62 percent, and in 2008 it was 75 percent – including majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats and independents.

(In what's being seen as a legal chipping away at don't ask, don't tell, US District Judge Ronald Leighton ruled Friday that former Air Force Reserve Maj. Margaret Witt, a military nurse, should be "reinstated at the earliest possible moment." Maj. Witt had been forced out of the military under don't ask, don't tell.)

Meanwhile, prominent Republicans are speaking out on the marriage issue as well.

• Former first lady Laura Bush told CNN’s Larry King earlier this year that she supports gay marriage, even though her husband doesn’t. “When couples are committed to each other and love each other … they ought to have the same sort of rights that everyone has,” she said.

• Speaking at the National Press Club last year, former vice president Dick Cheney said: “I think that freedom means freedom for everyone. As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family. I think people ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish. Any kind of arrangement they wish.”

• Last month, Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, announced that he is gay.

“One of the things I regret is that when I was in politics, I hadn’t come to terms with this part of my life,” he told He now advocates for gay marriage, and he’s helped raise funds for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which supports same-sex marriage and is suing to overturn California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage.

Theodore Olson, who successfully argued the US Supreme Court case that made George Bush president in 2000 and then went on to become US Solicitor General in the Bush administration, represented those trying to overturn Prop. 8. Last month, a federal judge declared the law to be in violation of constitutional guarantees of equal protection and due process. That case is on appeal.

“What we’re talking about here is allowing individuals who have the same impulses, the same drives, the same desires as all of the rest of us, to have a relationship in harmony, stability, and to form a family and a neighborhood …,” Olson said in his closing argument.

Today (Saturday) in New York, conservative author and speaker Ann Coulter is scheduled to speak to the group GOProud, which “represents gay conservatives and their allies” and is generally considered more conservative than Log Cabin Republicans.

Ms. Coulter says she is not endorsing GOProud or its positions, but the fact that she agreed to appear before a group advocating same-sex marriage and an end to don’t ask, don’t tell has rankled some fellow conservatives.

“GOProud is about infiltration of the conservative movement and dividing it from within with twisted and dangerous ideas way out of the mainstream of American public opinion,” wrote Joseph Farah, editor and chief executive officer of the conservative website WorldNetDaily. “Ann Coulter is, I'm afraid, validating this effort for money.”

Will the tea party help gay Republicans?

The rise of the tea party movement – which has a strong libertarian strain – may be helping the cause of gay Republicans and their advocates, according to Rick Tafel, a founder and former chair of the Log Cabin Republicans.

He told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer this week: “I think, actually, the rise of the Tea Party and the loss of moderates and independents has been a signal to the [Republican] party that hey, there's a lot of people out there who's issues are fiscal issues, less government, possibly the military issues, and probably pretty libertarian on a lot of social issues. Those folks have been lost and now they're coming back in different ways, they're finding their way back. And I think the social issues folks have lost.”

As with don’t ask, don’t tell, that certainly seems true of younger people.

A 2009 survey of “millennials” (those born between 1980 and 1991) showed that 61 percent see nothing wrong with same-sex marriage. As reported this week in the Baptist Press, the survey conducted for LifeWay Christian Resources showed 55 percent of men and 68 percent of women in this age group agreeing with the statement: “I see nothing wrong with two people of the same gender getting married.”

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