Republicans Relaunch the Antigay Culture Wars
As George Bush's poll numbers began seriously dwindling, Karl Rove and the White House political strategists decided to reach into their bag of tricks and come up with a good old staple of reactionary politics: homophobia.
The decision to scapegoat gay and lesbian Americans was poll-driven by an antigay backlash that gathered steam in the wake of the Supreme Court's June 26 decision, in Lawrence v. Texas, striking down laws making gay sex between consenting adults illegal--the so-called sodomy laws. The backlash first surfaced in a July 25-27 Gallup poll. It showed that support for legalizing gay sex had plummeted a dramatic twelve points, to only 48 percent, down from a comfortable 60 percent in favor of legalization in Gallup's May survey. Those saying "homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle" also slalomed down from 54 to 46 percent; and support for same-sex civil unions dropped from 49 to 40 percent. Two weeks later, a Washington Post poll showed that support for gay civil unions had dropped three points lower than in Gallup's. Since then, five other national polls have confirmed the antigay trend.
Just two days after Gallup released its poll showing the backlash, Bush unexpectedly used a Rose Garden press conference to announce that he'd assigned lawyers to come up with a plan to stop gay marriage. Bush and the Republicans had been under enormous pressure from the Christian right and social conservatives--including National Review and The Weekly Standard--to support a Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution, which would ban recognition of any form of marriage between two persons of the same gender. (The FMA would also forbid giving same-sex couples the "legal incidents" of marriage, thus vitiating the civil-union law in Vermont and any other state that followed suit.)
The GOP had already signaled it would respond to that pressure and use gay marriage as a wedge issue against the Democrats in the Congressional elections when, not long before Bush's Rose Garden declaration, Senate Republican majority leader Bill Frist declared on This Week in June that he would "absolutely" support the FMA. Frist's declaration was no go-it-aloner's gaffe: It was made "with no-fingerprints support from the White House," as Howard Fineman and Debra Rosenberg reported in Newsweek.
Since then, the Republicans have ratcheted up their anti-gay marriage crusade. On July 29 the Senate Republican Policy Committee adopted a twelve-page policy paper declaring that gay marriage was a "threat" to the established social order. Then, Senate Judiciary subcommittee chairman John Cornyn of Texas--declaring that "we must do whatever it takes" to stop same-sex unions--held formal hearings on the gay marriage issue on September 4 (in the House, where the FMA already has eighty-nine co-sponsors, similar hearings are expected this fall). These hearings are being held even though Congress, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, in 1996 passed the antigay Defense of Marriage Act, which Bill Clinton signed into law (the DOMA denies federal recognition and benefits to same-sex marriages and allows states to deny recognition of such unions performed in other states). However, Cornyn's staff produced a gaggle of witnesses echoing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which he warned that the majority's ruling would dismantle "the structure...that has permitted a distinction to be made between heterosexual and homosexual unions." Among those Cornyn called to testify, for example, was former Texas solicitor general Gregory Coleman, who argued that "it is likely" that the US Supreme Court will hold DOMA unconstitutional in the near future. (Another GOP witness, syndicated Murdoch columnist Maggie Gallagher, went so far as to write that "polygamy is not worse than gay marriage, it is better"!) Indeed, many legal scholars have argued forcefully that the federal DOMA violates the "full faith and credit" clause of the Constitution, which provides that states cannot ignore other states' proceedings but must recognize them and put them into effect. In that context, all the electorally motivated demagogy coming out of the Rose Garden and the Cornyn hearings creates momentum behind the proposed antigay constitutional amendment.
At the state level, too, Republican antigay initiatives are snowballing. In Wisconsin, despite the fact that state law already bans same-sex marriage, forty-nine legislators--saying the existing statute is "too vague"--have introduced a new Defense of Marriage Act with even tougher language, and it took less than a minute for the Wisconsin Assembly's Judiciary Committee to pass it 6 to 0 on September 11. Michigan Republicans are introducing a similar bill in the State Senate. In Ohio thirty-two Republicans and one Democrat introduced a "super-DOMA" on September 9 that would ban civil unions and domestic partnership benefits for gay couples as well as same-sex marriage. In Colorado, House Republican majority leader Keith King is behind a resolution in favor of the FMA. And in Massachusetts a Republican-sponsored state constitutional amendment banning civil unions and gay marriage is being pushed by a Democrat, powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a social conservative. More gay-bashing legislation is expected to be introduced at the state level soon. Democrats voting against bills like these will find those votes used to try to defeat them; and, given the current climate of backlash, how many from marginal seats will stand up and say no to such measures?
Remember how the Republicans' subliminal gaybaiting evoked the specter of the "San Francisco Democrats" after the party held its national convention there in 1984? Well, one can expect attacks on the "Boston Democrats" next year if, as many Bay State legal prognosticators believe is likely, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit arguing that banning gay marriage violates the state Constitution (a decision is expected any day--and a similar case is working its way toward the New Jersey Supreme Court). "If the Massachusetts decision goes our way," says National Gay and Lesbian Task Force executive director Matt Foreman, "there's no way the right won't make it a huge issue in '04--the backlash against such a decision would make gay marriage the defining social issue" in next year's elections. Already, GOP National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, in a September 23 Washington Times interview, predicted that the party's platform next year would probably include support for the constitutional amendment. Gillespie turned up the antigay rhetoric, accusing gay activists of "religious bigotry" and "intolerance" in demanding equal marriage rights. And the Denver Post's Washington bureau has not been alone in predicting that if the Massachusetts court rules in favor of same-sex unions, Bush will then flat-out endorse the FMA.