Gay marriage plays a prominent role in American politics today. Four states conducted referenda on the topic in November. President Obama and the Democratic Party endorsed gay marriage this year, posing a stark contrast with Mitt Romney and the Republicans. A quick look back at the way national political parties have treated gay rights issues over the last few decades illuminates the extraordinary changes that have taken place in American society.
As late as 1970, every state but one criminalized gay sex between consenting adults, and until 1973 the American Psychiatric Association deemed homosexuality a mental disease. Not until 1977 were gay activists welcomed at the White House—and then only on a weekend when President Carter was out of town. In 1980, for the first time ever, the Democratic platform called for government protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Eighty-six openly gay delegates attended the party’s convention that year—up from four in 1976.
By contrast, the Republican’s 1980 platform, influenced by the recently formed Moral Majority, included a novel plank defending “the traditional American family.” Late in the campaign, a group called Christians for Reagan ran television advertisements attacking Carter and other Democrats for their support of gay rights—the first such ad ever run in a presidential campaign.
In the 1980s, only one prominent Democratic presidential candidate, Jesse Jackson, courted gay voters, explicitly including them in his “American quilt” speech at the 1984 convention. Four years later, Jackson promised, if elected, to ban federalgovernment discrimination against gays. By contrast, the party’s 1988 nominee, Governor Michael Dukakis, had supported barring gays from becoming foster parents in Massachusetts.
Gay marriage was absent from the agenda of gay activists in the 1980s. Even domestic partnership legislation, which provided minimal benefits such as health insurance to same-sex couples, made few inroads before 1990.
In 1992, for the first time, a major party’s presidential nominee aggressively courted the gay vote. Bill Clinton promised, if elected, to rescind the ban on gays in the military and to support a “Manhattan project” to fight AIDS. One hundred thirty-three openly gay delegates attended that year’s Democratic convention.
The contrast with the Republican convention could not have been starker. G.O.P. delegates were seen waving signs proclaiming, “Family Rights Forever/Gay Rights Never.” Pat Buchanan called for a “cultural war” for “the soul of America” and declared that he and President Bush stood together in opposition to “the amoral idea” of gay couples enjoying the benefits of marriage. The party’s platform rejected all gay rights legislation.
An estimated 72 percent of self-identified gays voted Democratic in the 1992 presidential election. Yet, while activists celebrated Clinton’s victory, during the campaign he had opposed gay marriage, and his promise to rescind the ban on gays in the military was quickly sacrificed in the face of extraordinary conservative resistance.
Gay marriage first entered national politics in 1996 when the Hawaii supreme court appeared poised to declare it constitutionally protected. The Christian Coalition had become a prominent player in Republican politics, and as the presidential election approached, its leaders threatened to withhold support from Republican candidates who failed to endorse conservative Christian values. The party’s presidential frontrunner, Bob Dole, returned a $1,000 check from gay Log Cabin Republicans. Dick Armey, the Republican House whip, referred to openly gay Democratic congressman Barney Frank as “Barney Fag.”
Days before the Iowa caucuses, anti-gay activists conducted a “marriage protection” rally in Des Moines. Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan proclaimed, “We’ve seen all the false gods of secular humanism, including the false god of gay rights.” Candidate Alan Keyes denounced the “homosexual agenda,” which was “destroying the integrity of the marriage-based family.”
That spring, Dole co-sponsored the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which both denied federal recognition of gay marriages and freed states from any obligation to recognize them. Democrats attacked the measure as an “election year gimmick,” but Clinton signed it to remove the issue from the presidential contest.
In 2000, Vermont became the first state to enact civil unions after its supreme court ruled that same-sex couples must be afforded the rights and benefits of marriage. Both leading Democratic presidential candidates, Bill Bradley and Al Gore, endorsed civil unions.
By contrast, all ten candidates for the Republican presidential nomination opposed civil unions and all other laws protecting gays from discrimination. Candidate Gary Bauer called the Vermont ruling “in some ways worse than terrorism.” Keyes declared that homosexuality, like pedophilia, was a perverse choice and thus government discrimination against homosexuals was desirable.
In 2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Court became the first to rule squarely that gay marriage was constitutionally protected. The issue then figured prominently in the 2004 presidential contest. Democratic presidential contenders Howard Dean, John Kerry, and John Edwards all supported civil unions while opposing gay marriage. Yet they also condemned a proposed federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. By contrast, the Republican platform and President Bush strongly endorsed the amendment as a necessary response to efforts by “activist judges” to redefine marriage.
In 2004, thirteen states enacted constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Tom Daschle lost his Senate seat—the first Senate party leader to be defeated in fifty years—and gay marriage played a prominent role. Indeed, the issue may have enabled President Bush’s re-election. Bush would not have won without Ohio’s electoral votes, and his popular-vote margin in Ohio was just 2 percent. The gay marriage ban passed by 24 percentage points.
In 2008, the nation elected not just its first African-American president, but also its most gay-friendly one. Obama supported every major legal reform on the gay rights agenda short of marriage equality: repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’tTell” and DOMA and enactment of federal hate crimes legislation, and the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. Republicans opposed all of these measures.
In 2012, President Obama endorsed gay marriage, as did the Democratic Party platform and most prominent speakers at the Charlotte Convention. Although the Republican platform still opposes gay marriage and civil unions, presidential candidate Mitt Romney generally avoids the topic, and it is easy to see why. Two-thirds of Americans now support civil unions, and a majority of Independents endorse gay marriage. Billionaire Republican financiers Paul Singer and Charles Koch support gay marriage, as do many other prominent Republicans, such as Dick Cheney, Steve Schmidt, and Ken Mehlman. In 2011-12, Republican legislators provided the critical votes to enact gay marriage in New York and Washington State.
Support for gay marriage has grown rapidly over the last twenty years: from less than 25% in 1990 to 30-35% in 2004 and to slightly more than 50% today. The number of states with either civil unions or gay marriage has increased from one in 2000 to 15 today. For the first time, multiple states are poised to endorse gay marriage by popular vote.
According to one statistical model, within a mere dozen years, gay marriage will command majority support in every state. To be sure, religious conservatives continue to strenuously oppose it, which is why virtually every Republican presidential candidate in 2013 pledged to support the federal marriage amendment and defend DOMA. Yet, given the speed at which public opinion is changing, one wonders whether the Republican party will have dropped its opposition to gay marriage by 2016—or not until 2020.
Michael Klarman is a professor at Harvard Law School and author of From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage (2012).