The Gay-Rights Election
By Richard Socarides
Photo by M. Sharkey
Probably the best thing about the election, for me, was how many “how far we've come” moments it provided. We won our first marriage equality ballot initiatives -- in fact, winning all four of them: in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington State. We elected our first openly gay or lesbian member of the U.S. Senate, a club historically restricted unlike any other in Washington. We added new openly gay members of the House of Representatives. (I am particularly proud of my friend Sean Maloney, who I worked with in the Clinton White House, who beat a one-term incumbent tea party-er, who had no business representing the people of her district in the first place.)
Perhaps most importantly, we helped reelect the most pro-gay president in history. In fact, we more than helped. Exit polling suggests that record numbers of gays and lesbians showed up at the polls and that we represented as much as 5 % of the self-identified total electorate -- and that 77 % of us supported President Obama. Thus, strong support from gays and lesbians put the president over the top in the popular vote and probably was crucial in several swing states.
Early on in the president's first term, I was one of his harshest critics because I felt the time had come to work more aggressively on gay rights issues, as the president had said he would when he declared he would be our “fierce advocate.” Many other people who care about civil rights pressed him very hard during those first two years and it unquestionably paid off. We were able to achieve the repeal of “don't ask don't tell.” The president instructed the Department of Justice to no longer defend against sexual orientation discrimination claims in the federal courts, especially relating to the Defense of Marriage Act. And most importantly, in May of this year, the president announced his personal support of marriage equality.
That was a real turning point, perhaps even bigger then it appeared at the time. I strongly doubt that we would have been able to pass marriage equality in Maine, Maryland, and Washington State—and stave off an anti-gay, anti-marriage constitutional amendment in Minnesota—without the president’s support for same-sex marriage. Surprising to me at the time, people said no one would be persuaded by the president's endorsement, as if he couldn't change anyone's minds. What's clear now is that the opposite was true. He changed a lot of minds; got a lot of people to take a second look at where they were on this issue, and it made a world of difference.
It certainly was not the only thing that we had going for us this year. Among them: changes in the polling nationally, even before the president announced; changes in the society and larger entertainment culture; more and more people coming out. And all the hard work advocates and activists and regular people have done over the course of the last decade. All that helped -- but at the end of the day having the president's backing made a huge difference.
The other item worth noting is this: When I was on the White House staff of President Bill Clinton as a senior advisor in 1996, one of his top political advisers told me during his reelection campaign that President Clinton would lose the election if he supported same-sex marriage. Only 16 years later, look how far we have come. (Although even then I didn’t think the political adviser was correct.) President Obama's support for marriage equality helped him win the election and helped us win the ballot initiatives. During this latest campaign, President Obama's support for gay-rights was never an issue used by Republicans against him. In fact, it worked to his advantage to energize progressives and young people. The Democratic Party needs to finally realize once and for all that being on our side works for them.
Moreover, there is the flip side. The main problem the Republican Party has right now is that they are out of step with emerging demographic groups, like young people, Hispanics, and gays and lesbians. The fact that the Democrats were willing to take action on our issues helped propel them to reelection. Smart Republicans -- and I think they are out there -- will realize that they have to come over to our side. They not only have an “immigration problem” with Hispanics, an “out of step” problem with young people -- they also have marriage problem with gays and lesbians. I'm hoping this realization brings more and more Republicans to support for basic fairness and marriage equality. I think it will and we need to be ready to take advantage of it.
Is the influence of the right wing over? Certainly not. But as the Supreme Court considers the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 in its current term, we will be able to point to success in this very important election as guidance on where America now stands. It's clear that America is now finally ready for gays and lesbians to be treated equally. (We certainly have a lot of work to do to help our transgender brothers and sisters catch up to the progress we've made. I for one am ready to help them.)
By next June, when the Supreme Court announces its decisions, California will likely be re-added to the list of states where same-sex marriage is legal. The Defense of Marriage Act is likely to have been stricken down as unconstitutional, which would make marriage fully recognized in each of the states that allows it. And with the addition of California, Americans will live in ten states representing over 25% of the U.S. population where marriage is fully accessible to all.
For as long as I have been in politics—which is all of my adult life—it has been “Washington groupthink” that gay issues are dangerous and only mean trouble for elected officials, even ones who are sympathetic to our cause. It is now a new day – one that has been a long time in coming. Politicians need to recognize that their embrace of us is not only the right thing to do, but leads to success at the ballot box.
Richard Socarides was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton and founded the
LGBT watchdog arm of Media Matters.