The Obama administration’s recent briefs to the Supreme Court against DOMA and Proposition 8 attest to the huge progress gays and lesbians have made in our fight for equality. But another, more unexpected brief may reflect an even greater change. In February, more than 130 Republicans petitioned the court to strike down the discriminatory California amendment—and asserted that there’s no contradiction between conservative principles and same-sex marriage.
Many of them seem to have had a recent change of heart. Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who opposed gay marriage when he ran for president last year, signed the brief. So did Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, who during her campaign for governor of California said she’d voted for Prop. 8 due to her “faith and conscience.” Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s campaign strategist, is there too, as is Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s national security adviser.
The brief’s main engineer was Ken Mehlman (No. 32 on Power List 2013), the gay Republican investment banker who managed Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign, which you may remember for its vicious strategy of demonizing gay Americans to drive evangelical turnout. But with younger voters decisively in favor of gay equality, Republicans have no choice but to adapt, and Mehlman, a consummate GOP insider, is now in the vanguard of an effort to reposition the right as a tolerant force. He’s not the only power player. The lead counselor in the Prop. 8 case is himself a veteran conservative: Ted Olson, who successfully fought Bush’s side in the 2000 Supreme Court case that won him the presidency.
It’s far too soon to call the GOP gay-friendly. Mehlman could find only two sitting members of Congress willing to join the Prop. 8 brief; only one Republican senator, Rob Portman of Ohio, is on the record as personally supporting gay marriage, and even he stopped well short of endorsing a constitutional right to wed. Conservatives still bridle at other political goals shared by many gays, from employment protections to AIDS research to transgender rights. All the same, the rise of the pro–gay marriage Republican is a sign of something: that in less than a decade, our relationships have won broad acceptance and that, at this rate, even the right will soon have more to gain from tolerance than from bias. That may be progress of a cynical sort, but it’s progress all the same.