“I believe that marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman. I have had occasion in my life to defend marriage, to stand up for marriage, to believe in the hard work and challenge of marriage. So I [am] committed to the sanctity of marriage, [to] the fundamental bedrock principle that exists between a man and a woman, going back into the mists of history as one of the founding, foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization, and that its primary, principal role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children for the society into which they are to become adults.” –Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY)
We all stand, whether conscientiously or insouciantly, at the delirious crossroads of competing obligations, values, and desires. For politicians, in particular, the road threading the needles of the constituent elements of a broader electoral coalition can be a herculean task at the best of times. When volatile issues like marriage policy, protected status for elucidated groups, and religious freedom concerns are the issues of the day, finding a simulacrum of compromise that can please—or displease—enough people in the right ways to win at the ballot box and in the legislative chambers becomes a Sisyphean ordeal that would perhaps evoke more sympathy were the people involved not, as politicians are, powerful and duplicitous.
Somewhere along the Sisyphean route, my home-state Senator and declared presidential candidate Marco Rubio has gained a cascade of (mostly favorable) attention for his encouraging approach to issues that affect the lives and livelihoods of gay Americans. Since announcing his campaign for the Republican nomination, the Floridian made headlines for affirming his willingness to attend a same-sex wedding and his understanding that being gay is not a choice. While these are certainly small steps, they are nonetheless welcome.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Marco Rubio remains as personally opposed to same-sex marriage as Hillary Clinton passionately was until she changed her mind in 2013—a process most Americans have experienced and millions are still undergoing. On a policy level, Rubio retains the states-rights view of marriage that Hillary Clinton championed right up until a week ago. If that is a single-issue deal-breaker—or if you’re an unrepentant liberal—there is little more to say, though I appreciate your reading these words anyway.
However, for genuinely independent, persuadable voters and right-leaning folks who support gay rights, Sen. Rubio is demonstrably among the most appealing candidates in the field of 2016. This development is probably not too surprising for those who have been paying attention to the Miami-native’s approach to LGBT issues, as Rubio has been working to understand and include gay Americans and their political allies for some time now.
According to Gregory Angelo, Executive Director of the Log Cabin Republicans, Rubio’s Senate staff has held regular quarterly meetings with the pro-gay conservative group. (Though I am a member of Log Cabin, I haven’t met with Rubio staffers in that capacity.) Back in January, the junior Senator from Florida stated that he would not contest a Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage rights. He’s made true on those remarks by declining to endorse Ted Cruz’s proposal to restrict marriage rights currently available through court order to same-sex couples, as well as refusing to sign—to the enduring umbrage of Maggie Gallagher—a recent amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to enact a ruling to that effect. (Full disclosure: my boyfriend, several friends, colleagues, and I are signatories to the opposing brief in the same case.)
While Rubio’s position is by no means an endorsement of the Supreme Court recognizing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage—which new position Hillary discovered, through a spokesman and with appreciably less brio than her original opposition, three days after her second presidential announcement—there is no daylight between how the executive branch would engage such a ruling under a President Rubio vs. a President Clinton.
Of course, gay rights concerns extend beyond marriage policy, and so does Rubio’s record of public remarks. In summer 2014, the devout Catholic gave a speech on marriage policy and judicial rulings at Catholic University where he acknowledged that multiple levels and institutions of government have discriminated horrifically against gay Americans.
I’ll let Sen. Rubio speak for himself:
“We should acknowledge that our history is marred by discrimination against gays and lesbians. There was once a time when the federal government not only banned the hiring of gay employees, it required private contractors to identify and fire them. Some laws prohibited gays from being served in bars and restaurants. And many cities carried out law enforcement efforts targeting gay Americans.
Fortunately, we have come a long way since then. But many committed gay and lesbian couples feel humiliated by the law’s failure to recognize their relationship as a marriage. And supporters of same sex marriage argue that laws banning same sex marriage are discrimination.
I respect their arguments. And I would concede that they pose a legitimate question for lawmakers and for society.”
It would have been easy enough for a Republican presidential hopeful to elide or gloss over our country’s sordid history of anti-gay persecution. After all, most Americans are unaware of terrors like the McCarthy-era Lavender Scare—in which the federal government systemically hunted and purged gay civil servants and proscribed their employment until the 1990s—or not-that-long-ago prohibitions on serving gay customers in public bars, as was the law in places like New York City. Likewise, many people believe, erroneously, that national anti-discrimination laws already protect people from being fired for being gay. (In fact, 29 states lack such protections.) Yet, without prodding, Sen. Rubio spoke a difficult truth that showed, among other things, that he listens to and cares about the diverse array of voters he represents and aspires to serve.
When he revisited the issue in the wake of the RFRA battle in Indiana, Rubio reaffirmed his commitment to religious liberty (though he did not, as some parties lazily suggested, endorse either version of the Indiana law) and declared unequivocally that the laws of this country should not sanction anti-gay discrimination—putting him squarely in sync with most Americans. To quote him again:
“No one here is saying it should be legal to deny someone services at a hotel or at a restaurant because of their sexual orientation. I think that is a consensus view in America.”
People can disagree about whether conservative Muslims and Christians should be forced to violate their religious beliefs by participating in same-sex weddings. But I would ask those who would dismiss Rubio’s sympathies for business owners’ rights of conscience regarding same-sex weddings to elucidate the coherent principle by which they would allow gays, Jews, African Americans, or anybody decent from compulsory service to events of the Westboro Baptist Church or KKK (both of which, it’s worth noting, purport to be religious organizations). To paraphrase a friend: our rights and freedoms are defined by the edge cases that make us uncomfortable, not the easy-seeming ones that require sacrifice only from our sociopolitical opponents.
While he’s not a perfect candidate, the growing sentiment of tolerance and inclusiveness underlying Rubio’s campaign suggest a realistic foundation for how the Republican Party can move beyond the divisive decades of the matrimonial culture wars. Perhaps his broader aura of constructive, forward-looking optimism will help Rubio sublimate his post-announcement bounce in the polls into an indomitable campaign for the nomination and the White House. Who knows? We’re still several seasons away from the primaries, and politics is a fickle game.
But if you’re one of those many almost-Republicans who have long been alienated by the GOP’s mean-spirited past on gay issues, candidates like Marco Rubio might have a whole new world of political opportunity to offer. Either way, at least we can all agree that same-sex marriages probably aren’t killing babies, whether or not Rick Perry ever figures out if he would attend a wedding.