Opinion

There's been a meaningful shift in the GOP's anti-gay rhetoric

Even as they give legal cover to discrimination in Indiana, Republicans are drifting leftward on gay rights

The Republican Party's long march on gay rights just traveled another big step in the direction it's been going for years now: to the left. If you listened to the way conservatives defended the Indiana "religious freedom" law, you would have noticed a movement transformed. The party that used the terrifying threat of gay marriage to such great effect just a decade ago now wants everyone to know that they despise discrimination against anyone, down to the marrow of their bones. Indiana's law may be part of an anti-gay backlash, but it's a backlash that is spending an awful lot of time apologizing for itself and insisting that its motives are, dare I say it, liberal.

Just look at what Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said in his Tuesday press conference announcing that the law would be amended to make clear that it didn't legalize discrimination against gay people. "I don't support discrimination against gays or lesbians or anyone else," he said. "I abhor discrimination. I want to say this. No one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe. I believe it with all my heart." The idea that the law he signed might be used to justify a business refusing gay people as customers obviously causes Pence terrible pain.

Other Republicans who support laws like this one also want to make clear their broader opposition to discrimination against gay people. "I don't think Americans want to discriminate against anyone," said Marco Rubio. "No one here is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that's a consensus view in America." It actually isn't a consensus view, but it was a nice thought.

If you back the Indiana law and others like it precisely because it's supposed to allow that kind of discrimination, you may be feeling a little betrayed. After all, we've heard no end of tales about the Christian baker who faces the horror of making a cake for a same-sex wedding and wants to shout, "I shall not!" without legal repercussion. It's that person's "freedom" that this law was supposed to protect, wasn't it? Yet here was Pence — as conservative a Republican as they come — turning his back on America's anti-gay vendors. He even wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "If I saw a restaurant owner refuse to serve a gay couple, I wouldn't eat there anymore."

That doesn't mean that Pence actually wants legal protections against such discrimination, of course. He just wants everyone to know how much it bothers him. The law is what's at issue here, and as the Indiana law now stands, there's no state prohibition on discrimination against gay people (some localities, including Indianapolis and Bloomington, have their own anti-discrimination laws).

But mark my words: Within a few years, Republicans will favor changing the laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, religion, or gender to add sexual orientation as well. They'll find some new hill on which to make their stand, before abandoning that one as well and rushing to find another. You have to have some sympathy for them: The culture war is no fun if you're constantly in retreat.

In recent years, Republican arguments about gay rights have taken the form of George Costanza's "It's not you, it's me." The problem wasn't gay people, it was how straight people feel about gay people. They stopped arguing that gays couldn't perform in the military; instead, they said the ban on gay service members should remain because straight soldiers would be uncomfortable serving with gay comrades. They stopped arguing that gay couples were perverted, and instead warned that allowing them to marry would somehow damage the marriages of straight people (though they were stumped as to how that might happen).

But the Republican argument over discrimination in commerce may be going even a step further, to "It's not me, it's them." Republicans are now beginning to argue that of course I would never discriminate against gay people if I owned a business, but we have to indulge those who want to, so long as they're doing it for religious reasons.

The striking thing about this argument is how it distances the person who makes it from the person on whose behalf it's being made. It places the conservative making the argument alongside the supporters of gay rights (who are, after all the majority of Americans) in spirit. It says, "I share your values, but there's still a reason to keep this kind of discrimination legal." You might or might not find that argument persuasive (I obviously don't), but it's only a rhetorical way-station, on the path to the Republicans' eventual full embrace of equal rights.

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