The gay rights debates of the 1990s and early 2000s ended with a whimper. Less than a decade after "values voters" were said to have swung the White House to George W. Bush for a second term over their opposition to same-sex marriage, and just five years after the last Democratic presidential nominee had to at least pretend to believe that marriage is between one man and one woman, the Supreme Court ruled handed down Obergefell v. Hodges.
Unlike Roe v. Wade with abortion, the Supreme Court decision that established a constitutional right to gay marriage did not touch off a lasting debate. There is no serious talk of overturning it, either by legal challenge or constitutional amendment. Last year, public support for same-sex marriage broke 70 percent. In 1996, it was just 27 percent in the same poll.
But rumbles of this debate have returned. Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, signed parental rights legislation that was widely panned as the "Don't Say Gay" bill — and even with generally hostile media coverage, slim majorities appear supportive of its provisions.
Gay rights for adults carried the day. But the debate over what children should be taught, and when it is appropriate to introduce concepts like sexual orientation and gender identity to minors, is unsettled. This may reveal that moral qualms about homosexuality consistent with the teachings of the country's biggest religions are more commonplace than thought in post-Obergefell America. It certainly shows there are plenty of people who do not share traditionalist views about human sexuality who nevertheless think third grade is too early for this kind of discussion.
Liberals ignore this at their peril. The fact that they are more responsive to the worst arguments for DeSantis' position suggests that they may realize sex- and gender-related issues remain an open question to many voters. Perhaps they can bludgeon it out of existence. Or maybe it will follow the same trajectory as previous debates. But cultural liberalism is being contested even on the battlegrounds where it has looked strongest.