Nationally, Republican support for gay marriage has been on the rise, made clear this year as various states grapple with efforts to ban gay marriage while others move to legalize it. In several states, GOP leaders’ votes made the difference on key LGBT equality measures.
In New York, the Legislature is poised to approve same-sex marriage making it the third state to do so legislatively, following Vermont and New Hampshire. Republican donors are backing the effort, and it’s up to GOP legislators to pass the bill; several Republicans have come out in support, though the vote remains close.
In Iowa, former state Sen. Jeff Angelo launched Iowa Republicans for Freedom, a campaign for conservatives and Republicans that support same-sex marriage. Angelo was a leader in attempts to ban gay marriage in Iowa when he was in the Iowa Senate, but has done an about-face on the issue.
“If you’re going to have meaningful relationships with friends or families that are gay and you love them and they’re part of your church and your neighborhood and where you work, you begin to see how hurtful the rhetoric is in this debate towards them,” Angelo said at a press conference in early June. “It becomes harder and harder to convince yourself to say, ‘I love you, but I don’t like the lifestyle you’ve chosen’ and not understand that that’s hurtful.”
The group’s mission statement says that civil marriage should be afforded to same-sex couples while religious institutions should not be forced to compromise their doctrines.
“Iowa Republicans for Freedom supports individual liberty for same-sex couples seeking civil marriage recognition from our government,” the group says. “Religious organizations have, and should continue to have, the freedom to choose how they define marriage within their congregations, but we believe the government should not deny the freedom of civil marriage to any couple based on gender.”
Iowa allows same-sex couples to marry, but efforts continue in the state to roll back gay marriage.
In Minnesota, religious conservatives were successful in passing an anti-gay amendment onto the 2012 ballot, but their efforts were met with opposition from some Republicans. Republican Rep. John Kriesel, an Iraq War vet who was injured in the line of duty, became an outspoken opponent of the amendment.
“If this was five, six years ago, I probably would have voted ‘yes.’ ‘Cause I didn’t think about it. I just thought about my family. I thought about what affects my wife and kids and nothing else,” Kriesel told fellow legislators. “Everything changed. I went to Iraq. I was in an incident. I nearly died. I remember laying there, looking down and seeing my legs mangled, and pretty much guaranteeing that I was done. I was a done deal. I thought that was where my life was going to end.”
“It woke me up. It changed me,” Kriesel added. “Because of that, it’s made me think about this issue. And say, ‘You know what, what would I do without my wife?’ She makes me happy. Life is hard. We’re in a really tough time in our history. Happiness is so, so hard to find for people. So they find it, they find someone that makes them happy, and we want to take that person away. We want to say, ‘Oh no, you can be together, you can love that person, but you can’t marry them. You can’t marry them. That’s wrong.’”
Three other Republican legislators bucked the party and voted against the amendment in late May.
While Minnesota ultimately passed the amendment onto the ballot, Wyoming Republicans were instrumental in defeating a proposed amendment in that state. Wyoming’s Legislature is one of the most Republican in the nation; the Senate has 26 Republicans and just 4 Democrats.
Republican state Sen. Cale Case testified at the Wyoming Legislature, saying, “Gays and lesbians live and work among us. They’re also soldiers in the military. They’ve been here and talked about their service in Iraq and now you’re going to deny them the benefits [of marriage of civil unions].”
He continued, “When you go home, you’re going to look people in the eye. You’re going to tell them you made them into second-class citizens today if you pass this. You can’t do that. We’re the Equality State.”
The effort to put the measure on the ballot failed by a vote of 16 to 14
Sean Eldridge, political director for Freedom to Marry, said these examples demonstrate that the issue isn’t confined to one party.
“I think we are clearly seeing a trend,” he told the Minnesota Independent. “Equality is not a Democratic value or a Republican value. It’s become an American value.”
He pointed to the current debate in New York state where several Republicans have changed their minds on the issue, and those legislators’ votes could decide the issue. The Senate needs 32 votes to pass the bill to legalize same-sex marriage in the Empire State, and because Sens. James Alesi and Roy McDonald announced they would vote for the bill, it’s just one vote shy of that 32-vote threshold. Several other Republicans are still undecided.
“We are seeing strong Republican support in New York,” Eldridge said, citing GOP activists, donors and former Republication National Committee chair Ken Mehlman throwing their support behind the gay marriage push. “New York is a really strong example and that bipartisan work is crucial.”
Support among Republicans for same-sex marriage seems to rise mainly from the state level; Eldridge noted that a bill to repeal the federal Defense of Marriage Act has not gotten any support from congressional Republicans.
“I think there are Republicans we can get in the long run,” he said. “There’s still work to be done, there are still elements within the Republican Party that are not in support.”
But the momentum within the party is with the side of equality.
He added, “We are at a real tipping point.”