On June 11, 2013, the Russian parliament unanimously passed legislation prohibiting the dissemination of so-called gay propaganda, by which the Kremlin’s retrograde conservatives meant such heresies as the notions that gay and straight relationships are equally valuable, or that gay people enjoy any rights that the state is bound to respect. Signed into law by President Vladimir Putin later that month, the law stoked anti-gay vigilantism, with advocates reporting a spike in anti-LGBT harassment following the measure’s passage; harrowing videos of gay bashings captured the horrific climate of homophobia that both fostered the law and was exacerbated by it. Amid mounting anti-gay atrocities, record numbers of LGBT Russians sought to flee the country.
The same day that the Russian parliament declared war on gay citizens, Sen. Marco Rubio issued a headline-grabbing proclamation: The Florida Republican said he would jettison the immigration reform legislation he’d spent months helping craft if it included an amendment from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., allowing gay Americans to sponsor their foreign spouses for permanent residency — a right long afforded to heterosexual citizens. Leahy had introduced the amendment once, only to withdraw it amid political pressure, before reintroducing it once again on June 11.
But Rubio, who is slated to announce his 2016 presidential bid this evening, would have none of it.
“If this bill has in it something that gives gay couples immigration rights and so forth, it kills the bill,” Rubio told Fox News personality Andrea Tantaros on her radio show. “I’m gone, I’m off it, and I’ve said that repeatedly. And I don’t think that’s going to happen, and it shouldn’t happen. This is already a difficult enough issue as it is.”
It was a stunning statement on a number of levels. Political memories are notoriously short, but if you'll think back to the political climate of mid-2013, you'll recall that Rubio was then regarded as a potentially salvific figure for his party; following the GOP's 2012 drubbing, which featured a disastrous performance among Latinos, this son of Cuban immigrants looked poised to emerge as the face of a more inclusive party. His work on immigration reform was part of Rubio's effort to lead a Republican rebrand, and now he was willing to throw it all away simply to strike a blow for anti-gay bigotry?
By June 2013, of course, Rubio had come to the painful realization that his immigration efforts were alienating the hardcore conservative base of his party; his early lead in polls of the 2016 GOP field was rapidly evaporating, and it would disappear by mid-summer. So perhaps the ambitious freshman senator was in search of any excuse he could find to backtrack on legislation that was anathema to the right-wing voters he'd need to placate in three years' time. (And backtrack he eventually did.)
Ultimately, Rubio's motives for drawing a homophobic line in the sand are known only to him, but no conceivable motive makes his conduct any less despicable. As heteronationalist thugs were brutally beating gays in the streets of Russia -- and at a time when 78 countries criminalized homosexuality, with seven nations allowing death sentences for the "crime" of same-sex affection -- Rubio brazenly threatened to kill immigration reform if it treated gay immigrants as full and equal human beings.
Did Rubio ever pause to think about, say, the gay Russian spouse of an American citizen, seeking a safe haven from Putin's anti-gay nightmare? I'm inclined to think that Rubio was more concerned about the sentiments of socially conservative primary voters, but that explanation would only betray an astonishing deficit of imaginative empathy and a set of misplaced priorities.
Of course, there's nothing in Rubio's record that suggests his conduct was borne of anything other than sincere anti-gay convictions. A long-standing opponent of marriage equality, Rubio has also railed against gay adoption as a "social experiment" on children and joined 29 other senators in voting against the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The only thing that distinguishes Rubio's LGBT record from the outmoded views of others in his party is that Rubio adds a younger, non-Anglo face to the hate-fest. So while it stretches credulity to assert that politics weren't on Rubio's mind in this case, it's not as if throwing gay immigrants under the bus was discordant with his history.
At any rate, the discrepancy between the treatment of gay migrant spouses and straight ones was resolved later in June 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, effectively allowing an estimated 36,000 American citizens to apply for green cards for their same-sex, foreign-born spouses. The Court's ruling meant that Rubio could not cite the frightening specter of gay equality to derail immigration reform, and Rubio voted with 13 other Republicans to approve a comprehensive immigration overhaul, although he soon expressed regret over his involvement in the whole project.
Critics have pounced on Rubio's retreat from reform as evidence of his naked political calculation and unfitness to be president. Transparently cynical as his U-turn was, however, it was Rubio's callous and bigoted ultimatum that most shocked the conscience, revealing a thoroughly repugnant worldview. The high court may have ended a gross injustice, but even while vile regimes assailed their LGBT subjects, this presidential hopeful wished to perpetuate it.