The GOP hasn't evolved on LGBTQ rights, despite media swooning over "bipartisan" marriage vote

The new GOP strategy cribs from anti-choice campaigns: Lull voters into complacency while chipping away at rights

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 1, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting on November 19, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting on November 19, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

If there are two things the Beltway media loves, it's crowing about "bipartisanship" and congratulating Republicans for (allegedly) making some kind of social progress. So the mainstream media swooned on Tuesday after 12 Republicans joined Senate Democrats to pass the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that offers some protections for same-sex couples in the event that the Supreme Court overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage. Watching cable news or reading headlines, one would get the impression that after two decades of fighting LGBTQ rights at every turn, Republican hearts have suddenly grown two sizes, leading them to rally to protect the right for same-sex couples to get married. 

"The GOP's same-sex marriage evolution," gushed a Politico headline. As most Republicans voted against same-sex marriage, this was caveated as a "slow, choppy tidal shift," but the implication that we're heading toward an inevitable endpoint, where Republicans stop opposing equal rights for LGBTQ people, remained.

But make no mistake: There's no real evolution here. In many ways, Republicans are doubling down on attacks on queer people. The GOP is still beholden to the religious right, which continues to oppose not just same-sex marriage, but queer rights in general. What we're seeing instead is a shift in tactics. The rising popularity of gay rights forced the anti-LGBTQ movement to develop more underhanded methods, but they have not given up. Instead, they are modeling themselves after the anti-abortion movement, which spent decades quietly chipping away at reproductive rights, until they finally got the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade in June. The religious right is pulling out the same blueprint to attack queer people, and they still have a major ally in the Republican party. 

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Despite laudatory coverage implying otherwise, a majority of Republicans voted against this bill. And there's a reason it had to be passed in the lame-duck session: Senate Republicans were afraid their support for it would spark evangelical backlash in the midterm elections. But it couldn't be punted to next year, either, when Republicans will control the House of Representatives in 2023 and would never agree to pass such a bill. The vote's delicate timing alone should put a damper on the "Republicans are pro-gay now!" narrative. 

Most GOP voters, actually, are fine with same-sex marriage. As Philip Bump of The Washington Post explained in his realistic analysis, it's the GOP base — the people who vote in primaries and donate money — that holds "ongoing, fervent opposition." They are still virulently homophobic. And as Donald Trump's ongoing popularity shows, that rabid right wing base still controls the Republican party. 

This tension is a reason why the majority of Republicans who voted against this bill are now playing word games to explain why they stand with the religious right against not just the wishes of most Americans, but against even the majority of their own voters. The most popular gambit has been to claim that the law is "unnecessary" since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015. But of course, the court can overturn rulings, as demonstrated by the Roe reversal in June. Moreover, Justice Clarence Thomas openly invited religious conservatives to file suits to relitigate Obergefell, implying that now, with three Donald Trump-appointed judges, the court could throw out same-sex marriage rights along with abortion rights. 

Republicans also played the victim, painting the vote as a Democratic effort to make them look bad by forcing the issue. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas threw down this card, arguing on his podcast Wednesday that the bill's timing was hurting Republican Herschel Walker in his challenge against incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock in Georgia's run-off election. The bill, Cruz claimed, is "kicking evangelical voters in Georgia in the teeth."

But mostly, the GOP promoted the claim that the bill was an assault on "religious liberty." In an op-ed for Fox News, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah articulated this point, arguing that "federal recognition of same-sex marriage" could "inflict harm on those who, for reasons rooted in sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, do not embrace same-sex marriage."

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Of course, the actual Respect for Marriage Act explicitly outlines that no minister will ever be required to marry a same-sex couple. But reading on in Lee's op-ed, the GOP strategy to covertly chip away at the rights of same-sex couples becomes clear. For instance, he cites a vague concern that "many colleges, universities and other nonprofits could lose their tax-exempt status based on their refusal, rooted in religious belief, to recognize same-sex marriage."

The refusal of such institutions to "recognize" same-sex marriage is about more than etiquette. What Lee demands here is the right for employers to deny certain benefits to LGBTQ employees. Under the guise of "religious freedom," employers in the policy he's proposing would have a right to keep same-sex spouses — or children from those unions — from being included in health insurance plans. It could also allow religiously affiliated hospitals to deny same-sex couples visitation rights. We know this because the religious right has already carefully carved out the right to discriminate under the cover of faith in other cases like Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell, which allowed employers to cite religion as a reason to deny health care coverage to women who use contraception. 

Lee's op-ed is a portend of the larger GOP strategy to undermine LGBTQ rights: Rely on the public's assumption that same-sex marriage is legally "safe" while passing laws under the radar that make queer people second-class citizens. The "don't say gay" law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida is a good example. Same-sex couples are still allowed to be married in the state, but now queer students, teachers and parents are forced to hide their identities and marriages, unlike straight people. Republican politicians like Sen. John Cornyn of Texas have also hinted at legal strategies to challenge same-sex marriage on the grounds that its existence threatens the "right" of religious conservatives to live in queerphobic communities. 

Even the 12 Republican senators who crossed the aisle to vote for the Respect for Marriage Act deserve no credit. In order to get those votes, as Noor Noman at MSNBC points out, Democrats had to write a bill that "panders to religious groups and denies protections to LGBTQ Americans who need them most." The bill does not require states to keep same-sex marriage legal if the Supreme Court overturns Obergefell v. Hodges. It also leaves the door open for the GOP to grind away at LGBTQ equality, even without a direct overturn of Obergefell. 

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This is familiar territory for those who have watched the anti-choice movement gradually erode reproductive rights while most Americans blithely assumed Roe v. Wade would protect them. Before the Roe overturn caught millions of Americans by surprise, Republicans had already taken away a lot of access to reproductive health care through red tape regulations and defunding strategies that made both abortion and birth control needlessly hard to get. At the same time, the "pro-life" branding gave Republicans cover to pretend their opposition to abortion stemmed from personal belief rather than a policy plan to take away others' rights. Meanwhile, the religious right ran a multi-decade intimidation campaign to stigmatize abortion by picketing clinics and characterizing abortion patients as childlike victims of the "abortion industry." 

The same playbook is being rolled out in the fight to take away LGBTQ rights. Attempts to strip away health care access and other basic rights are being repackaged as a defense of "religious liberty." Support of discriminatory laws is being rebranded as "personal beliefs." Efforts to force queer people back into the closet are being justified as necessary to "protect" religious conservatives and their desire to teach anti-gay views to their kids. Even the equivalent of clinic protests are starting to emerge, mainly in the form of groups like the Proud Boys protesting drag shows and Pride events. It's all for the same purpose: To publicly shame people for being out of the closet, just as clinic protesters shame patients for abortion. 

The conservative press has made it quite clear to the party that its religious right base has no intention of backing down. 

"Marriage is no longer a means of harnessing the brute facts of biology into the service of children," the editorial board of the National Review wrote Monday. The editorial lamented the view that marriage should be about "married parties' happiness." Instead, they celebrate the "older view of marriage," which they describe as based on "the biological reality of sexual complementarity, one man and one woman, that works to advance a social ideal." This view is not just homophobic, it's anti-equality (and, frankly, anti-romance) — a model of marriage not about love and companionship but about chaining yourself to another person out of duty. Notably, the National Review holds itself out as the voice of "reasonable" conservatism. (They have, at times, even tried to take out Donald Trump.) 

Similarly, Christopher Bedford wrote a commentary for Fox News claiming that by protecting same-sex marriage, "Washington politicians are sleepwalking into another firestorm." He predicts the Respect for Marriage Act will lead to social chaos.

These are not the words of a movement that accepts it has lost the war of public opinion and is ready to acquiesce to LGBTQ equality. The strategy may be changing, but the goal remains the same: Religious conservatives are still actively working to oppress queer people by rejecting their human rights, and the GOP is still captured by the religious right. The 12 Republican votes for this bill should be read as a distraction, not a fundamental shift in Republican philosophy. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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