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Republican presidential hopeful and Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks in Washington on Dec. 7, 2011. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Republican presidential hopeful and Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks in Washington on Dec. 7, 2011. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Gay rights, Rick Perry and the arc of justice Add to ...

“Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

This is one of President Barack Obama’s favourite quotes, originally spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King during the days of the civil-rights movement.

The long liberation of African-Americans from the days of slavery to the present administration in the White House is its great proof point.

The conditions of blacks in the United States changed fundamentally in a single life time, from lynching and systematic disenfranchisement to a black president in less than 60 years.

It would be impossible for politicians today to successfully argue for segregation, a mainstream opinion in the 1950s. Those who occasionally revert to earlier messages can see their careers collapse in a blink. Trent Lott is the most high profile example.

However, the liberation of African-Americans is not the only example. Other liberation movements show the same long term movement in public opinion and threaten politicians with the same long arc of history.

Public opinion on gay rights experienced a sea change within recent memory. In just the last couple years, support for gay marriage went from a weak minority position (37 per cent in favour to 54 per cent opposed) to a bare majority approval.

“A March 2011 public opinion poll by ABC News/Washington Post showed support for gay marriage at 53 per cent among Americans, and a May 2011 Gallup opinion poll also showed 53 per cent support for gay marriage among Americans. A May 2009 Gallup poll indicated 54 per cent support for gays and lesbians being allowed to adopt children.”

Going back further, the gap was even wider. In 1996, just 27 per cent of Americans surveyed supported homosexual marriage rights, compared to 68 per cent opposed.

In 1971, homosexuality was still formally recognized as a mental disorder in the psychiatric profession’s bible: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. How things have changed…

Bans on gays openly serving in the U.S. military have been lifted. Federal law in the United States requires hospitals receiving medicare to treat gay partners as spouses for medical decision making. Hate crimes law was recently expanded to include sexual orientation.

Here in Canada, the same sudden shift in public opinion occurred between 1997 and 2004. Mark Lehman did some excellent work on this phenomenon in a master’s thesis at U of T. And same-sex marriage has been recognized in legislation since 2005.

Despite the sea change in attitudes, there are still large and motivated minorities in public opinion who oppose gay rights.

These minorities are most visible in contexts where they are concentrated. The U.S. Republican primary is one such audience where gay-bashing remains a viable political strategy, despite its loss of strength among the broad sweep of Americans.

Texas Governor Rick Perry, his campaign reeling from disastrous debate performances, recently put out an ad attacking gays in the military.

Personally, I resent the inference here that people of faith automatically seek to deny others the ability to serve their country on the basis of sexual orientation, perhaps as much as I dislike the mythology that saying “happy holidays” disenfranchises Christmas. But I’m probably not Rick Perry’s target audience.

His campaign expects moderates to be a distinct minority among Republican primary voters, and that this issue can help revive his poll numbers by coalescing the voters scattered by Herman Cain’s withdrawal from the race around his standard. But for every step forward he is taking in the primary, he is losing one in the general election.

It’s not that general election swing voters will remember this ad run eleven months before voting and say “gosh, Rick Perry doesn’t like gays in the military. I won’t vote for him.” I doubt that a lot of swing voters in U.S. presidential elections are particularly concerned about gay rights. But the issue is in fact so completely tangential to their concerns today as to make Perry a caricature.

Americans are terrified of unemployment, economic uncertainty, and the potential fading of the American century. To focus your campaign on boutique issues is to make yourself a boutique candidate: “Rick Perry. He hates gays. Next.”

During Bill Clinton’s run in 1992, James Carville wanted to run the campaign on big economic ideas that would capture the imagination of people hungry for hope on jobs. He rejected side issues that didn’t project that transformational vision. “You don’t get elected president running for dogcatcher.”

Rick Perry is risking running for the role of “angry white conservative Christian Republican” at a time when people want a president.

A similar rear-guard action of the increasingly irrelevant was on display in Ontario recently.

The new Accepting Schools Act is designed to crack down on bullying. This topic is on the minds of parents after a rash of suicides among youths recently, be they gay, disabled or just different.

The bill is incremental change, giving principals some new powers and promoting tolerance of those who may be different. The point is to make sure students have the tools to focus on their education, free from an environment that prevents them thriving.

However, a group of conservative religious and anti-abortion leaders led by Dr. Charles McVety say that this is all a front for a radical sexual agenda.

The bill hardly promotes an agenda, but recognizes – among other things – the reality of gay students in publicly funded schools. Religious leaders who want the right to bully their students – or promote bullying by their students – should look elsewhere than the public purse or this parent for their funding.

To his credit, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak distanced himself from his own MPPs, who sponsored and attended the press conference. “There should be, in all our public schools, some committee to help students who are being bullied for sexual orientation – also for disability, race, religious background, what have you,” he told reporters.

That distancing shows that Mr. Hudak learned the game of politics better than Governor Perry (or at least isn’t as desperate). His caucus will likely be able to keep these anti-gay activists in their tent, but he is smart enough to accept the changing attitudes of Ontarians and remain focused on the issues that matter to them.

The strength of Canada’s diversity rests on our tolerance of difference. Learning to accept that some people hold different views, and how to manage those differences while remain true to one’s self, are fundamental mandates of our public education system.

Managing the tensions of diversity is what makes Canada a beacon to the world. In contrast, Dr. McVety and Gov. Perry look like the George Wallaces of their era: standing in the schoolhouse door of ignorance and hate.

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