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Gay rights

Why extremist base politics are the real obstacle to U.S. gay rights Add to ...

It has been a paradoxical fortnight for advocates of gay rights.

Four Republican senators from highly conservative districts cast the deciding votes in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage in New York State, putting the principle of equality before pandering to their base.

Back in arguably North America's most gay-positive metropolis, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford defied recent political convention by deciding that Pride weekend is not important enough to warrant a spot on his agenda.

It is as if the map has been turned upside down. Perennially progressive Canada has a minor culture war on its hands, while red and blue New York politicians seem almost Canadian, choosing compromise over confrontation.

One could be forgiven for missing this rare instance of comity because of the equivalent in American politics of Newton's law: Every action on the progressive left generates an equal and opposite reaction on the conservative right. A victory by one side is seen as less of a defeat by the other side than a marketing opportunity to fire up its base – and raise cash.

Yet if you turn down the volume on the attack ads, what stands out south of the border is a striking leap in support for gay marriage, even though it is legal in only six states and the District of Columbia. In poll after poll, supporters now outnumber opponents, a sharp reversal from 2004, when George W. Bush came out in favour of a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In May, Gallup found for the first time that a majority of Americans (53 per cent) supported same-sex marriage.

In 2004, fully 55 per cent of Americans opposed gay marriage. Now, even Dick Cheney – whose daughter is gay – supports same-sex marriage.

Indeed, American attitudes to gay families have become significantly more progressive over the past decade.

In a study conducted by Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell, Americans were asked in 2003 and 2010 whether a female couple with children or a male couple with kids met their definition of family.

Eight years ago, about 55 per cent said yes. By last year, the proportion had risen to fully two-thirds.

Rally the base

Opponents of same-sex unions seized on the New York legislature's June 24 passage of the Marriage Equality Act (it comes into effect July 24). The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) launched a fundraising effort in its wake, asking donors to “help us defeat the New York senators that betrayed marriage.”

The group vows to spend $2-million to unseat in 2012 the handful of senators whose votes proved decisive in the legislation's passage.

“Anybody they could fire up with these anti-gay attacks, they've already done so. And that number is, happily, getting smaller and smaller,” countered Evan Wolfson, the president and founder of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based advocacy group that has waged campaigns to legalize gay marriage in nearly every state.

“We are seeing increasing support across every segment of the public.”

That may be true. But so is the reality of base politics in America.

“The backlash against progressive politics and liberal social values is greater in the United States,” explained Environics Group president Michael Adams. “That's because America is more Darwinian. They set it up as a survival-of-the-fittest country.”

The result is that countless millions of dollars will be spent and endless hours of attack ads will be commissioned by both sides before the gay-marriage debate is resolved in the United States.

Twenty-nine states have constitutional amendments prohibiting gay marriage, most of them the result of ballot initiatives arranged in haste after a seminal 2004 court decision in Massachusetts made same-sex marriage legal in that state.

Twelve more states have laws banning gay marriage.

Overturning those bans will take time and, above all, money.

Barring a U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring bans on gay marriage unconstitutional – at this point only a hypothetical possibility – same-sex marriage advocates must fight their battle one state at time.

For each step forward, there is at least another step backward. Minnesota and Indiana, for instance, have become the latest to begin the process of amending their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage.

Attempts by progressive governors to legalize gay marriage failed this year in Rhode Island and Maryland, as NOM and other opponents put the heat on legislators.

Hail to the chief?

It might help the gay marriage cause if Barack Obama added his voice to the fight. The U.S. President has done everything but that.

“We have done more [to advance gay rights] in the past two and a half years that I've been in here than the previous 43 presidents” did in 222 years, Mr. Obama insisted at a White House press conference on Wednesday.

He's right. Since 2009, Congress has passed hate-crimes legislation specifically protecting gays; Mr. Obama issued an executive order requiring hospitals to give visitation rights to gay partners; he lifted the ban on HIV-positive people entering the U.S.; he appointed the first openly gay White House social secretary; he successfully got Congress to repeal the prohibition on gays serving openly in the military; and his administration announced in February that it would no longer defend the Defence of Marriage Act in court. (DOMA, signed into law by Bill Clinton six weeks before the 1996 election, bans federal recognition of gay marriage.)

Mr. Obama has even held an annual White House reception (the latest was on Wednesday) in honour of LGBT Pride Month. Gay Canadians are unlikely to see a similar event as long as Mr. Harper is in 24 Sussex Drive.

Yet, Mr. Obama has infuriated gay rights advocates by sitting on the fence when it comes to same-sex marriage.

As a candidate for the Illinois senate in 1996, Mr. Obama expressed support for same-sex marriage on a questionnaire sent out by a gay newspaper. By 2008, however, he was invoking his Christian faith to explain his opposition to gay marriage.

Most recently, he steered clear of expressing an opinion one way or the other by saying “traditionally marriage has been decided by the states.”

That has put him in the awkward position of using the same argument segregationists once invoked to justify state laws that would have prevented his own white mother and black father from marrying.

But Mr. Obama's refusal to endorse gay marriage – he claims his views on the matter are still “evolving” – is really no different from Mr. Harper's steadfast insistence that he will not reopen the marriage debate.

Both have been accused of harbouring hidden agendas; they do not want to give ammunition – and fund-raising opportunities – to their opponents.

For base politics is a double-edged sword. What stirs up your side can also fire up your adversaries. After all, Mr. Wolfson's joy of victory in New York was met with an equally intense reaction among his opponents.

“Fanatical, anti-gay groups like NOM will continue funnelling money into these attacks,” Mr. Wolfson conceded. “We will not win every battle.”

Konrad Yakabuski is the chief political writer in The Globe and Mail's Washington bureau.

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