Party Polarization Is Now Complete

Published in: September-October 2012 issue.


THERE IS literally no issue in the United States today in which the gulf between the two parties is wider than on the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to legal equality. This is a relatively new fact in American political life. Until the civil rights stirrings of the late 1960’s, both parties were terrible on this question. Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson collaborated to strengthen the prohibition against any of us who were not American citizens traveling to this country, although enforcement was never very great. By 1976, there were the beginnings of recognition that discrimination in various forms was excessive, if not unfair on its face, and both Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were making initial steps toward support.

But that was then.

Now, three trend lines have produced a situation in which the Republican Party is almost universally hostile to our efforts to be treated fairly, while the Democratic Party is overwhelmingly supportive. The first trend line is opinion in the country as a whole. By every measure we have of public opinion, dislike of people based on their sexual orientation or (to a lesser extent) gender identity has substantially diminished, although, unfortunately, not quite as much with regard to the latter as to the former. But a study of the way in which the prejudice based on sexual orientation diminished makes me confident that we are well on the way toward seeing the same result regarding gender identity, and in a much shorter time period. The second trend line is that Democrats are moving in a pro-GLBT equality direction even more strongly than the country as a whole. Democrats, in party platforms and in the votes of those elected as Democrats, have moved toward support for full legal equality at an even more rapid rate than the general population. The support among Congressional Democrats for erasing the obstacles to fairness exceeds ninety percent. The third trend line is the Republicans having moved strongly in the opposite direction. Republican votes on GLBT issues in Congress are consistently 95 percent or more against us.

Given these facts, the question of how people should vote this year if they feel strongly in favor of GLBT equality should be an easy one. To be sure, there are some GLBT people—gay men, mostly—who live in communities where discrimination is illegal in most ways, who are themselves quite well-off financially, and are in their own personal lives largely insulated from prejudice—although none of us has the very significant federal benefits that come from recognized marriages. So I accept the fact that there are GLBT people whose political conservatism on the question of the economy, the environment, military policy, etc., will lead them to vote Republican. But I do not understand emotionally how any gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individual can be indifferent to the opposition to our rights that is expressed by the overwhelming majority of Republicans, or to the fact that some leading Republicans express that opposition in a contemptuous and demeaning fashion (and are almost never rebuked by other Republicans who themselves avoid such rhetoric).

Nor do I understand how even the wealthiest, most socially protected gay men can forget what it was like to be fifteen, beset either by the prejudice or the fear of what would result if his true identity was known. But with the exception of those who are capable of that indifference, the decision to vote for candidates who will protect our basic rights should be uncontroversial.

There are exceptions to every political rule, but as I discuss the three groups of specific elections that people will participate in this November—the Presidency, the U.S. Congress, and state legislative and gubernatorial offices—I can state that the percentage of those cases where pro-equality voters should be supporting a Republican as the best way to advance that cause will be significantly less than .01 percent of the total.

The presidency is the easy one. Barack Obama not only began this election season in a generally pro-GLBT equality position, he has moved further in that direction, to the point that he supports all the measures needed at the federal level to take away the legal footing for the prejudice. Mitt Romney, in contrast, has accelerated his movement away from a rhetorically pro-GLBT equality position when he ran against Ted Kennedy in 1994 to one of total and occasionally derisive opposition. In the latter category was his recent boast that, as governor of Massachusetts, he kept the state from “becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage” by trying to keep people from coming to Massachusetts to be married.

Mitt Romney also spent most of 2004 using his political and financial resources as the head of the Massachusetts Republican Party in a vigorous effort to get legislative votes to put a question on the ballot to repeal marriage equality in the Commonwealth. Romney and the Republicans and their anti-gay allies singled out some Democrats who had voted against putting the same-sex marriage question on the ballot and worked hard to defeat them. I spent almost all of the campaign season of 2004 going to the districts of Massachusetts legislators who were under attack from Romney and other Republicans—Catholics and women were among those targeted—because of their refusal to put our rights to a referendum. Fortunately, we were able to blunt his efforts and re-elect our friends.

Nowhere is the difference between Romney and Obama greater than with regard to the Supreme Court. Obama’s courageous, historic decision not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the federal courts was not only significant with regard to that statute, but also because it represented the first time the federal government took the position that discrimination against us written into law had to be justified by a more significant standard than has historically been the case. In contrast, a Romney presidency would mean more justices in the mode of the ranting homophobe Antonin Scalia, and a practical end to our efforts to advance our cause constitutionally in the courts. It is notable that one of Romney’s key advisors on these matters is Robert Bork, himself one of the most virulent anti-gay advocates to be considered for the Supreme Court.

Regarding Congress, in at least 95 percent of the contests, the Democrat is much more supportive of GLBT equality than is the Republican. There are races where both express support, but even here the Democrat is almost always better on gay issues. For example, in the generally progressive state of Maine, there are four members of Congress—Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Democratic Representatives Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree. All four supported the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” But when Maine voters were asked—and unfortunately agreed—to repeal the Maine Legislature’s recognition of same-sex marriages, the two Democrats actively supported maintaining equality, while the two Republicans were conspicuously and steadfastly silent. The pattern repeats itself in this year’s referendum. The two Democrats are on our side; the two Republicans are sitting it out.

In a few areas of our country, anti-GLBT sentiment is so strong that neither the Democrat nor the Republican is our ally. In the past, the major source of this geographical problem was the South, and that has changed. There are now fewer Democrats from the South than there were twenty years ago, but those who are in Congress—a substantial number being African Americans—are mostly supportive of our rights. And within the Democratic Party, opposition to GLBT rights can be a liability. The northern Democrat who most consistently voted against us, Congressman Tim Holden of Pennsylvania, lost in a primary to a more liberal, supportive opponent this year.  There may be a few cases in which the Democrat and the Republican are equally supportive or opposed to our issues, but I would argue that advancing the cause of GLBT equality still means voting Democratic.

I would not have made this same argument thirty years ago, because partisanship was less pronounced back then. Indeed, I myself supported a Republican for the U.S. Senate, Edward Brooke, in the same year that I introduced legislation to end sexual orientation discrimination and repeal the sodomy laws into the Massachusetts Legislature. Today, with the advent of the Tea Party and the rapid rightward movement of the Republican Party, control of Congress will be critical to our efforts. A clear example of the difference is the position of the leadership of the two parties on the federal lawsuit against DOMA. When the Administration refused to defend the law because it violates the equal protection clause, the House leadership voted 3–2 to defend DOMA on its own, hiring a highly paid former Bush Solicitor General, among whose specialties is attacking our rights in court. The three votes in favor of engaging him were Republican Speaker John Boehner, Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, while Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer voted No.

When the Democrats controlled Congress and had the presidency, we were able to get a hate crimes bill enacted that was transgender-inclusive, and we repealed “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Had we retained control of the House in 2010, we would have been able to adopt a transgender-inclusive antidiscrimination act. We did not have the votes to do that in 2009 due to our inability to count on more than five solid Republican votes against an amendment to strip transgender protection out of the bill, but we have increased our support among the Democrats to the point where we will be able to do that the next time they control the House, and, if we have Democrats in the high fifties, we will be able to do the same in the Senate, with the support of two or three Republicans—though that is not guaranteed. But we know that if the Republicans control either chamber or the presidency, there is no chance that any favorable legislation will be enacted. Republican control means a Republican leadership and chairs of the various committees, who range from opposed to actively hostile to gay equality. Democratic leadership, on the other hand, has been energetically supportive. As an example, we were able to force the hand of the Senate in 2010 to get the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” because Nancy Pelosi made it clear that the House would not adopt a defense bill unless the Senate was able to get the sixty votes needed to break the filibuster. That pressure gave our supportive Majority Leader Harry Reid the ability to get the Republican votes he needed.

The votes in the last two Congresses in which GLBT issues came up are highly revealing. In 2007, the vote on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was a very partisan one. The key vote here came not on the bill itself, but on a Republican motion just prior to adoption of the bill that would have amended it in a way that made it more harmful than helpful. We defeated this effort to kill the bill by a vote of 214 Democrats and eight Republicans against and fourteen Democrats and 184 Republicans in favor.

In the last Congress, the vote in the House on “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was 235 Democrats and fifteen Republicans in favor, and fifteen Democrats and 160 Republicans against. Indeed, when the original defense bill came up with the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” included, Republicans—who almost always vote 97 percent for the defense bill—voted overwhelmingly against it this time, because their opposition to gay rights outweighed all of their patriotic rhetoric about the military. The Republicans did do more for us in the Senate, where the vote was 58 Democrats and five Republicans versus one Democrat and 36 Republicans to break the filibuster.

Finally, there is the question of the state legislatures. There are a few exceptions in which Republicans at the state level have been supportive, notably in New York, where four Republican state senators broke with their party to help us win same-sex marriage there. Here I do understand those who feel that it is important that they survive, to encourage others to go forward. I am not as familiar with individual candidacies at the state level, so there are maybe some cases in some states where there is a Republican who is better than a Democrat. In that case, people should vote for the Republican. (While I know of no such cases, I would be glad to learn of any.)

WITH THE RECORD of the Democrats’ clear superiority over Republicans measured on a standard of support for GLBT rights, people trying to argue for Republican support in the name of our fight for equality are having a harder and harder time. I’m not talking about those who are voting Republican because they don’t give a high priority to GLBT concerns, but of those who justify their support for Republicans on the grounds that this is their contribution to the fight for our rights.

They begin with the truism that we’d be better off if we had Republican support. Of course we would, though people who vote for a pretty good Republican over a very good Democrat, measured by the GLBT standards, have in no way added to our vote totals. But, as the Log Cabin Republicans argue, it is important to encourage Republicans to move in our direction, and this they claim justifies voting for the pretty good Republican over a much better Democrat. My first problem with this argument is that I’ve been hearing it for more than twenty years, and it simply does not describe reality. During the period when the Log Cabin Republicans have been active, the Republican Party has gotten worse, not better, on our issues.

The record also refutes the argument that it’s important to give support to an even partially pro-GLBT Republican, because that will give us a friend in the Republican camp who can help win over others. Once again, the facts refute this. The best example of this is Richard Tisei, the openly gay Republican former state legislator now running for Congress against a 100 percent pro-gay Democrat. It should be noted that as recently as 1990, then Representative Tisei attacked his Democratic opponent because the Democrat supported the right of GLBT people to adopt, while Tisei was opposing it. In 2010, he had moved considerably, including publicly acknowledging his sexual orientation, and was a strong supporter, he said, of such issues as an inclusive anti-discrimination law. But far from being able to influence his fellow Republicans, his running mate for governor not only failed to support the inclusion of transgender people in the anti-discrimination bill, he ridiculed it as the “bathroom bill,” and Tisei had to back off. There is zero evidence of Tisei moving other Republicans in our direction on the issues. The choice between him and Congressman John Tierney, incidentally, is an example of a situation in which a vote for the Republican will mean no difference in the individual member’s vote on pro GLBT legislation, but if the Republican helps John Boehner stay as Speaker and eric Cantor as Majority Leader, the point will be moot because no pro GLBT legislation will ever be allowed to come up.

People have reacted against the arguments I make here by denouncing me for treating GLBT rights as a partisan issue. But we’re not the ones who have made it partisan. It is the Republican Party, with their increasing opposition as they move to the right, who have done so. In 1972, as an entering member of the Massachusetts Legislature, I worked closely with many Republicans who were supportive of our rights, even as early as that. And in my first years in Congress, I also had Republican allies. Almost all of those with whom I worked, who were Republicans who were supportive of GLBT rights, have left politics, some of them driven out of office or out of the Republican Party, or both. I am very eager to help bring about a situation in which our rights are not partisan—or even controversial. But I do not understand how anybody could argue that we do that by ignoring the overwhelming differences that exist between the two parties on our issues, and reward Republicans for being less hostile or less verbally abusive than others in the party, or for giving us an occasional vote on an issue while withholding strong support on most others. You do not provide incentives for people to change their behavior when you reward them for an inadequate commitment to justice.

Addendum. After I finished this article, the House voted on Thursday, July 19th, on a Republican motion to reaffirm the binding nature of DOMA.  It passed, with 230 Republicans voting for it and only five against, while 161 Democrats voted against it, with seventeen voting for it.


Barney Frank has represented Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1981.