Last Gasp?

Red America’s Anti-Gay Backlash

Gay rights may be trending upward everywhere, but it in conservative America, things are moving very slowly—and sparking a ferocious reaction.

Rex C. Curry/AP

Everything is coming up roses for gay and lesbian Americans. Same-sex marriage, a political non-starter only a few years ago, now enjoys solid majority support in national polls. Federal judges are falling over each other ordering states to allow it. Yet instead of howling about judicial tyranny, the country yawns, and politicians who not long ago railed against gay marriage now scramble to change the subject. Today, unlike ever before, most Americans have openly gay friends, colleagues, and family members, and most approve of same-sex relationships. Young people are overwhelmingly gay-friendly, leaving little doubt which way the trends are going.

But roses have thorns. Every day, it seems, brings another news story about a prominent anti-gay statement or legal effort. If opponents of gay rights are supposed to be retreating into oblivion, they missed the memo.

* Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, on Wednesday compared homosexuality to alcoholism. “Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that,” he said, to an audibly startled audience in San Francisco. “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.”

* As if to drive the point home, the Texas Republican Party, at its annual convention, endorsed so-called “reparative therapy,” a quack regimen that reputable psychiatry roundly condemns. Very considerately, the Texas GOP wants to ensure the availability of “therapy and treatment for those patients seeking healing and wholeness from their homosexual lifestyle.”

* Not to be outdone, Phil Robertson, the Duck Dynasty star who made headlines for an anti-gay comment in December, popped back up with a sermon likening “homosexual offenders” to adulterers, male prostitutes, thieves, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, and others who will not “inherit the kingdom of God.”

* Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Scott Esk, a conservative candidate for the state House of Representatives, approvingly cited Biblical passages that he interpreted as prescribing the death penalty for homosexuals. “I think we would be totally in the right to do it,” he said in a Facebook post. “Ignoring as a nation things that are worthy of death is very remiss.”

* Confirming that opponents of gay marriage, and of homosexuality generally, do not intend to fade away, Mississippi recently passed a law giving businesses a religious-liberty defense if they are sued for refusing service to gays (and to others, but gay customers and especially same-sex weddings were the target). Arizona nearly enacted a similar law, and others like it are in the pipeline. In Kansas, the state House of Representatives passed legislation (defeated in the Senate) that would have gone even further, giving an explicit green light to anti-gay discrimination.

Are we seeing a backlash against gay rights and same-sex marriage? Not in the country as a whole. Hostility to homosexuality is withering. But it is not going away. Rather, it is becoming a counterculture—as, ironically, gay culture itself once was. That is, it is becoming a self-sustaining worldview that defines itself in opposition to the mainstream and is seen as a source of identity for many who hold it.

Foremost among the currents that sustain it is religion: specifically, evangelical Protestantism. In very sharp contrast with most other demographic groups (including Catholics, who support same-sex marriage by a sizable majority), white evangelicals oppose gay marriage—not narrowly but by an overwhelming three-to-one margin, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. Similarly, Pew finds white evangelicals saying that homosexuality should be discouraged by society rather than accepted, again not narrowly but by a two-to-one margin.

Evangelicals’ strong moral condemnation of homosexuality and gay marriage puts them distinctly out of step with most of the rest of society, but that does not mean they will be quick to rethink. The comparison of homosexuality with alcoholism may seem inaccurate and insulting to Americans generally, but it reflects orthodox Catholic and evangelical theology. A Mississippi native who has worked for many years among culturally conservative evangelicals puts it this way: evangelicals (and, for that matter, orthodox Catholics) will change their mind on gay rights when God tells them to, and not one day before.

Evangelicals are, and will remain, a large and critical element of the Republican base. Three-quarters of them supported Romney in 2012. No wonder the GOP is having so much trouble with gay marriage: opposing it alienates younger voters, but supporting it angers evangelicals. Until that equation tips, individual Republicans may break ranks on gay rights, but the party remains a countercultural bastion.

The national majority for gay marriage also masks important regional variations. State-by-state polling data on gay marriage is hard to come by, but last year the Williams Institute of UCLA law school developed estimates. Support for marriage equality has risen in every state since 2004, but in many conservative states it remains in the low-to-mid-30s, which is where the country as a whole was in the 1990s. “Research revealed a 31 percent difference between the lowest level of support found in a state and the highest,” the institute found. The red states are changing, but slowly. In the meantime, it is not surprising to see the anti-gay counterculture pushing back.

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The counterculture, then, may be a national minority, but it draws support and sustenance from its bases in the evangelical world, the Republican Party, and culturally conservative states. In all those places, being condemned as “bigoted” by coastal progressives is probably not going to change minds. To the contrary, denunciation by the mainstream (“lamestream”) is a counterculture’s bread and butter.

In this context, the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s biggest and arguably most influential gay rights group, is doing something shrewd. Called Project One America, the group will invest three years and millions of dollars in changing hearts and minds in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi, three of the country’s reddest states. “Workers will meet with friends, allies, neighbors, business executives, faith leaders, and community groups in an attempt to increase acceptance of LGBT people,” the AP reported in April. The emphasis appears to be on conversation and the human touch, rather than strident rhetoric—a wise choice, since countercultures thrive on being contrary.

On a larger strategic plane, too, the effort is shrewd. The Supreme Court could order gay marriage nationwide next year, but that would not make the country’s countercultural enclaves more hospitable to the many gay people and families who live there. It is tempting for gay-rights advocates to imagine that a national majority is the same as a national consensus. In reality, there is still far to go from here to there, and complacency isn’t called for.