2012 Election | Ari Ezra Waldman | Mitt Romney | Paul Ryan | Republican Party

Paul Ryan, Gay Rights, and the Shift of Social Conservatism


Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) is an affable, smart, and dedicated conservative who used the benefit of his innate intellectual talents and his safe seat in Congress to propose a budget -- the now "Romney/Ryan Budget" -- that aims to attack the nation's impossibly high debt. Though you may disagree with his particular policy proposals, that Mr. Ryan proposed a game-changing budget is a good thing: We need to start having serious conversations about tax and entitlement reform. But, if we settle for the pablum coming from the talking heads on the left and right, we don't get the full picture of the sociological significance or Mr. Ryan's selection, especially in the field of gay rights.

Meet-Paul-Ryan-Getting-to-know-Romneys-running-mateMr. Ryan's selection as Mitt Romney's running mate is, in fact, a great sign of our nation's progress on gay rights. Most progressive media outlets are salivating over Mr. Ryan's controversial budget, his "radical" political ideology, and his anti-gay and anti-women votes (he voted for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but first tried to kill it), suggesting that he will be a lightning rod that galvanizes progressives, crystallizes the line of attack against Mr. Romney, and propels President Obama back to the White House.

But, Mr. Romney's choice shows that not only does he want this entire election to be about the economy, but that he realizes the only way today's arch-conservative Republican Party can win is by hiding its arch-conservative views on social issues, in general, and gay rights, in particular. Whereas in the last decade, President Bush's team orchestrated Mr. Bush's re-election by highlighting Republican views on same-sex marriage, the selection of Mr. Ryan -- a vocal fiscal conservative who simply doesn't like to talk about his rabid social conservatism -- shows that even though the party is not ready to make substantive changes to its platform, its leaders are worried that the world is starting to pass them by.

Let's make one thing clear: Mr. Ryan has been and will be steadfastly anti-gay in his policy positions and votes. He is no friend to the gay community. And yet, the Paul Ryan selection marks a sea change in Republicans' views on the effectiveness of social conservatism to win elections. It is a small, but significant step toward full equality for gay Americans.


RyanWe know quite a bit about Mr. Ryan thanks to his charm, his marketing skills, and a timely profile in The New Yorker. The Ryans have a long history in Wisconsin, where his family's company helped build railroads in the late 1800s and is still one of the largest earth-moving firms in the Midwest. He works out a lot and the media think that's pretty awesome. He is a devout Catholic and loves Ayn Rand (minus her strict atheism, of course). And, he's a conservative ideologue with support from his party's intellectuals, but he's also charming, youthful, and has great hair. He came to Congress as a loyal Republican, voting for every budget-busting program President George W. Bush could come up with. Now that there is a Democratic president, Mr. Ryan regrets those votes and has transformed himself into a budget-cutting apostle.

He is also a social conservative with a long list of anti-gay votes. According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which grades members of Congress on their voting record on LGBT issues, Mr. Ryan received a 0/100 in 2002, a 0/100 in 2004, a 0/100 in 2006, a 10/100 in 2008, and a 0/100 in 2010. (Of course, the legitimacy of that grade depends on how we define "LGBT issues," but that's for another column.). He only received a 10 in 2008 because he voted for ENDA, but that vote came after his vote to send the bill back to committee, which would have killed it indefinitely.

Mr. Ryan, however, is no hate-spewing wingnut like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and despite his jocular avuncularity, Mike Huckabee. He may believe that gay couples do not deserve to marry. He may believe that gay couples do not deserve to be treated equally when it comes to federal benefits. He may also believe that it is not the government's responsibility to help HIV-positive individuals (among many other groups) obtain adequate and affordable health care and health insurance. But, he has generally stayed away from the anti-gay rhetoric of his party's right wing.

That might seem unimportant, at best, or deceptive, at worst: that he doesn't talk about his anti-gay votes doesn't make him any less hateful and may make him a devil in disguise. But the rhetoric of campaigning is both a window into the campaign's assessment of the cultural zeitgeist and a dedicated strategy for victory.

Mr. Romney's choice signals a concerted effort to silence a social conservative wing that was ascendant during the Clinton Era and propelled the evangelical George W. Bush into office in 2000 and 2004. The movement was so powerful that President Bush's campaign team pinned their boss's re-election hopes on getting social conservatives out to vote by setting up same-sex marriage bans in more than 20 states at the 2004 election. At the time, President Bush and his surrogates bragged about their support for the "traditional family," code for a family that does not include gays. Coming out in support of same-sex marriage was seen as career suicide. And, antigay activists were winning ever state wide ballot initiative or legislative vote on marriage recognition.

Today, the world is quite different. The President supports marriage for gays, so does Dick Cheney and one Republican in Congress. We are on the verge of winning four statewide ballot measures. National polls have shown consistent majorities in favor of same-sex marriage. For the most part, young Republicans push gay marriage down to the bottom of topics they are concerned about. The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is on its way out. And, perhaps most tellingly, no court decision declaring DOMA or Prop 8 unconstitutional has sparked any kind of cultural backlash, like pro-gay decisions used to in the 1990s.

The Republican Party realizes that anti-gay rhetoric is now a losing strategy. And that is remarkable. 

For orchestrating this cultural progress, we can thank several leaders and social forces: Evan Wolfson's Freedom To Marry and its state-by-state strategy to change hearts and minds; the American Foundation for Equal Rights's pioneering leadership in challenging the constitutionality of Prop 8 and making the case for equality; openly gay public officials and public figures; President Obama's solidly pro-gay rhetoric and decisive actions in ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell, supporting marriage recognition, protecting gay couples's rights in hospitals, arguing to end DOMA, and countless other examples of leadership; and each of us who come out to our friends and families and lead moral, mainstream work-a-day lives. And, of course, our greatest ally has been time and its attendant generational shift.

Mr. Ryan did not cause this shift. Nor did Mr. Romney. If anything, they would try to reverse America's trend toward social toleration if elected. But, the Ryan selection is an overt Republican admission that the party's antigay rhetoric is now toxic. It is a testament to how far we have come: When those that dislike us have to hide, we know we're winning.


Ari Ezra Waldman teaches at Brooklyn Law School and is concurrently getting his PhD at Columbia University in New York City. He is a 2002 graduate of Harvard College and a 2005 graduate of Harvard Law School. His research focuses on technology, privacy, speech, and gay rights. Ari will be writing weekly posts on law and various LGBT issues. 

Follow Ari on Twitter at @ariezrawaldman.

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  1. Very interesting and intelligent piece.

    Posted by: Perry | Aug 13, 2012 11:15:06 AM

  2. I see a lot of wishful thinking in that analysis. The truth of the matter is that most people are pretty apathetic about gay rights, in general. Gay people themselves care a great deal about the issue and a small group of Evangelicals feels equally strong about opposing them, but most of the population is ambivalent.

    We have very few strong supporters, regardless of what the opinion polls show....and that is because, as I have pointed out time and again, this is more of a cultural issue than it is a political issue.....and the ambivalence about it has to do with questions of how men, in particular, order their personal social and emotional lives.

    I do not believe that once the entire gay legislative agenda is realized that it will make much difference at all in terms of how much homophobia gay people face in everyday life. In a way, in fact, once "rights" have been obtained, there is the danger that people will conclude that the issue has been resolved.....even as a fundamentally homophobic culture remains in place.

    And the only way that homophobic culture will be fundamentally changed is by liberating ALL men from their emotional, social, and sexual dependence on women and creating an entirely new male culture that emcompasses homosexuality and bisexuality as part of that new paradigm, while keeping the other defining features of masculinity in place.

    And no amount of legislating is ever going to accomplish that.

    Posted by: Rick | Aug 13, 2012 11:18:35 AM

  3. I agree with everything in the article. However, we must not forget that the GOP will be for quite some time 100% anti-gay.

    That doesn't mean that every member is anti-gay. We have many supporters. But the party as a whole is anti-gay, and will their leadership must support that. Therefore, there will be no votes on our issues in congress, as their leaders will make sure those votes never come up. A GOP president will always veto any pro-gay legislation. They will continue to raise money for anti-gay causes, and will use homophobia to raise money.

    Just because their actions and thoughts are going underground doens't mean we can relax. It's getting better, but the moment the tide starts to reverse, they will immediately surface again.

    We still can't trust them. But the best we can hope for is that at some point in the future they will stop standing in the way of gay rights.

    Posted by: Randy | Aug 13, 2012 11:22:26 AM

  4. Please, stop calling Paul Ryan 'smart' and his proposals 'serious'. There is nothing smart or serious about the Ryan budget: when someone claims to be principally concerned with the deficit and yet believes that an important priority for public policy is to cut the tax rate for the wealthiest Americans still further, he is not 'smart' or 'serious' but rather an ideological shill for would-be plutocrats.

    Posted by: Caleb | Aug 13, 2012 11:24:30 AM

  5. Very well-written article as usual.

    One of the more salient points which comes out loud and clear is that "He is no friend to the gay community."

    While he may not exhibit any personal animus to the LGBT community, he is the furthest thing in the universe from an ally. His convenient tactic of deflection or changing the question with regard to this issue merely serve to highlight the above: HE IS NO FRIEND TO THE GAY COMMUNITY. Period. End of discussion.

    Whether or not such a reality translates into tangible results on the ground (as per Rick's comment above) remains to be seen.

    His youthfulness, sculpted abs, and non-confrontational approach may appeal and excite some. But, we should remember that, to the fish swimming in the river, that lure does look inviting and interesting .... with disastrous results.

    Posted by: Jim in Colo Spgs | Aug 13, 2012 11:26:09 AM

  6. Agree 100%. The fact of the matter is a far right or far left candidate can't win a national election, and the right and left [far right and far left] ideologs inside the main political parties are albatrosses around the party's necks. Expect a few bones to be thrown the way of the far right social conservatives in a Romney government, the same way Democratic governments throw the far left 'progressives' an occasional bone.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Aug 13, 2012 11:36:02 AM

  7. "...in fact, a great sign of our nation's progress on gay rights. "

    This is a fallacious labeling of the Ryan candidacy for VP and general description of the GOP and Far Right.

    Effectively Ari is saying that homophobia is better off going undercover. That the leaders not be easily identified.

    Ryan/Romney will veto any legislation that directly benefits the LGBT community or equality for LGBT, women and minorities.

    The public vacuum created by this undergrounding of homophobic leadership only opens the door for more vile vitriol from the extremists to take center stage.

    Ari is right that our tax and spending policies need open discussion instead of the knee-jerk GOP mandate to kill any Obama legislation (to make his a one term President).

    That does not equate to Ryan being a good thing (a positive sign) that the GOP is getting out of the homophobia business.

    It is not even remotely related to that concept.

    The Tea Party (New GOP) may cloak its hatred for the election, but in the unfortunate event they win the Presidency or gain more seats in either house, it will come back in gale winds force once the elections are over. If they loose any, most, or all of those seats it will become a battle cry to "fight the evil gays".

    Ari is a smart man, but sometimes his writings indicate a wishful thinking modality that really is dangerous to the LGBT community.

    Posted by: mikenola | Aug 13, 2012 11:38:25 AM

  8. Getting equal rights isn't about being liked Rick. Post Civil Rights, there is still rampant racism. Post feminist movement, there is rampant sexism as well. We will get equal rights and still be hated by millions of people, no doubt about it.

    Posted by: BEAHBEAH | Aug 13, 2012 11:46:53 AM

  9. While this is all good and fine, at the end of the day, regardless of my political views on finance reform, medicare, etc., they will always be trumped by my need for my friends, family and me to have equal rights.
    The GOP would be smart (but they're not) to embrace equality because I believe that there are a lot of LGBT folks who could switch parties (or at least vote based on other issues).
    Until then, almost all GLBT people are one-issue voters.

    Posted by: BJ | Aug 13, 2012 11:54:44 AM

  10. terrific piece.

    to anyone and everyone who wants to help advance real social change - stop hiding in the closet. come out. to everyone. yeah. everyone. your coworkers. your family. your extended family. your parent's friends. your community. your everyone.

    make the pressure real - let people know that a vote for the GOP is a vote against YOU as a human being. grow the spine necessary to win this fight.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Aug 13, 2012 11:59:23 AM

  11. "Until then, almost all GLBT people are one-issue voters."

    Not really. McCain got nearly 30% of the gay vote and I suspect that Romney will get more than that. And given that practically all lesbians are feminists and can therefore be assumed to vote for the Democrat--as are practically all non-white gays, it seems likely that McCain's percentage among white gay MEN was closer to 35% and that Romney's may, in fact, approach 40%

    Posted by: Rick | Aug 13, 2012 12:00:31 PM

  12. Mr Waldman, you forgot to trot out the old tired and untrue "both sides do it" trope. I don't find anything "smart" or particulary serious about Paul Ryan. Or anything out of the ordinary from any other remedial reading Ayn Rand knuckle dragger. It must be his smoking bod and devotion to P90X that's turned you head. You blew it this time.

    Posted by: KevinSF | Aug 13, 2012 12:12:36 PM

  13. In 2008, the Republicans nominated as their presidential candidate someone who opposed a federal anti-gay marriage amendment.

    In 2012, the Republicans nominated as their vice-presidential candidate someone who twice voted for a federal anti-gay marriage amendment and said he voted for his own state's anti-gay marriage amendment.

    And that's progress?

    Posted by: Mark | Aug 13, 2012 12:19:21 PM

  14. As usual I disagree with Mr. Waldman's apologist assessment. Ryan's career from the get go has been the newest GOP face for the same old bigotry (see Schock). There is no shift or backing away from "toxic" issues, these issues are still their bread and butter; there are just new code words to communicate with the base.

    Posted by: John | Aug 13, 2012 12:20:03 PM

  15. WOW!...what ever happened to..."the proof is in the pudding"

    Posted by: VDUFFORD | Aug 13, 2012 12:28:28 PM

  16. It's an exaggeration to say that Romney's selection of Ryan shows any particular progress in the Republican party just because Ryan happens to be more concerned with tax cuts for the rich (that would drive up the deficit he hates so much--his intelligence is overrated) than with his anti-gay positions. Unless we want to cheer: Yay, for covert homophobia! (They dislike us AND we're not worthy of their attention, woohoo!) They are, as a team, on record against every measure of gay rights progress, and, if they were elected, they would be beholden to their rightwing base to stay on that path even if they know they are ultimately on the losing side of history.

    A team in support of a constitutional amendment that would undo the legal marriages of same-sex couples and would put the fire back under the DOJ to defend DOMA is not encouraging. Fortunately, it's quite likely that Mitt (in his usual fashion) miscalculated with Ryan, whose fiscal views are hugely unpopular with all but the Tea Party set, and they already had the wingnut vote.

    Posted by: Ernie | Aug 13, 2012 12:33:45 PM

  17. I almost wish they would hang on to the anti-gay strategy...it was just starting to work to our advantage. But yes, the shift is now towards anti-union as the new state by state strategy (which is really an anti-education message in the sheep's clothing of an anti-tax message). Imagine the US of A as a third world country with really nice resort locations for the rich and powerful. The working poor in what will become affordable domestic corporate factories and the very rich living their golden years basking in the sun on resorts that no one else can afford to use. That is what the corporate loving politicians want. Because they will be the last ones in the US of A with pensions and free healthcare (THEY would never vote against their own best interests). So they, too, will bask in the sun on resorts with the very rich in their waning years. These politicians have tied their personal interests so tightly to the corporate purse strings that even I am left wondering if most of those on the Democratic side of the aisle aren't also so similarly tied. I do believe some of our elected officials start out with the good of the people in mind...at least the non-republican sorts. But the seduction of money and power leads to political blindness and ultimately corruption.

    Now we have the right wing coporatists continuing their assault on the general public by systematically feeding them messages of how horrible not only taxes are, but how horrible unions are for demanding "high" pay and pensions for public sector workers, which then, of course, results in "high" taxes. It's a message that is becoming so well ingrained in the public psyche that people will literally vote against their own best interests because they are either too easily led astray or too lazy to do their own research. What are their own best interests? Well, a free quality public education so that their kids and grand kids can also find work and maintain a decent healthy standard of living and contribute to the standard of living of our FREE society. Not interested? How about having a well maintained system of streets and highways (don't let the chuck holes fool you, our roads need work but they are far superior to those in a third world country). Don't care about that either? How about when you're old and need assistance? No more social security or medicare, even though you've paid into them your entire working lifetime? Still don't care? Then, probably no one will care about you or your comfort in your last years on this earth. The privatizing of all of these and other "public services" will result in third world living conditions. There will be the HAVES and the HAVE NOTS. There will NOT be a middle class. This will happen because people are generally VERY short sighted (of course there are exceptions, duh, but not enough of a voting block). It's a known fact that people generally tend to focus on the here and now and have much difficulty thinking about or planning for the future. Having worked in finance for over 20 years, the most common issue I see is buy now on credit because I want it now and I don't have the ready cash. Even when put on a plan, people don't save easily, especially in the last 30 years. Couple that way of thinking with the indoctrination of "NO" or low taxes, which is so insidious, that the remaining members of the middle class are willing to vote against their long term best interests to "save" a few bucks now on taxes. They do this not knowing or somehow not believing that they're giving away their future security to line the pockets of corporate thieves.

    So why do these money grubbing corporatists align themselves with the religious right wing nuts? Don't the churches minister to the people after all? Well religious institutions are the best way to get the biggest cache of resources, of course! Corporatists think in terms of resources and, in particular, how to exploit resources to line their own pockets. Religious institutions are a very, very, very large source of voters in a captive audience. For one thing, they congregate weekly to hear messages (purportedly from God, but that's another rant for another day). Why not plant a message of corporate interest in the minds of so many voters all at once. Just start giving donations to churches, etc. and tell them how much you agree with their "holier than thou" messages and while scratching their backs plant the message of how many more sheep will flock to them if they scratch the corporates' backs. And so the unholy alliance of money grubbing corporatists and religious wing nuts was born. Then when the younger generation grew up and began to question the validity of anti-gay stances, the corporatists moved on to their main agenda. Anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women, etc. messages were just the BAIT to hook a huge voting block. The main goal is and always has been accumulation of money and thus power. The religious right wing nuts are just a means to an end. It's the corporatists and their politician puppets that will attempt to undermine society as we know it, knew it, and hoped it would become. My hope is that the general public will get their collective heads out of the sand and come together to say no to being brainwashed by these messages. Pay attention to the history of mankind. It's always been about power (money being the symbol). Those who threaten the power base are the enemy...especially if they are "different" than those who see themselves as the ones in power. In the US of A, being a person of color, a woman, a homosexual, a financially poor person, an old person, a disabled person, a person of not the predominant faith (or similar in faith)etc. is a threat to the power base if allowed to combine their numbers. So divide and conquer. Pit one against the other and ALWAYS keep your eye on the power (i.e. the money).

    Posted by: TheWeyrd1 | Aug 13, 2012 12:34:41 PM

  18. Self hating = voting for the 2party system.

    Why Is Gay Media Ignoring Alternative Political Parties?

    Why Is LGBTI Media Ignoring Alternative Political Parties?

    Posted by: Jeff 4 Justice | Aug 13, 2012 12:43:00 PM

  19. Where do you see progress? That they are now hiding their anti-gay agenda? That's not progress, that's subterfuge.

    Paul Ryan is a Koch-Republican. That's all. Cut social programs, give tax breaks to the rich, and let everyone else fend for themselves. He will be VERY easy to demonize because he makes it so easy, no matter how charming he is. Remember how "charming" Sarah Palin was to a lot of people. Ryan certainly has far more substance and is a lot smarter than Sarah but he's twice as polarizing because unlike Sarah, he's put out the a plan with him name on it...and it's toxic to groups the Republicans need...the elderly, Latinos, independents.

    But the Republican party is not progressing. I believe they are actually regressing...thus making their party smaller and smaller (and richer and richer. They win not on issues but because they can throw FAR more money at elections, big and small, and mischaracterize, lie, and cheat better and have no problem swiftboating anyone. Bottom line, Republicans are more willing to do anything to win. And sadly, many Americans aren't smart enough to vote in their own economic interests...they vote against them because of social issues, usually which they are ignorant about also, or they are confused.

    But we'll see once the masterbatory period of naming a running mate is over whether Paul Ryan is "all that." I think he's going to be a premature ejaculation and more of a deficit to Romney (it's that's possible considering who he is...) than the Republicans think.

    Posted by: Bart | Aug 13, 2012 12:46:03 PM

  20. Its not progress in the Republican Party (though I think there is some, very slow, very small progress there). It is progress in the social zeitgeist, in general, that is forcing the party to try to hide its social conservatism.

    Posted by: Ari Ezra Waldman | Aug 13, 2012 12:52:37 PM

  21. This whole piece was a bunch of reaching wishful thinking. It's really very simple: if social conservatism were shifting towards gay acceptance, Romney would have picked a gay-friendly running mate...or at least one who doesn't have a history of being "no friend to the gay community." Sounds like the author was trying his best to undermine the situation so that he could twist it into meaning something that it doesn't.

    Posted by: Biting Truth | Aug 13, 2012 1:01:55 PM

  22. "innate intellectual talents"
    I think that's stretching it. Compared to the average House Republican, he is considered an intellectual because he knows how to speak in complete sentences.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 1:05:02 PM

  23. All I know is that if Obama wins a second term, I promise you that in 2016-17, a Republican WILL take office and the country WILL swing very far right. After Reagen/Bush, the country swung far left with Clinton...after Clinton, the country swung far right with Bush. After Bush, the country swung left for Obama.

    Whenever a party stays in the white house for an extended period of time, the social climate becomes vulnerable to being won over by the polar opposite and from there swings to the other side

    Posted by: Sabian | Aug 13, 2012 1:11:47 PM

  24. BTW the pushback from MikeNola, Bart and others on this piece is totally appropriate. To argue that hiding the issue represents some form of progress is naive. They are only avoiding it for the political capital of seeming undistracted, they are just as homophobic as ever; in fact it should be glaringly obvious that the Romney/Ryan ticket has two more homophobic personalities than Bush/Cheney did. Romney because he's a Mormon who's carefully conceal his anti-gay animus in the past to be elected governor of the most liberal state, and Ryan because he doesn't have a lesbian daughter. Yes, they want to destroy the middle class just as much as Bush/Cheney did, but they almost certainly hate gay people even more.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 1:14:39 PM

  25. This isn't a step forward for the Republican party or for the country as a whole. This was a carefully chosen candidate who doesn't spout off soundbites like Bachmann or Santorum, but reassures the bigots in the party that the RNC still has their back. They've ensured that Mitt will never have to say anything to secure the base by placing Ryan in the background to wink at them silently.

    Posted by: Michael | Aug 13, 2012 1:17:53 PM

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