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. oops...meant "concealed". I'm running out of commenting energy.

    Sabian, I sure hope you're just being naive. The Supreme Court is due for another cycle of turnovers that will lock its course for 20 years. That will happen in the next 4 years, not in the next 8. Romney will appoint a bunch of ultra-conservatives and Mormons who will set gay rights back so fast your head will be spinning. Trust me on this...I'd bet my life and the life of everyone dear to me.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 1:18:03 PM

  2. Things to say goodbye to if Romney is elected:
    marriage in any of the states including Massachusetts
    repeal of DADT
    any non-discrimination laws
    Lawrence vs. Texas

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 1:20:45 PM

  3. Whenever gays talk about Romney, and now Ryan, I hear Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" playing in the background.

    Unlike Obama, Romney has NOT played the gay (pro or anti) card during this election season in an attempt to pander to gays, their supporters...or dissenters. His focus has been on *other* issues -- yet the gay community acts as though he's Fred Phelps with a picket sign, because they're still experiencing afterglow from Obama's tacky little endorsement of gay marriage...and...perhaps, because they're annoyed by Romney's general avoidance/apathy of the topic of gays.

    Get over yourself, he's just not that into you.

    Posted by: Ren | Aug 13, 2012 1:24:04 PM

  4. @Biting Truth: thank you for your comment, but you are missing the point. my argument is NOT that social conservatives are becoming more gay friendly, tolerant, or accepting of gays. its that most of the rest of society is, forcing social conservatives (and any conservative who wants to win an election) to hide social conservatism to win.

    Posted by: Ari Ezra Waldman | Aug 13, 2012 1:25:46 PM

  5. Ari Waldman has great sympathy for Dharun Ravi and coddles people who expose gay men to HIV without disclosing their status. It seems that Ari and Paul Ryan both have a problem when it comes to respecting gay people.

    Posted by: Tam | Aug 13, 2012 1:33:48 PM

  6. Speculating that a Randroid will some how be good for Gay rights is astonishingly stupid. With very few exceptions the Republican party is extremely homophobic and has consistently become more right wing and backward. All the moderates such as the ones who voted for civil rights in 1964 have died or left or been defeated in primaries. I know that from my reading and I am not American. That a percentage of Gay men vote GOP in the expectation of paying less tax is obvious; just as some percentage of Gay men do the same in european countries when they vote for right wing parties. But don't delude people about what you will get when you do. If tax cuts are more important to you then human rights your priorities are wrong.

    Posted by: Keith | Aug 13, 2012 1:33:48 PM

  7. Wishful thinking is right. If these two men have their way, the vaster wealth of this country now spent - and righty so - on social services will be given to the Wall Street speculators. It will be the biggest transfer of wealth in the history of our country. To think of this as progress is utter madness.

    Posted by: Daniel | Aug 13, 2012 1:38:56 PM

  8. When was the last time any Republican candidate (and this includes Reagen, Bush and Bush II) blatantly bullied or made bashing the gay community a campaign focal point...during election season, or otherwise?

    They usually either ignore issues pertaining to gays, or they address them very quickly in a distant, "politician"-sort of way.

    Dubya made it clear that he thought marriage was one man/one woman, and would seek to ensure that it stayed that way. Romney has basically said the same thing. I don't see how Romney is behaving any different from him in that regard.

    Plenty of Republican politicians have been, and are, obviously callous when it comes to equality for gay people...but no presidential candidate is going to go out of his way to slander or pick fights with ANY demographic (gays or otherwise) during election season. Not even if they aren't his voting base.

    I think we're reading too much into this.

    Posted by: Anthony | Aug 13, 2012 1:45:35 PM

  9. REN-
    What does that stand for, Republican Entertainment Network? Is that their army of paid trolls?

    Romney's "apathy of the topic of gays"? Romney donated 10K to a Prop 8 PAC, trying to keep it a secret. Trust me, he and his religion absolutely despise gays. Definitely more than American Catholics do, as a whole.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 1:51:25 PM

  10. "With very few exceptions the Republican party is extremely homophobic and has consistently become more right wing and backward."
    Yes, exactly. This is what people comically don't understand. If Nixon were around today, they'd be kicking him out of the party for being too liberal!

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 1:53:41 PM

  11. Prof. Waldman's point is correct. Among the youngest generation of the GOP, with the exception of fundie evangelicals, there is a slow, grudging change. At the very least they don't fulminate about LGBT issues any longer, unlike their elders. It is about the cultural zeitgeist changing.

    Sad to see the usual trolls and obsessives here with their one track minds and their hobby-horse issues ("Everyone come out of the closet even though I don't know your situation"-screamed from Canada not Alabama or Tennessee natch and "It's all the fault of fem gays and women" from the usual suspect). Well at least Towleroad allows them space to obsess with minimal harm to others, sort of like right-wingnut blogs.

    Posted by: Contrarian | Aug 13, 2012 1:56:47 PM

  12. "It is about the cultural zeitgeist changing."
    Where do you live Contrarian? If it's a place like DC I can well imagine you encounter young Republicans who make a point of not seeming anti-gay. Believe me out there in the hinterlands, there is just as much anti-gay "fulmination" among those who brand themselves "young conservatives" as ever. Fortunately, this hardcore group has never been the majority of youth, but it's there. Go spend an hour on twitter in tea party land. It will be eye opening for you.

    Another reason Repubs don't discuss gay issues is - sorry to blow everyone's bubble - that they consider it a contemptible thing even to bring up. They still see it as unseemly. I'll never forget a conservation I had with a guy who considered himself a young, socially moderate Republican. He was an IT consultant in DC working with me on a project for several months. At some point I casually mentioned that the father of a high school friend had turned out to be gay. That's all I said. He went beet red and hissed "don't say that word" as if I'd just said c-nt in a board meeting or something. Again we all need to wake up smell the coffee that America is still a very homophobic culture...slowly improving, but the Democratic party is improving about 20X faster that the Republicans.

    Posted by: EchtKultig | Aug 13, 2012 2:05:03 PM

  13. Contrarian, it's not my fault you don't have the orbs to put a face to your comments.

    You're more than free to live a closeted cowardly existence. But kindly understand that it's those of us that don't that are making real changes in the world.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Aug 13, 2012 2:12:09 PM

  14. There is nothing "affable" about Paul Ryan. He is a sociopath.

    LGBTs are but one of the communities he hates and wishes to destroy. His election would mean Medicare and Social Secuirty ould be replaced with DEATH PANELS.

    It's time the LGBT community ally itself with seniors overall, and the many others Mittens and Ryan seek to destroy.


    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Aug 13, 2012 2:25:08 PM

  15. Ehrenstein, what you're asking is for people to grow spines and work against societal wrongs.

    It's noble, and you're utterly correct, but as we both know very well there are still simply a lot of sad-sack wimps in the gay community who will crawl on their bellies to lick the dogs**t off the boots of the bully rather than defy them.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Aug 13, 2012 2:31:47 PM

  16. "innate intellectual talents".
    Most politicians know to play politics if it is one of his talents. If he can memorise a few numbers, then we can say he has the talent of an accountant. But there is nothing intellectual about it.

    Posted by: simon | Aug 13, 2012 2:32:11 PM

  17. @ ARI - a thoughtful and well-written piece as always. However, I disagree in the end: I truly do NOT think they realize that anti-gay is losing, they just need the most charming messenger.

    This is why to me, Mike Huckabee is more dangerous than Palin or Santorum, because he speaks anti-gay hatred so affably, and articulately, he can even charm Jon Stewart and The View.

    DAVID EHRENSTEIN is right -- Ryan is a sociopath. Ryan is exactly as extreme as Santorum, but he is as wholesome-seeming as Huckabee, and comes off as not being rabidly batshit-crazy like Santorum.

    The Democrats better play HARD! Get those "Ryan hates semniors" ads out NOW!

    Posted by: Strepsi | Aug 13, 2012 2:46:40 PM

  18. @BEAH BEAH,

    Yes, there will always be people with biases, people who will dislike or hate gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered, women, men, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindi, Atheist, Agnostics, white people, black people, Hispanics, Asians, mixed race, etc., etc., Aside from some kind of Nazi-like Final Solution, this is the way it'll remain. You can pass all the PC laws you want, force employees to attend 'diversity' training all you want, won't do anything except help a few 'professionals' and 'experts' make a good living, and p*ss most everybody else off.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Aug 13, 2012 3:05:14 PM

  19. just because your own piece-of-sh*t family never accepted you, ratty, doesn't mean that others aren't capable of change and understanding.

    Posted by: LittleKiwi | Aug 13, 2012 3:10:43 PM

  20. @David Ehrenstein,

    A sociopath? Perhaps. I tend to believe anyone who reaches such a high political office as president, vice president [and top corporate execs] display classic sociopathic tenancies, and create sociopathic work environments. Sociopaths are often right at home among hardcore ideologs also. Has anyone ever accused you of being a sociopath or psychopath?

    Posted by: ratbastard | Aug 13, 2012 3:10:56 PM

  21. @Lil' Canadian,

    You're clueless.

    Posted by: ratbastard | Aug 13, 2012 3:22:47 PM

  22. Ratbastard, why do you consider being Canadian an insult?

    Posted by: MateoM | Aug 13, 2012 3:55:00 PM

  23. I agree that the Republican party is recognizing that using gay rights as a wedge issue is only damaging. However, they continue to vote anti-gay. They can't be as forthright as they were, but they still are as anti-gay as ever. It's just now they don't want the repercussions from being anti-gay. They want to stay anti-gay, but they don't want to suffer the consequences of being anti-gay. Which is nothing but pure Cognitive Dissonance.

    They look ridiculous, truthfully, and they need to just go ahead and fold their anti-gay views, because if they don't, they'll suffer the repercussions of BEING anti-gay, as opposed to just TALKING about it. In other words, they'll make themselves extinct.

    Posted by: Matt | Aug 13, 2012 4:26:02 PM

  24. @Ari: Most of us understood what you were saying, that you weren't claiming a shift in the anti-gay mainstream values of the Republican party but rather a shift in the zeitgeist that is making them less openly homophobic. But we question whether that's truly progress since they're not so much hiding their views as dismissing the importance of equal rights altogether. Ignore you to your face, vote against your rights in the ballot box mentality. Dubious progress at best, and the choice of Ryan--whose open record is anything but moderate on social issues--signals that Mitt wasn't afraid to pick a known social extremist, albeit one who isn't only about social issues.

    In the long term the Republicans will have to start openly making concessions to the emerging pro-gay reality, but in the short term what their covert homophobia does is make them out to be reasonable when they couldn't be much more anti-gay and, if anything, that's a warning sign, rather than a sign of progress.

    Ultimately, though, I'm glad Ryan was the choice since on the non-social issues that matter most to centrists and the middle class and seniors, his views are also radical. Unlike with Palin, he's got real ideas, but it's not only the left who thinks they're lousy.

    Posted by: Ernie | Aug 13, 2012 4:54:54 PM

  25. Rommney must realized that the rabid anti-gay vote is a minority and in order to win they must attract independent voters. Ryan seems like a safe choice .

    Posted by: jaragon | Aug 13, 2012 6:28:06 PM

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