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. Little Kiwi and Ratbastard sitting in a tree: K I S S I N G! What a beautiful picture. They are so perfect together.

    Posted by: andrew | Aug 13, 2012 9:17:19 PM

  2. Romney choosing Ryan has nothing to do with a shift in the cultural or social zeitgeist. Ryan is attractive, young, and somewhat articulate. He is even-tempered but warm enough to appeal on the campaign trail. He is the anti-Biden, and to a truly undecided moderate, especially one who is young or naive, he'll be very appealing. Just think about the result of the Nixon/Kennedy televised debate and you'll get the idea.

    Using the under-card choice for a Republican ticket to argue that the Party is being forced to come to terms with a new social paradigm is, at best, grasping. It assumes a new social paradigm without any clear evidence. How many states allow gay marriage? How many allow gay adoption? How many have seen pro-traditional marriage referendums defeated? How many judges have been re-elected after a pro-gay rights ruling? How many Supreme Court justices are definitely in our favor on a potential DOMA case (last I counted, four)? And, most importantly for the short term, how many elected officials have successfully run in a swing state and been re-elected with a pro-gay platform?

    The Republicans are not running scared. Why should they? The right has proved through ballot initiatives that their social conservative mobilization tactics work, just as they did with Rove and Bush. Republicans win by aligning social conservatism with either fiscal or foreign policy conservatism. They've already locked in the social component--a group even more galvanized by events of recent weeks (thanks to out own stupidity, frankly). Foreign policy is a non-issue this election, as evidenced by the lack of impact from Romney's overseas journey. Ryan appeals to the fiscal conservative and is a pretty face with a good, alliterative surname. He's an offensive tactical choice, nothing more.

    Posted by: Stefan | Aug 13, 2012 9:21:09 PM

  3. @Ari-

    I find your political analysis plausible but far less persuasive than your legal analysis. I find considerable relief, but no hope, in the prospect that the Republican Party will no longer insult us to our face.

    The choice of Ryan does bring fiscal policy front and center in this election. I think that's a discussion that the American people need to have because Congress has refused to have it, both sides are wrong, and the traditional path of splitting the difference might be equally disastrous.

    That said, I repair to the Roman maxim: Fiat justitia ruat caelum. Or as my Progressive colleagues might put it: No justice, no peace. Let the debates go on, let the public be educated, but I'm voting for Obama this time.

    Posted by: Rich | Aug 13, 2012 10:44:13 PM

  4. Romney-Ryan vs Obama-Biden in November. This election offers America a clear choice between conservative and liberal ideologies. Lets see who wins. I intend to vote for the liberals. However, I have a poor history for picking winners. I voted for: Presidents Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry and Gore.

    Posted by: andrew | Aug 13, 2012 10:52:07 PM

  5. Nothing will "propel" Obama into The White House" but he can be propelled out. Lot of words here. They say a picture is worthh a thousand words. What happened to this marriage advocate? If Anderson Cooper plans to wed his "fiance" on Labor Day, why these pictures? You tell me. This post is too much - but not for a real publication.


    Posted by: Josh | Aug 13, 2012 11:10:42 PM

  6. No, I don't buy your argument. Ryans fiscal ideas are far to the right of previous Republican administrations, including Reagan, and Bush I & II. And while he may seem a relief from the gay bashing we have grown used to just lately, the gay bashing 'norm' is itself relatively new- they didn't used to talk about us at all, nor pander to the fundies in general. But there a lot more fundies than there used to be, and they are more politically militant.The ascendancy of the christian right in shaping the Republican National agenda is, historically speaking, new and growing . One VP candidate, (who is on record agreeing with the christian agenda - as all now must )- but just not foregrounding it, isn't going to change that. Especially since they'll probably lose. Prompting a reassessment, and realization that "we hate fags" worked better than "we are the 1%."

    So no, the hard right turn in the national political discourse, both economically and socially, which is the longer-term historical trend here, is not good news for gay Americans.

    Posted by: Hank | Aug 13, 2012 11:20:02 PM


    Posted by: Josh | Aug 14, 2012 2:32:51 AM

  8. This argument is not convincing. In the first place, Republicans ALWAYS say that they are only interested in fiscal responsibility, but the first thing they do is legislate against abortion and gay rights and come up with giveaways to parochial schools. They have been doing this bait and switch for a long time but most obviously in the 2008 and 2010 elections.

    As to whether Ryan himself disavows anti-gay rhetoric, let's wait to see what he says when he appears at the Family Research Council. I suspect he'll give them some red meat.

    Posted by: Jay | Aug 14, 2012 9:52:11 AM

  9. I have read that Hitler was charming in a social setting...wonder how Ryan would look in a small moustache?

    Posted by: chuck | Aug 14, 2012 11:02:56 AM

  10. How pathetic that you find progress in these scraps. Get some balls man.

    Posted by: Chitownguy | Aug 14, 2012 7:12:55 PM

  11. Hiding is not the same as changing. It's not a shift if all the GOP is doing is burying their bigotry.

    Posted by: Jerry Weinstein | Aug 14, 2012 8:01:11 PM

  12. That is the most ridiculous article I have read in quite a while. The sound made by the stretching of logic was loud enough to wake the neighbors... Any vote for these clowns is a vote for insanity and death.

    Posted by: jeff | Aug 14, 2012 11:48:15 PM

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

    One of the grand old men of the (African-American) Civil Rights movement was once asked if he missed anything from the time of segregation. He answered that he did. In those days you knew who your friends were, unlike now when the racists were underground.

    Posted by: Diogenes Arktos | Aug 15, 2012 10:00:01 AM

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