The Gay Shift

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A post last week on Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s new support for civil unions precipitated a history lesson of sorts from advisers to former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.  I wrote that Romney

".... was blasted as a false convert to the "pro-marriage" side for appearing to switch his position from favoring civil unions to opposing them. Romney said he supported neither arrangement for gays but preferred civil unions if he had to choose; he was pushed into weighing in on the issue because of his state's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage during his term."

It's tough to be a Republican presidential candidate and try to handle the gay issue.  Romney was caught in a trap of sorts.It's true that he never unambiguously supported civil unions;  he  ran for governor opposing both gay marriage and civil unions while favoring domestic partnership agreements.

Civil unions were a term of art used to refer to the arrangements that Vermont's legislature had made to comply with a state supreme court decision of their own); the implication, though, was what Romney's "domestic partnership" support was equivalent to a the support of civil unions, at least as a concept.

In 2003, Massachusetts's Supreme Judicial Court legalized gay marriage. Romney fought to pass a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman. That amendment lost. A competing amendment defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman but also permitting civil union came up for consideration and the governor's office supported it -- relucantly.

Why? Romney aides that it was their only option at that point, and that they needed a positive vote that we could take to the court in order to seek a stay of the SJC's ruling until the constitutional amendment process played itself out.

The hybrid amendment passed but the court strategy failed.

What Romney did next was tio drop his support for the hybrid amendment and join an effort to get a pure "one man/one woman" amendment back before the Legislature.

It required a citizen signature drive, and Romney were successful in doing that, and got it through its first "yes" vote in the legislature (it needs two "yes" votes by the legislature meeting in constitutional convention before it can be voted on by the people).

At that point, Romney left office. When Deval Patrick came in, he successfully urged a "no" on the second vote and the amendment died.

Precisely because it's a complicated legal and legislative process, Romney's foes have distorted the facts to claim he "supported" civil unions. Viewed in context of what actually happened, it's more complicated.

In defense of Romney and others, though, the terrain on gay rights has been shifting so fast that most politicians in the middle have been caught out in the cold -- both moderate Republicans who find their "progressiveness" on gay issues is no longer so compelling to LGBT voters, and moderate Democrats who find themselves on the wrong side of a signal civil rights issue.  

(To that end, Obama will be probably be the last Democratic presidential nominee to oppose same-sex marriage.)

Romney's tone on gay rights changed, as his friends and even members of his family would come to notice.  Early on, he didn't have a problem associating himself with gay equality, in part because he faced no pressure from social conservatives.  One that pressure was felt, he tried to balance surface calls for tolerance with his new crowd's outright opposition to homosexuality itself.

Of all the potential 2012 candidates, Huntsman and Gov. Sarah Palin are closest to where the public is. Romney's next.

Of course, it seems quaint now, but in pre-gay marriage Massachusetts, the idea of granting reciprocal rights to same-sex couples was considered progressive for a Republican. Later, the issue of marriage equality became the sine qua non of the gay rights movement -- thanks largely to the Massachusetts Goodrich decision.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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