Joe Baranco, 32, an intensive care nurse in Austin, Texas, is in contortions over gay rights. Government backs the institution of straight marriage with tax breaks because it has a stabilising force on society. “But I am not sure yet that gay married couples offer that,” Mr Baranco said. Neither is he clear that overdue legislation the US Senate seems poised to pass protecting gays, bisexuals and transgender people from workplace discrimination is sensible.
It’s not that Mr Baranco is against either thing. His problem is that while he is gay himself, he is also a conservative Republican – a tricky spot. If Democrats are now in the swim in the fast-running rapids of homosexual rights in America, Republicans are only just dipping in their toes.
The number of states now allowing gay marriage has doubled in one year to 14. Illinois passed a same-sex marriage law on Tuesday; that will make 15. This spring, the Supreme Court overturned the Defence of Marriage Act ensuring federal recognition of same-sex couples tying the knot. And then there is what happened in a Senate cloakroom on Monday as Democrats pushed for passage – at last – of the workplace-protection law known as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, or Enda. To avert a possible filibuster and ensure members could even debate the thing, Democrats needed 60 yes votes and thus the support of at least seven Republicans. Even as voting started they were short, but Jeffrey Merkley, its main sponsor, had three GOP waverers captive in said facility. He harangued and cajoled until one by one, including Rob Portman of Ohio, they gave in and the bill was spared.
Last year, before Mr Portman was briefly in the frame as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney, he broke with party orthodoxy and declared himself in favour of same-sex marriage. He did so after his son came out. That presumably taught him a few other things – that Congress, and Republicans especially, are way behind the rest of the country on all this and that being gay isn’t even that exotic any more. It’s a non-issue.
That was the point made also by Michael Michaud, a Democrat Congressman from conservative northern Maine who is running for governor next year, when he moved this week to silence foes gossiping that he may be gay. “Allow me to save them the trouble with a simple, honest answer: ‘Yes, I am but why should it matter?’” he wrote in a column. The consensus is that this will have helped him towards becoming America’s first openly gay governor.
Republicans are scared of being punished at re-election time by the Tea Party right. Maybe they shouldn’t be. In Tuesday’s off-year elections, a viciously anti-gay Tea Party candidate for Congress in Alabama, Dean Young, lost to the choice of the GOP establishment, Bradley Byrne. Republican Chris Christie won a second term as New Jersey governor one week after ending his opposition to gay marriage in his state. It was a fine night for liberals too: Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governorship; Bill de Blasio is to be New York’s first Democrat mayor in 20 years.
If, as expected, the Senate passes Enda this week, it may yet be killed off by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. But what happened in that marble-clad toilet is nonetheless remarkable. The Republican wall of resistance has cracked open. And a subsequent warning shot from a spokesman for John Boehner, the Republican House Speaker, evincing opposition to Enda was notable for not deploying the usual moralism. For most of the last decade anti-gay language has profited Republicans. No more. Even Texas, which eight years ago changed its constitution to prevent it ever recognising same-sex marriage, is suddenly in a mess. Before the justices of its state Supreme Court in Austin – conservatives all – is a case bought by a lesbian couple who were married legally in Massachusetts but now live here. And they want to get divorced here. What to do?
When it was suggested to Mr Baranco that maybe he just thinks too much, he replied: “You are not the first person to tell me that.” The message might be the same for Republicans in Washington. Join Senator Portman and his six colleagues who crossed the aisle this week. Let go of that branch.