The Surprising Role of Republicans in the Year of Gay Rights

This past year has seen a remarkable shift when it comes to gay rights. From repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell to New York's legalization of same-sex marriage, America is finally embracing equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation. Surprisingly, Republicans have played a vital role in this transformation.

Gay rights began to reach a tipping point in August of 2010. That was when a federal judge named Vaughn Walker ruled that California's ban on same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit was brought by an all-star legal team that included Ted Olson, the Republican lawyer who helped George W. Bush secure a victory in the contested 2000 election. Walker, who was nominated to the federal bench by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, issued a careful and exhaustive opinion that brilliantly skewered the misguided reasoning behind the case against gay marriage. His analysis brought renewed attention to marriage equality and further fueled the gay rights movement.

Walker's ruling also gave new life to the effort to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell--the military policy requiring the expulsion from the armed services of any openly gay man or lesbian woman. Even though Republicans regained the majority in the House of Representatives in the November 2010 elections, President Obama was able to ride the momentum of Walker's ruling to push repeal through. A slew of Republicans sided with a unified Democratic caucus to end this longstanding form of discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Gay rights then received another boost in February of this year, when President Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, issued a historic letter announcing that the administration would no longer defend key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) - the federal law that bars recognition by the national government of same-sex marriages. The impact of the Holder letter is likely to be felt well beyond the DOMA because it calls into question the legitimacy of all laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

While Republicans can take no credit for Holder's letter--indeed, the party's leaders in the House decided to step in and defend the law in Obama's absence--twenty bankruptcy judges, including several with Republican backgrounds, signed an unusual court opinion two weeks ago that relied on the Holder letter to hold that a lawfully married gay couple can file jointly for bankruptcy. Provisions of the DOMA that prohibited such a joint filing, the judges declared, were unconstitutional.

Last Friday, the Republican-controlled legislature in New York allowed a vote on a bill to allow gay marriage. Once again, several key Republicans sided with the Democrats to enact this landmark legislation. News reports suggest that Republicans with Wall Street ties helped convince uncertain legislators to vote for the freedom to marry.

Meanwhile, popular support for gay marriage has expanded beyond the traditional confines of the Democratic Party. Recent polls indicate that marriage equality has the support of over 50% of the population, with gains among both independents and Republicans.

Of course, no one should give all or even most of the credit for such important developments to the Republican Party, which remains the home of gay rights opponents. Still, many of the changes of the past year would not have been possible had only Democrats supported them. Moreover, for these advances in gay rights to last, they need bipartisan backing. We're just beginning to see that happen, thanks to a handful of courageous Republicans who see that discrimination against gays and lesbians violates core American values of equality, dignity, and individual liberty.

The law is changing rapidly, but the transformation is anything but radical. Rather, members of both parties are finally coming to realize that ending discrimination against gays and lesbians reaffirms the promise of America. It is only through altering how the law treats LGBT people that we can uphold the principles at the very heart of American democracy.