How Politicians Have Shifted With Polls on Gay Rights

PHOTO: Ray Durand, left, and Dale Shields kiss while having their picture taken after their wedding ceremony at the Manhattan City Clerks office in New York, July 24, 2011.
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Like America, politicians have evolved on gay rights since the 1990s.

Some -- like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who as a college student in 1992 admitted to how he once "hated gays" -- did their evolving earlier than others.

And some -- like Chuck Hagel, who will have to answer questions about his late-1990s comments about gays in the military -- had a lot more evolving to do.

But both men have moved with their country.

Acceptance of lesbians and gays has changed a lot in the past quarter of a century and the pace has quickened in recent years.

They can serve openly in the military and get married in 9 states and the District of Columbia, and a majority of Americans now supports the right of same-sex couples to marry.

A column Cory Booker wrote at the Stanford Daily while he was a student has brought headlines this week because of how it says he originally "hated gays." In the piece, which the paper re-posted this week, Booker described a gay counselor who shared with him his struggles. Booker wrote of how it struck him as similar to his black grandparents' fight for tolerance. The experience, he said, changed his attitudes on homosexuality.

"Allow me to be more direct, escaping the euphemisms of my past -- I hated gays," Booker wrote. "The disgust and latent hostility I felt toward gays were subcategories of hatred, plain and simple. While hate is a four-letter word I never would have admitted to, the sentiment clandestinely pervaded my every interaction with homosexuals. I sheepishly shook hands with gays or completely shied away from physical contact."

The column is now 20 years old, and Booker says his attitudes are very different now. A year ago he gave a strongly-worded defense of same-sex marriage in a press conference in Newark, telling reporters, "We've created a second-class citizenship in our state." He has just announced a run for U.S. Senate.

"We have two types of citizens right now in our state: citizens like me, who, if I choose to marry somebody, I can marry somebody from a different country and they have a right to United States citizenship. I talked to somebody last night, his spouse is looking to be deported," Booker said in January 2012, according to video of the press conference. "I will be fundamentally in the fiber of my being supportive of equal citizenship for all people in this country because I know, at the end of the day, I would not be here, my family would not be able to put food on the table for me, if it wasn't for that ideal in America."

Booker's change of heart mimics those of numerous high-profile politicians and other Americans on the topic of gay rights and same-sex marriage. Recent polling shows just how much the country has changed on the topic. An ABC News-Washington Post poll in November showed that 51 percent of Americans support gay marriage, up sharply from 32 percent in mid-2004.

Brian Ellner led the successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in New York and said, "This is a movement about changing hearts and minds."

"We've seen incredibly swift movement in polling in terms of support for equality for lesbian and gay families in every demographic: younger Americans, older Americans, rural, urban, every ethnic group and across all religions," Ellner said. "It's been dramatic and every possible trend line goes into the right direction, which is for full equality."

President Obama's choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, got into some hot water for past statements he made when it was revealed he called James Hormel, who was trying to win confirmation as the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg in 1998, "openly, aggressively gay." It's language that raises eyebrows now, but then it was accepted. Only in 2012 has Hagel, eager to be confirmed himself, apologized and said his views had changed on the issue of gay rights.

Rev. Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Georgia ran into a similar issue this week when he announced he would be pulling out of the presidential inauguration after being chosen by the inaugural committee to give the benediction later this month. He made the decision after it was revealed by ThinkProgress that he had given a sermon in the mid-1990s in which he said homosexuality is a sin and advocated "gay conversion" therapy. When he announced he was pulling out of the event, Giglio did not apologize outright as Hagel did; instead, he said that "speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years."

Ellner said the dramatic and swift change is because "more and more gay Americans have had the courage to come out and live open lives."

Gay Rights: Cory Booker, Chuck Hagel Shift Views

"Every poll shows that if someone knows a gay person they are far more apt to support full equality and equal rights," Ellner said. "As more and more Americans encounter married gay and lesbian Americans, there is greater acceptance that gay Americans are like all Americans and want the same thing for their families…what we have been fighting for is love, commitment, and family."

The gay rights and same-sex marriage movement has moved quickly since President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, after it was passed with strong majorities in the House and Senate. The law, defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, effectively banned same-sex marriages.

Now, nine states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex couples to marry. But in 1996 politicians who have now so vocally evolved on the issue, like Vice President Joe Biden, voted to pass the law opposing such marriages.

Many politicians are trying to keep up with public opinion. In 1996 Virginia Sen. Chuck Robb, a Democrat, was the only southerner at the time to vote against the passage. "I feel very strongly that this legislation is wrong," he said at the time.

"Despite its name, the Defense of Marriage Act does not defend marriage against some imminent, crippling effect," Robb said. "Although we have made huge strides in the struggle against discrimination based on gender, race, and religion, it is more difficult to see beyond our differences regarding sexual orientation. The fact that our hearts don't speak in the same way is not cause or justification to discriminate."

As Americans have become more accepting of both gay rights and same sex marriage, Robb looks prescient, but then only 67 members of the House and 14 senators voted against DOMA. There were some high-profile Democrats, besides Biden, who voted for it, including Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who now serves as Democratic Whip. In May he said he too had changed his mind, arguing in a statement that "extending the definition of marriage to committed relationships between two people, irrespective of their sex, is the right thing to do."

Even Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law, now says he is supportive of same-sex marriage.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell also said in May that he believes same-sex marriage should be legal. He was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was implemented in 1993. When announcing his support of the repeal of DADT in 2010 he said, "In the almost 17 years since the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed."

Of course the most high-profile "evolver" on the issue has been President Obama, who, in May, told ABC News' Robin Roberts that he had changed his mind and now personally supported same-sex marriage. It was after Biden said on NBC's "Meet the Press" he had changed his views on same-sex marriage and was now "comfortable" with it. Many believe this forced the president's hand earlier than he may have wanted to make an official announcement.

Ellner said that when people do evolve they "embrace the change."

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