November 2, 2013
The Tumbling Boundaries of Gay Rights
By FRANK BRUNI
ELLIOTT MANAGEMENT’S lofty offices in Midtown Manhattan look north, south, east and west across the borough’s thicket of skyscrapers. But the most intriguing view I got during a visit there last week was of something else: the changed gay-rights landscape and its implications for the Republican Party.
I sat in a 30th-floor library with the hedge fund’s founder and chief executive, Paul Singer, a billionaire who was one of the most important donors to Mitt Romney in 2012, gives generously to a range of Republican causes and prefers to do this with a minimum of media notice. He’s wary of speaking with journalists, so much so that I’ve seen the adjective “reclusive” attached to his name.
But here he was giving an interview, my second with him in 16 months, because the focus both times was gay equality. It’s a subject important to him. In this case, he was announcing a new project to be funded, at least at the outset, by him and other conservative donors but to be run by the Human Rights Campaign, an L.G.B.T. advocacy group in Washington, which is much more closely affiliated with Democrats. The initiative will be dedicated to fighting the victimization of gays and lesbians internationally. But it will also show that there are Republicans — not a majority, but an increasingly impassioned minority — who are intent on progress and justice for L.G.B.T. people. They won’t surrender that cause to Democrats, and they believe that Republicans who do so are resisting a future that’s both just and inevitable.
“Unless America engages in a terrible, terrible retreat from freedom, towards fascism, communism, whatever — some totalitarian harsh state — this seems inexorable,” Singer told me, meaning equal rights, including the spread of gay marriage, for which he has campaigned with particular energy.
“Social conservatives have and should have a place in the inner circle of what it means to be a Republican,” he said. But, he added, “There needs to be room for conservatives who have different views on some of the social issues.”
Although Singer declined to discuss specific conversations with individual politicians, other Republicans have told me that he is close to, and has discussed gay rights with, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who recently backed off a legal challenge to gay marriage in that state, which became the 14th in which gays and lesbians can legally wed.
I’ve also been told that Singer has had such talks with Senator Rob Portman, the Ohio Republican who came out for gay marriage, citing his love for his gay son. Singer also has a gay son — and a gay son-in-law. The two men are married.
His vision of how Republicans must evolve was echoed in a subsequent conversation that I had with Daniel Loeb, another New York hedge-fund billionaire who has given lavishly to conservatives. Loeb is Singer’s principal financial partner in the H.R.C. international project; Singer has already committed $1.5 million, and Loeb has promised a similar amount over its first years.
When I asked Loeb if opposition to gay rights would increasingly hurt Republicans in elections, he said: “Absolutely. It’s where the country’s gone, and if they don’t go with it, they’ll lose a very important demographic. They already have lost some young people.” Surveys show that more than 70 percent of Americans under 30 favor marriage equality.
The party’s relationship with gay rights will be tested anew this coming week when the Senate takes up the Employment Nondiscrimination Act, or ENDA, which would protect people from being fired or barred from a job because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
All of the 55 senators in the Democratic majority have endorsed it, as have four Republicans, excluding Portman, who appears to be leaning that way. His vote would give supporters the 60 they need to overcome a filibuster.
BUT the bill’s odds aren’t great in the House, whose Republican majority is more conservative on gay rights than the Republican electorate nationally seems to be. According to internal party polling that I saw, 56 percent of Republican voters indicated support for a federal law like ENDA.
The risk that Republicans take by opposing gay rights isn’t necessarily that the party’s social moderates will bolt for that one reason. Singer, for example, has stayed put, because while he’s more in line with Democrats on gay rights, that doesn’t override his solidarity with Republicans on economic and other matters.
But to appeal on a national level to independent voters, young voters and minorities, the party badly needs to amend its ossifying image as an archaic refuge for scolds at odds with modernity itself. An embrace of gay rights, even a partial one, is a great place to start. It could give Republicans a chance to stanch some of the bleeding from the federal shutdown and from continuing rifts over immigration.
“At a time when folks in this city can’t agree on anything, this is an issue that’s increasingly seen as bipartisan,” said Chad Griffin, the president of the H.R.C. Singer’s advocacy underscores that, and Griffin welcomes it, noting: “There is not a single battle that we’re looking at that we can win with the support of just one party or the other.”
ENDA, which has kicked around in various forms for decades, is a case in point. The fresh focus on it, along with the new international initiative, reflects a desire by L.G.B.T. advocates not to be too confined to, or defined by, marriage equality.
And the international initiative has a fascinating wrinkle. In addition to training L.G.B.T. advocates outside the United States and publicizing the failings of especially repressive countries, it intends to name and shame American religious zealots who sponsor antigay campaigns abroad. So Republican money may wind up challenging a constituency within the party. (We’re most definitely not in Kansas anymore.)
In Singer’s view, gay rights are consistent with a Republican philosophy of individual liberty, and gay marriage is “an augmenter of social stability, family stability and stability in raising kids.” In other words, it’s conservative.
He has contributed significantly to marriage-equality campaigns in many states, and has convinced wealthy peers in the financial industry, including conservatives, to do likewise.
Last year he started the American Unity PAC, which backs Republican candidates who are generally supportive of gay rights. This year he added the American Unity Fund, an offshoot for lobbying, which has spent about $375,000 — two-thirds from Singer — to promote ENDA.
All in all, he has pumped more than $17 million of his own money over the last decade or so into gay rights. And he privately tells Republicans leaning toward pro-equality positions that if they face fire from antigay groups, he’ll help them round up retaliatory funds.
The battlefield isn’t what it used to be. From the 30th floor, I could see that most clearly of all.