Erin Ogletree Simpson has been a Republican her whole life, but a year and a half ago, she had a realization that put her at odds with her party.
Simpson discovered that she is gay.
As a self-described late-blooming lesbian, Simpson didn’t know how to reconcile her sexual identity with her political ideology. The party she identifies with, volunteers for and has chosen at the ballot for her entire life takes a harsh stance toward gays and lesbians, and is less than welcoming to what many Republicans consider “sinners.”
But instead of breaking it off with the GOP and registering as an independent or Democrat, Simpson decided to use her position as a party insider to change opinions of gay and lesbians within the Republican Party.
When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last month — leaving the decision of gay marriage up to individual states — Simpson saw her opportunity to make a difference.
Simpson, 51, started the Marriage Equality AZ initiative, which aims to put the legalization of same sex marriages to the ballot in 2014.
Though conventional wisdom states that Arizona voters are too conservative to approve gay marriage, Simpson believes that by framing same sex marriage as an individual liberties issue and a way to get government out of the bedroom, enough conservative voters will join with gay marriage’s traditional allies in the Democratic Party and elsewhere to approve the measure.
But for the measure to win at the ballot, the message has to be just right.
Momentum from the right
While many pushes for marriage equality have come from within the LGBT community, few if any initiative organizers have made a political calculation as astute as the organizers of the Marriage Equality Arizona initiative: In order to win at the ballot in Arizona, they’re going to need conservatives to support gay marriage.
“That’s the only way it can be successful,” Simpson said.
Instead of being promoted from within the gay community, the push to legalize same sex marriage in Arizona is being fronted by people who are conservatives first and gay rights supporters second.
Simpson, a retired attorney from Tucson who now serves as chair of the Arizona the Log Cabin Republicans, boasts conservative credentials such as membership in the Pima County Republican Women’s club. She also served as a long-time precinct committeeman until a recent move put her in a new district and holds certification as a firearms instructor.
The Equal Marriage initiative’s co-chair, Warren Meyer, is a straight libertarian business owner, who views gay marriage as an individual liberties issue.
Their national honorary chair is Gary Johnson, the former Republican governor of New Mexico who ran for president on the Libertarian ticket in 2012 and garnered more votes than any other Libertarian candidate in history. Johnson is not gay, but has been a champion for gay rights — traveling the country espousing the Libertarian view that marriage equality is a constitutionally guaranteed right.
The trio hope they can convince straight Republican voters that getting the government out of decisions about who can be married is a conservative idea. That is despite the Republican Party platform against gay marriage, which describes it as “an assault on the foundations of our society, challenging the institution which, for thousands of years in virtually every civilization, has been entrusted with the rearing of children and the transmission of cultural values.”
But with the fall of the Moral Majority of the 1980s and the rise of the libertarian leanings in the Tea Party movement of today, many Republicans are more concerned with keeping the government out of their social lives than forcing sexual mores on others, Simpson said.
“The Republican Party is going through a transformational process right now where there is a large libertarian perspective about these kinds of issues, and that perspective is the government doesn’t have any business defining who can be married to one another. From a libertarian point of view, (Republican voters) don’t see this as a government issue. And that aspect of the Republican Party is definitely strong in Arizona,” Simpson said.
Times have changed
Just five years ago, Arizona voters approved a constitutional prohibition of gay marriage by a wide margin when the Legislature sent the question to the ballot in 2008.
Though gay marriage was already illegal in state laws, defenders of traditional marriage thought that wasn’t enough, and the voters agreed. Proposition 102 passed with 56 percent of voters opting to add a same sex marriage ban into the state Constitution.
But Simpson and others believe times have changed since that 2008 vote.
“Certainly something is happening,” she said.
Polling shows the huge gains gay marriage has made in the past 10 to 20 years.
When Gallup polling asked Americans if homosexual marriage should be legal in 1996, only 27 percent said yes. Within the GOP, only 16 percent of respondents said such marriages should be legal.
Gallup’s 2013 polling shows that 53 percent of Americans support allowing gay and lesbians to marry, including 26 percent of Republicans.
The Pew Research Center has similar findings. The polling firm found support for same sex marriage nationwide had grown to 50 percent for the first time this year. A decade ago, the firm found only 32 percent of the population in support of gay marriage.
Pew found Republicans were slowly warming up to the idea of allowing same sex marriages as well. In 2003, only 22 percent supported gay marriages. Today, support within the GOP is at 29 percent, according to the firm’s latest data.
A Rocky Mountain poll from May of this year asked Arizona residents if they supported same sex marriage. By a ratio of 55 percent to 35 percent, Arizonans said they did.
The poll found that 36 percent of Republican voters supported same sex marriage, while 53 percent were opposed.
Veteran Arizona pollster Margaret Kenski said those Rocky Mountain numbers may be a little optimistic from the gay marriage supporters’ point of view, but there’s no doubt the times have changed, and will continue to change.
“If you dissect (the polling data), you see it’s very much age-related,” she said, noting that young people are far and away more accepting of gay marriage than their parents or grandparents.
Kenski, who personally supports gay marriage, said as young people move up the age ladder, there will eventually come a day when gay marriage is constitutionally protected in most of America, including Arizona.
But even among the retiree crowd, polling indicates opinions are changing quickly, she noted.
She attributes the shift to several factors. First, sexual mores in the country have loosened significantly since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The media also plays a big role, and the more prominent role of gay people on television or in movies has made Americans more comfortable with the concept.
But the biggest factor is that more gay Americans are coming out of the closet, and once people know their friends and neighbors are gay, they often stop seeing gay people as a threat.
“Once you know your niece, nephew or best friend’s son is gay, what do you do? Shun them?” she said.
But she’s not sure that opinions have changed enough to pass it at the ballot here in 2014, especially since it is a non-presidential election year, which tends to favor conservative causes and Republican candidates.
“I think it’s inevitable, I just don’t know how long it will take,” she said.
Republican Jim Kolbe, former US Representative from Arizona, was the second openly gay Republican to serve in Congress when he came out in 1996, and is amazed at how far the nation has progressed on recognizing the rights of gay people.
In May he married his longtime partner in Washington, D.C.
“It would be hard to find any other civil rights issue — whether it’s slavery, equality for blacks, women voting, etcetera — that has moved as rapidly as this one,” he said.
But he said the GOP is lagging well behind the rest of the population on equality issues, and risks alienating a whole new generation of voters who overwhelmingly favor gay marriage, even within the Republican Party.
“But that’s what this (initiative) is about, it’s grassroots Republicans saying we’re going to move the issue forward, we’re not going to let this ground be claimed just by Democrats, either in 2014 or 2016…Otherwise Republicans in the 2016 election will not have any chance of getting the under 30 vote, and we’ll just gradually shrink as a party, the base will shrink,” Kolbe said.
Kolbe saw early movement from the GOP when he was the first openly gay person to be invited to speak before the Republican National Convention, although he spoke about trade, and not gay issues.
More recently, key Republicans and even the former chair of the Republican National Convention, Ken Mehlman, have been openly gay. Many high ranking Republicans in both the US House and Senate have endorsed gay marriage — all signs of progress, Kolbe said.
He expects the ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act to hasten progress on gay rights issues, and predicts that by 2016, the Republican platform will be missing the plank against gay marriage.
He said ultimately, the party needs to take an official position on gay issues that is consistent with their approach to individual liberty in other arenas.
Though the bulk of the votes for gay marriage will come from Democrats and independents, Kolbe believes there are enough rank-and-file Republicans who see gay marriage as an issue of individual liberties to provide the necessary push to get gay marriage above the 50 percent margin on Election Day 2014.
“Republicans are the key to the passage of this (initiative). In other words, we have to get a sufficient number of Republican votes, and we think we’re there,” he said.
But when Neil Giuliano was first elected to the Tempe City Council in 1990, the Republican Party wasn’t there. He said there was no way he would have won as an openly gay candidate back then, and it’s still a difficult road through the primary election for any openly gay Republicans.
When he came out of the closet in 1996, he faced a recall election from the far right wing of the party, which he won overwhelmingly.
But eventually, after leaving office in 2004, he gave up on the Republican Party and switched his voter registration to Democrat, even flirting with a run for governor as a Democrat in recent years.
He said the visibility of straight allies standing up for gay rights has been a deciding factor in the battle for gay rights, and he believes that opinions within the general population and the GOP have changed enough to undo what was done in 2008, and authorize same-sex marriages in the Arizona Constitution.
“I think Democrats will support it, independents will support it, and only the religious right Republican social conservatives will (actively) oppose it,” he said.
Others have seen their rising star within the GOP fall when they announced they are gay.
One of the most high-profile examples of an Arizona elected Republican coming out of the closet was during last year’s election, when Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu was outed by the Phoenix New Times in a story that alleged he had threatened to have his ex-boyfriend, a Mexican national, deported after their relationship soured.
When Babeu held a press conference to denounce the accusations — and announce he is gay — he was flanked by Republicans who supported him in announcing he is gay.
But his congressional bid was shot, and shortly after the news broke, he dropped out of the race, opting instead to run for sheriff again. Babeu declined an interview for this article.
Support for traditional marriage
Even some elected Republicans who oppose same-sex marriage acknowledge that gay rights are on the advance, and gay marriage will probably be approved someday, if not in 2014.
Republican Rep. J.D. Mesnard of Chandler opposes same-sex marriage, but sees its probability of happening in Arizona increasing over time.
“I think Arizona will have it before Texas or Alaska maybe, but yeah, unless there is a dynamic shift in cultural attitudes, it’s clear the train is moving in a particular direction.
I’m not happy with it, but it’s a reality that we will [have to] deal with it,” he said.
But others, like Republican Rep. Paul Boyer of west Phoenix, don’t see social conservatives as losing ground in the fight.
Boyer said that most, if not all, Republican legislators profess to be pro-life and to be socially conservative. He also noted that, while a handful of states have allowed same sex marriages, the majority have approved constitutional bans against it and have defined marriage as the union between a man and a woman.
“What I’m saying is, where it counts — at the ballot — it really hasn’t (lost),” Boyer said, adding a majority of states in the union have supported traditional marriage.
Boyer is correct to assert that more states have banned same-sex marriage than those that have allowed it, but his answer minimizes the gains of the gay rights movement in the last decade.
In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. Today, 13 states and the District of Columbia legally allow it. While 29 other states ban samesex marriage, the trend is toward the continued expansion of gay marriage.
Voters in Maine and Washington made history in 2012 when they approved ballot measures allowing for gay marriage, the first time such laws were approved at the ballot box.
As the public sentiment has shifted in recent years, gay rights advocates have declared that the matter is a civil rights issue, and opponents will find themselves on the “wrong” side of history. Some Republicans said that would be the case if same-sex marriage is equated to interracial marriage, but others argue the comparison isn’t apt.
Republican Rep. Steve Smith of Maricopa said just because society is changing, it doesn’t mean the traditions that are being altered are wrong. Smith said he finds an anchor in his faith.
“From my reading of the Bible and my Christian faith, I will never be on the wrong side of the issue,” he said.
Smith also expressed a recurrent thought among some evangelical Christians that same-sex marriage is a sin.
“Homosexuality is a sin just like every other sin,” he said, adding people should put no more weight into it than other sins. “It’s a sin, just like killing is a sin, just like taking the Lord’s name in vain is a sin.”
The right side of history
Republican political strategist Bert Coleman said antigay hardliners like Smith hurt the party by narrowing the field of people who are willing to support Republicans, and turning people off who are not social conservatives.
“The name of the game is to grow the Republicans Party, and unless they change (their position on gay marriage), the Republican Party will not grow. It will shrink, and it will shrink rapidly… The country is moving on, the Republican Party needs to move on with it,” he said.
He said public opinion has already swayed drastically since the 2008 vote to ban gay marriage, and the trend isn’t going to reverse. And if voters come out in force for gay marriage, as a motivated group often does, it won’t be good for Republicans who stand in the way.
“The bottom line is Arizona is going to have gay marriage at some point. Is the time right (now?) I don’t know.
But I suspect having gay marriage on the ballot in 2014 could be (Republicans’) worst nightmare,” he said.
Jessica Merrow is a Republican precinct committeewoman and self-described “tea partier” who has been gathering signatures to put gay marriage on the ballot in 2014.
The straight 25-year-old woman said the GOP’s official view on gay marriage is out of step with young Republicans like her, and the initiative is perfectly in line with her view of what it means to be a Republican: advocating for a small government that stays out of people’s personal lives.
“When I saw it was Republicans and Libertarians behind it, it piqued my interest a little bit so I read the initiative and thought ‘yeah, this is something I can get behind.’… It’s one of the most controversial issues of my generation and I would like to be on the right side of history on this one.”
— Arizona Capitol Reports assistant editor Luige del Puerto contributed to this article.