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OPINION

The Romney evolution on same-sex marriage

Our ever-evolving former governor arrives in a welcome place.

A bearded Mitt Romney talks to reporters in Washington after a procedural vote on the Respect For Marriage Act on Nov. 28. Romney has reportedly shaved the beard.Drew Angerer/Getty

Senator Mitt Romney of Utah was recently sighted sporting a beard, and after voting twice to impeach Donald Trump, he is now denouncing the former president as a “gargoyle” who hangs over the Republican Party.

Even more remarkably — especially for anyone looking at him through the lens of Massachusetts — Romney is one of 12 Republican senators who voted to approve landmark legislation that protects same-sex and interracial marriage.

As governor from 2003 to 2007, Romney “was one of the lead protagonists against us,” said Arline Isaacson, cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus and a longtime leader in the fight for marriage equality in Massachusetts. For example, Romney tried but ultimately failed to block full implementation of the groundbreaking decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to legalize gay marriage by instructing town clerks not to issue marriage licenses to gay couples who came here from out of state. As the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, he defended marriage as an “enduring institution” between one man and one woman.

So what should people think about this vote to protect same-sex marriage? “To me, it’s a marker moment for his political growth, and I’d like to think for his personal growth,” Isaacson told me. “He has gone from being part of the problem, to part of the solution.” As to what it says about his core beliefs, she added, “It’s definitely a political evolution.”

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With Romney, that sentiment could be his epitaph. He has had so many political evolutions on so many core issues in every phase of his political career that it’s impossible for anyone but Romney to know exactly what he truly believes in. That’s too bad. Given the current state of the Republican Party under the poisonous influence of Trump and the vitriol directed toward anyone who crosses him, it would be nice to be able to celebrate political courage when a Republican actually demonstrates it. But when it comes to judging that in Romney, the skepticism quotient is especially high in Massachusetts. After all, Romney was the governor who drove revolutionary health care reform legislation in this state. Yet when he ran for president, he rejected his own shining achievement and opposed Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was fashioned after the model he created in Massachusetts.

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He has been all over the place with Trump. As the GOP’s presidential nominee, he accepted Trump’s endorsement, but then delivered a passionate anti-Trump speech in 2016. After Trump won, he made a pitch to become secretary of state at a dinner with Trump, where he famously swallowed his pride along with frog legs, as New York Magazine put it. But then, Romney did something that will be his legacy: In 2020, when he voted to convict Trump on abuse of power charges during his impeachment trial, he became the first senator in American history to vote to convict a president of his own party. He also voted a second time to convict Trump during a second impeachment trial in 2021. For that he has paid a price, coming under vicious attack from Trump and his supporters.

Just last week, Romney said it was “disgusting” for Trump to have dinner with white supremacist Nick Fuentes and Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has made antisemitic remarks. And now comes Romney’s vote for the Respect for Marriage Act, which would formally repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman but was overridden by the Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. The legislation, which still must be passed by the House, would protect the right to same-sex and interracial marriage by codifying it as federal law.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which Romney belongs, signed onto the legislation. It includes a religious-exemption clause, which protects the rights of religious organizations that oppose same-sex unions. In a statement explaining his vote, he cited those protections. Still, his support for the overall goal of protecting same-sex marriage represents a sea change for someone who so strongly opposed it.

In that statement, Romney also said, “While I believe in traditional marriage, Obergefell is and has been the law of the land upon which LGBTQ individuals have relied. This legislation provides certainty to many LGBTQ Americans, and it signals that Congress — and I — esteem and love all of our fellow Americans equally.”

Those are welcome thoughts. Perhaps at 75, Romney has gotten to that point in life where he can be the person he wants to be — and won’t change his mind about who that person is.

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Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at joan.vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.