Last week, Ted Cruz spoke at a dinner held in the lavish Manhattan apartment of two gay hoteliers, Ian Reisner and Mati Weiderpass. Cruz is one of the most conservatives members both of the Senate and the 2016 Republican presidential field. He’s an outspoken critic of gay marriage, and he ardently supports “religious freedom” laws, like the one in Indiana that recently caused a national furor because it could have allowed business owners to deny services to gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, Cruz is a foreign policy hawk, especially on Israel, and Weiderpass is, too. This was the main topic of the evening’s discussion.
A few days later, the New York Times wrote an article about the odd pairing of Cruz and his hosts. Asked about the Texas senator’s opposition to gay marriage, Reisner shrugged it off: “[It] is done — it’s just going to happen.”
Then things got wild. Furious gay-rights activists called for a boycott of the business partners’ hotels and set up a Facebook page that quickly drew 8,200 “likes.” A group that fights HIV and AIDS canceled an event at a venue the two men own. Protesters surrounded one of their hotels shouting “Shame!”
A shellshocked Reisner hastily apologized. “I am shaken to my bones by the e-mails, texts, postings and phone calls of the past few days,” he wrote. “I made a terrible mistake.” For anyone who supports equality for gays and lesbians, these are heady days. Indiana’s religious freedom law was beaten back and its Republican governor, Mike Pence, humiliated. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a same-sex marriage case and is widely expected to rule in favor of it. The turnabout from victim to aggressor has been viscerally thrilling to people who have endured years of slurs and attacks — even more so given the hasty retreats by Pence and Cruz’s hosts.
But as satisfying as this must feel, it will soon cease to be an effective method for advancing gay rights, if it hasn’t already. In fact, a better strategy than demonizing Cruz and his ilk would be to invite them back again and keep talking.
Here’s why: If the court legalizes same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians will still lack equal protection under the law. In 29 states — 32 for transgendered people — nothing will prevent them from being fired or denied housing or other public accommodations due to their sexual orientation because the states don’t have nondiscrimination laws.
Most of the states that have passed such laws are governed by Democrats. Those that don’t have them are overwhelmingly governed by Republicans. Among the 29 states that lack full protections for sexual orientation, there is only one legislative chamber — Kentucky’s House of Representatives — that is controlled by Democrats. Only seven governor’s mansions aren’t occupied by a Republican.
The political math couldn’t be any clearer: It is impossible to expand nondiscrimination protections any further without the active support of Republican politicians. This is true both at the state and national levels.
This weekend, a bipartisan group of philanthropists is meeting in Dallas to figure out the next steps in how to expand these legal protections. Many of them — including Tim Gill, who started the software-publishing company Quark, and hedge-fund founders Dan Loeb and Paul Singer — first teamed up in New York state a few years ago, where they helped advance a gay-marriage bill through the Republican-controlled Senate and into law.
A more recent example of what they hope to accomplish came in Utah, where gay rights groups worked with the Mormon Church to convince legislators to pass a pair of nondiscrimination laws. While this episode received nothing like the attention that was devoted to Indiana’s fight, it’s probably a more significant achievement because Utah’s governor’s mansion and both houses of its legislature are controlled by Republicans.
It’s no coincidence that Utah’s efforts flew under the national radar. The media paid little attention because there weren’t the kind of attacks, boycotts and threats as there were in Indiana. No doubt this owed to the recognition among local gay rights activists that such tactics wouldn’t help their cause.
Everybody else should recognize this, too. Given the political map, such tactics are likely to fail just about everywhere that matters. Strange as it may seem, the next step to bringing about full equality will be to stop shaming Republican politicians and start figuring out how to win them over.
Joshua Green is national correspondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.