A Continued Misunderstanding of Evolution

By Matthew Snider:

Evolution has become such a familiar term for politicians looking to explain their calculating switch on gay marriage that it’s begun to lose any meaning. Biological evolution has long confounded Republican politicians from Mike Huckabee to George W. Bush. Now it seems personal or social evolution is too difficult to grasp, as well.

Senator Marco Rubio recently tried to calculate a properly evolved stance on gay rights in order to avoid entirely ostracizing either side in the debate. The narrative might sound familiar: a young, charismatic, mediagenic, first-term Senator drawing national attention as he gears up for an exhausting Presidential campaign acknowledges that gay people are “born that way” but can’t fully commit himself to supporting gay marriage.

But unlike then-Senator Obama in 2007, Senator Rubio’s calculated concession that gay people are “born that way” comes eight years too late and from a party that isn’t starting from the same point Democrats were in 2007. The country has changed dramatically in eight years. In fact, in 2015, Rubio’s strategy arguably comes off worse than if he’d simply continued to argue that being gay was a choice. Now Rubio is left to defend the position that a community born with an immutable characteristic still deserves to be discriminated against when it comes to marriage laws.

To be fair, running for President means trying to sweep in the widest cross-section of 320 million people; it’s bound to lead to some contradictions. The difficulty with this type of social evolution isn’t just confined to those aspiring to be President, however. Last year, when candidate Larry Hogan hoped to sideline social issues (a consistent loser for Republicans) and make the 2014 election about fiscal issues, he tossed out a half-hearted acknowledgement that the voters had decided gay marriage for Maryland and that he’d uphold the law. At the time, it made him seem pragmatic and reasonable amid a field of other national Republican candidates wringing their hands about the coming marriage apocalypse. It even suggested that maybe a blue-state Republican had the electoral security and integrity to acknowledge what too many Republican politicians refuse to acknowledge: Gay marriage is a lost battle for conservatives.

Then Larry Hogan was elected governor and inevitably the national party apparatus swept in behind him. Maryland SB 743/HB 862 was passed by the legislature last session on a bi-partisan basis and on a relatively uncontroversial issue: allowing transgendered people to change their legal sex on their birth certificates. Quite frankly, it has no effect on anyone but the person seeking the change. But Hogan’s evolution apparently didn’t carry him this far.

Along with SB 743, the Legislature passed SB 416/HB 838, which provides that the Maryland law which requires insurers to cover fertility treatments for married couples applies equally to married same-sex and opposite sex couples. Despite admitting that Maryland voters had decided in favor of gay marriage and that the issue was settled, Governor Hogan refused to give his endorsement to a law further recognizing that democratic choice.

In the end, both laws went into effect without Governor Hogan’s signature, through a “pocket pass.” Some might argue that any criticism of Governor Hogan is superfluous—after all, both bills became law. He didn’t veto either bill (though both had passed by veto-proof majorities). But the truth is that—like Republicans nationally—Governor Hogan’s self-professed evolution is static and superficial.

Evolution on immigration has failed disastrously for Republicans; evolution on women’s reproductive health has … not even been attempted. But evolution on gay rights has proceeded haphazardly with none of the impressively exact coordination that Democrats demonstrated after President Obama came out for gay marriage in 2012. It leaves the party looking in worse shape than it did when it simply wanted to discriminate against gays because it didn’t like them. At least for a generation or two, support for gay and trans rights seems likely to increase. Republicans only come out looking insincere and untrustworthy by trying to sit at both tables. Gay and trans rights advocates are happy to welcome new allies (even recently “evolved” ones), but no one wants the Missing Link on their side.

Matthew Snider is a lawyer in Prince George’s County. He has worked on progressive issues from South Carolina to New York and now Maryland.