Here's a sign of progress: In a Presidential debate in 1996, in fielding a question about gay rights, Bob Dole dodged it by saying that he personally was not prejudiced and that he didn't think discrimination against gay people was appropriate. He also said, however, that he didn't want to give gay people (the broader notion of LGBT had not then, and probably still hasn't, made it into mainstream parlance) "special rights," which was an artful though misleading way of disguising the fact that he opposed extending anti-discrimination law to cover sexual orientation.
In last night's VP debate, Joe Biden essentially said that he favored complete formal equality except for the term marriage. Biden actually referred to married same-sex couples in his initial answer but in responding to the follow-up, he made clear that he and Obama oppose govt-recognized same-sex marriage. Sarah Palin was a bit cagier. She gave a Dole-like answer in referring to her personal views ("tolerant"), and said the government shouldn't outlaw same-sex partners visiting one another in the hospital, which, of course, is not the issue. The question is whether the government should require that same-sex partners be given the same rights as straight spouses in such matters. She also said that she worried that extending too many rights to same-sex couples would lead to marriage rights, thus suggesting that she would stop substantially short of full-fledged equal-in-all-but-name rights for same-sex couples.
This leaves the state of play short of where I'd like to see it: an equal right to marriage and everything else. Still, it's worth marveling at how much progress has been made. The center-left position of those not running for President is to support same-sex marriage. (E.g., Gov. Paterson). The center-left position for Presidential (or Vice Presidential) candidates is now to support full equality via civil unions but to oppose the use of the word marriage. The centrist position for moderates not running for President (see, e.g., Gov. Schwarzenegger) is to support, or at least not oppose, same-sex marriage rights. And the position of a Republican Vice Presidential candidate who was added to the ticket to appeal to the religious conservative base is to support some, though not full, movement towards an anti-discrimination norm.
That is quite substantial progress. At this rate, I would bet that by 2016 or 2020 the latest, the Democratic Presidential candidate will support same-sex marriage, while the Republican will at least support full civil unions. If I'm wrong, I'll blog about it then.
Posted by Mike Dorf