The revelation that Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming now supports marriage equality is hardly a surprise. According to the latest public opinion polls, Republicans are more likely than not to be in favor of same-sex marriages. What was surprising in Cheney’s comments during her 60 Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl last week was her departure from a sentiment now prevalent within the GOP regarding non-discrimination policies and her use of violence against trans women as an example.
Immediately following her mea culpa on marriage, Cheney said, “This is an issue that we have to recognize you know, as human beings that we need to work against discrimination of all kinds in our country, in our state. We were at an event a few nights ago and, and there was a young woman who said she doesn’t feel safe sometimes because she’s transgender. And nobody should feel unsafe. Freedom means freedom for everybody.”
By making an unprompted comment about violence against trans women, and by linking non-discrimination policies in general to notions of personal safety and freedom, Cheney indicated that promoting equality for LGBTQ+ people is consistent with traditional Republican philosophy.
Republicans have long attempted to justify their opposition to LGBTQ+ equality as a legitimate protest against government action which limits their freedom — religious or otherwise. They’ve used the formulation of “special rights” to categorize legal equality as something anathema to the American ideal. They’ve insisted that the government must protect them from even the slightest moral discomfort.
Liz Cheney said otherwise. She said that non-discrimination is a requirement for a free society because a person subjected to state-sponsored discrimination and the threat of personal violence cannot be free according to the Republican notion of freedom. Laws promulgated to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people are a form of government overreach, and the bigotry inherent in those laws incites violence contrary to the law-and-order role of government that Republicans consider central to its purpose.
More than a political parvenu within the GOP, some product of the Tea Party, or a Twitter phenom who’s converted popular outrage into electoral turnout, Liz Cheney typifies in every regard an old-school “Establishment Republican.” She was raised to speak the language of the party, and the way in which she made these comments is significant.
A growing movement has begun to hold corporations accountable for making political contributions to Republican candidates while touting their “commitment” to LGBTQ+ equality. Establishment Republicans like Cheney realize that holding power requires them to reconcile an infatuation for lower taxes with everything else the GOP now represents. She and those like her in the Republican Party have begun to understand that suburban voters don’t actually hate their gay neighbors with as much fervor as they pine for lower taxes.
Sadly, Cheney’s statement will likely have little influence on the rank-and-file of today’s Republican Party. She’s already been removed from her leadership position in the caucus for refusing to promote the Big Lie. She‘s being primaried by a candidate who has the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. And she’s far from becoming a sudden champion for LGBTQ+ equality when her voting record consistently places her among the worst in the House on our issues.
Perhaps it gives her too much credit to think she, and Establishment Republicans by extension, are ready for a détente in the culture wars (even where their families and personal friends are concerned). Possibly, she’s just saying the right things to get campaign cash from sympathetic Democrats who swoon over the idea of an anti-Trump, pro-LGBTQ+ Republican. Maybe, she recognizes the insurrection at the Capitol is the logical conclusion of fomenting bigotry as national policy and she’s walking back from it where she can.
Whatever motivated Cheney to connect marriage equality and non-discrimination to freedom from violence and the status of trans people in America, it’s imperative that we help other Republicans make those same connections. We need to focus our efforts on the persuadable members of the GOP who call themselves “socially liberal but fiscally conservative.” And we need to be less forgiving of those who continue to enable the worst elements of their party — the racists, sexists, transphobes, ethno-nationalists, and others — all in the name of tax cuts.
If we can get more Republicans to move in our direction on as many issues as we have for marriage equality, we’ll be closer to achieving full equality for LGBTQ+ people in America.
Liz Cheney isn’t the Republican champion we need. She won’t fight for us any more than she fought for her own sister many years ago. But she’s nonetheless a Republican with a platform and a unique political pedigree. She’s saying things other Republicans will hear, and she’s saying them in the ways they will accept. We must recognize what she’s done and press the advantage.
Brian Gaither is an LGBTQ+ activist and writer living in Houston, Texas. From 2008 to 2012 he was an elected member and officer of the Republican Executive Committee of Miami-Dade. He currently claims no party affiliation. He’s on twitter @briangaither.