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How the GOP helped bring gay marriage to California.

In 1978 former California governor Ronald Reagan announced his opposition to the Briggs Initiative, a proposed law that would have not only barred gay people from teaching in the state's public schools but also allowed administrators to fire any instructor suspected of "advocating, imposing, encouraging, or promoting" homosexuality. Prospects for the initiative looked bright at first: Gay rights measures were being rejected across the country. Reagan, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976 as a movement conservative against the more moderate Gerald Ford, was gearing up for the 1980 race and could scarcely afford to offend the "family values" crowd. Nevertheless, he declared that the initiative had "the potential for real mischief" and that "innocent lives could be ruined." Initial polls showed 61% of voters in favor of the initiative and 31% opposed, but after Reagan announced his opposition the public mood shifted dramatically to 45% in favor and 43% opposed. The measure was eventually defeated by over a million votes.

Exactly 30 years later, another Republican governor of California announced his opposition to an antigay ballot measure. Asked on April 11 at the Log Cabin Republicans' annual convention in San Diego about his stance on a proposed state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, Arnold Schwarzenegger said, "I will always be there to fight against that." He labeled the campaign a "total waste of time" and predicted that enactment of the amendment "will never happen in California, because I think the California people are much further along on that issue."

Schwarzenegger's position proved increasingly relevant when, on May 15, the California supreme court issued a 4-3 ruling striking down the state's same-sex marriage ban. The governor, who previously had vetoed two bills to legalize gay marriage, immediately put out a statement announcing his intention to "uphold" the court's ruling. Gay couples began marrying on June 16, but if the proposed constitutional amendment passes in November--and it only requires a bare majority to do so--California will not only join the 26 other states that have constitutionally banned gay unions but will achieve the dubious honor of being the first state in the country to revoke previously certified gay marriages.

Schwarzenegger is the most prominent Republican opponent of the marriage amendment, and his opposition doesn't come as a surprise to California gay rights activists, especially Republican ones. Log Cabin Republicans president Patrick Sammon points to the fact that the governor has signed more gay-friendly laws than any other current governor in the country. Indeed, Schwarzenegger is just one part, albeit a significant part, of a larger story, one that may come as a surprise to many gays. As much as liberals have been at the forefront of gay rights struggles across the country, Republicans too have played a crucial role in bringing marriage equality to California.

The unlikely story begins with the state supreme court itself, where six of the seven justices were appointed by Republican governors. The court is the most widely cited state supreme court in the country -- not until May 15 had it ever been accused by conservatives of being "activist."

It was largely because of the court's Republican bent that Robin Tyler, one of the plaintiffs in the case, decided to bring a legal claim against Los Angeles County in 2004. The court's Republican composition, she recently told L.A. Weekly, made her more optimistic that it would produce a ruling favorable to gays. "I think a Democratic court might have shied away because of the issue of the [presidential] election," she said.

Some gay rights activists see Schwarz-enegger's refusal to sign two previous gay marriage bills -- the first of which was passed by state lawmakers in September 2005, making California the first state to approve gay marriage legislatively, and the second in September 2007 -- as proving ultimately beneficial to the cause. Schwarzenegger, in an attempt to shore up support with conservative voters, ran for governor on the promise that he would not sign any bill that repealed the state's ban on gay marriage, which passed in 2000 with 61% of the vote. Had Schwarzenegger broken that promise and signed either marriage bill, not only would gay marriage opponents have placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot immediately, but there's a strong possibility it would have won. Such snap elections are when the "crazies come out," a longtime gay rights activist told me. It's "much better to have this on the ballot in a presidential year when turnout will be higher," so people at the polls are not just those motivated to restrict gay civic equality.

Gay Republicans also hope to recruit prominent GOP figures to speak out against the amendment. Ward Connerly, a former member of the University of California board of regents and one of the country's foremost opponents of affirmative action, is one such conservative icon. Connerly, who is black and grew up in the Deep South, told me that efforts to amend his state's constitution to ban gay marriage remind him of antimiscegenation laws. "For anyone to say that this is an issue for people who are gay and that this isn't about civil rights is sadly mistaken," he says. "If you really believe in freedom and limited government, to be intellectually consistent and honest you have to oppose efforts of the majority to impose their will on people." Connerly is not a new friend to gay rights advocates; when he served on the board of regents, he championed domestic-partner benefits for gay faculty members.

The last and most important element of Republican support for gay marriage will be GOP voters themselves. Sammon says that with the overwhelming majority of state Democrats in support of the court's decision, Republicans and independents will be essential swing voters. Thus the role of gay and gay-friendly conservatives in convincing their ideological brethren to vote against the amendment will be crucial. Sammon proudly points out that, according to a recent Field Institute poll, only 57% of California Republicans support the constitutional amendment. He says Log Cabin is working with local Republican groups (particularly the California Federation of Republican Women, which has a long tradition of social moderation), organizing calls to influential talk-radio programs, and encouraging its members to write op-eds for local newspapers. So far, California gay Republicans have had a largely positive working relationship with the broader gay rights movement in the state. James Vaughn, head of Log Cabin's California chapter, tells me that some gay activists "talk in the media about 'right-wing' this and that, and I have to stop and raise my hand and say, 'If you have swing voters who happen to be Republicans and you call them right-wingers, they're going to think they have to join [gay marriage opponents] on this measure,' " he says. "They look at me like I have three heads."

That California Republicans are proving to be such allies shouldn't come as a shock, as a libertarian strain has long existed in the state--an ethos that rejects much of the antigay rhetoric that finds favor in the South. Frank Ricchiazzi, who helped found the Log Cabin Republicans directly on the heels of the campaign against the Briggs Initiative, tells me that in the 1980s, state Republicans repeatedly turned out to oppose a series of antigay ballot initiatives, including a measure that would have quarantined HIV-positive people. Ricchiazzi says that while every congressional district with a Republican congressman voted against these measures, many of the districts that voted in favor were not only Democratic but heavily black or Latino.

Indeed, some in California quietly worry that it is not conservatives whose attitudes gay rights advocates should be primarily concerned about, but African-Americans. They generally make up only about 8% of the state's electorate but are expected to turn out in significantly higher numbers in the fall because of Barack Obama's presidential candidacy. And while African-Americans overwhelmingly vote Democratic, they also overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage: A recent poll conducted by the gay rights organization National Black Justice Coalition found that 65% of black people oppose gay marriage, compared with just 53% of white people. "The thought of having a significant group not on board for this issue is something [Democrats] can't fathom," Ricchiazzi says.

Not to worry, Bob Mulholland, a longtime California Democratic political operative, says. "Maybe in Mississippi, not in California," he replies when I ask if blacks are more likely to oppose gay marriage.

Partisans on both sides believe it's unlikely that either Obama or his Republican opponent, John McCain--who both oppose gay marriage--will make an issue of the California ruling, given their support for federalism on the matter. When I asked McCain in June about his stance on the amendment, he said he supported it but that ultimately the "people of the states should make that decision." Obama, meanwhile, replied "No" when ABC's Jake Tapper asked if the marriage decision bothered him.

So with marriage out of the way--for the moment--as a national political issue, gay rights advocates will be able to concentrate solely on how to win equality for the people they represent. They're sure to learn many lessons in the coming months. The most important may be that Republicans can be friends, not enemies.

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James Kirchick