Why a Senator With a Terrible Record on LGBT Rights Voted to Protect Same-Sex Marriage

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Sen. Cynthia Lummis isn’t exactly the avatar for LGBT rights in Washington. The conservative Republican drew boos this spring during a commencement address back home in Wyoming for criticizing those who support transgender identity. She tried in 2016 to give parents vouchers so their children could leave schools to dodge an Obama-era policy that allowed transgender students to use whatever bathroom matched their gender identity. She co-sponsored the State Marriage Defense Act of 2015, which would have allowed states to ignore the federal recognition of same-sex couples to wed. She voted in 2010 against the repeal of the Bill Clinton-era Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. These examples, it must be noted, are not exhaustive.

In other words, Lummis was well within the current Republican Party’s position on LGBT rights—and, until Tuesday, well outside of the public’s view for the last decade of such policy.

That perceived hostility faded ever so slightly on Tuesday, when an animated Lummis took to the Senate floor to explain why she had voted against a procedural delay on Nov. 16 for a measure that would protect some rights for LGBT and interracial couples to wed, and why she would shortly vote for a repeal of the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act. It was quite a jarring break for a figure who had scored a consistent zero on her LGBT record in the House and an only slightly better grade for her time in the Senate, according to the Human Rights Campaign. (Her lone credit in the eyes of the largest LGBT rights group? A vote for Pete Buttigieg’s confirmation as Transportation Secretary.)

“My days since the first cloture vote on the Respect for Marriage Act as amended have involved a painful exercise in accepting admonishment and fairly brutal self-soul searching,” Lummis said. “Entirely avoidable, I might add, had I simply chosen to vote ‘no.’”

The bill’s advancement, perhaps one of the last moves in a Washington under unified Democratic control, is in response to worries that the Supreme Court could follow the logic it applied in this year’s Dobbs decision that ended the federal abortion rights extended through Roe v. Wade. If the court could strike down a half-century of accepted abortion precedent, nothing presumably could block it from doing the same with 2015’s Obergefell ruling affirming the right of gay couples to wed, or even 1967’s Loving case that protected interracial marriage.

In a way, Lummis may have offered her friends a way out of the problematic politics thrust on the GOP with Dobbs. Lummis is a longtime fixture of Wyoming’s Republican Party, dating to her first election to the statehouse in 1978. When Bob Dole and Mitt Romney needed a gut-check about their presidential bids in deep-red Wyoming, they called Lummis, who has shepherded governors to power since the 1990s. But she isn’t one known to regularly find herself at odds with her party. When fellow Wyoming lawmaker Rep. Liz Cheney ran afoul of much of the GOP for condemning then-President Donald Trump’s conduct ahead of the Jan. 6 riot and during its chaos, Lummis established a smart distance from Cheney in the months that followed. Lummis shrewdly declined to rush to Cheney’s defense, hoping in the immediate wake of the madness that no one would pay too much attention to her intra-party dynamics. Lummis voted against certifying the results that showed Trump lost Pennsylvania and adopted Trump’s rhetoric that “I feel like other forces like Antifa were advocating violence.”

So it’s impossible to see Lummis as anything approaching a squish when it comes to conservative orthodoxy. So intense is her adherence to the GOP posture, she delivered that commencement address which included disparaging remarks about transgender students on a campus that had recently confronted the suicide of a trans classmate. Even more jarring to LGBT groups, she made the comments on the University of Wyoming campus Laramie, Wyo., where Matthew Shepard studied before two men beat, tortured, and killed the 21-year-old gay student in 1998. (Lummis voted against hate-crime legislation named in Shepard’s memory that finally made its way into law in 2009 as an amendment to the defense budget.)

Still, if the audience on Tuesday could set aside Lummis’ history of voting against LGBT rights, the speech on its own carried poignancy. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat and the first openly bisexual woman elected to the Senate, greeted Lummis with a hearty hug after the vote.

And for those who were able to mute what they knew about Lummis’ record, she offered a glimmer of hope for activists. Here was a figure who had been a consistent skeptic of LGBT rights and didn’t much care that the few voices in her state advocating for equality were raised against her. Wyoming sent her to the Senate in 2000 with 73% of the vote; she ran ahead of Trump by three whole points.

Still, there she was on the Senate floor, every bit a uniter on this issue that has seen a seismic shift in public opinion in recent years. Pew Research Center polling finds 61% of Americans see same-sex marriage today as a net positive, a total reversal from back in 2004 when Republicans used the wedge issue to turn out Evangelical voters. Lummis’ comments reflected this reality, even if three-quarter of her Republican colleagues ultimately voted against it.

“These are turbulent times for our nation,” Lummis said. “Americans address each other in more crude and cruel terms than ever in my lifetime. It is jarring and unbecoming of us as human beings. It is highly intolerant and frequently the most so when expressed by those who advocate for tolerance. Many of us ask ourselves, ‘Our nation is so divided. When will this end? And how will it end?’”

Her comments also reflect an inconvenient fact, covered in this newsletter recently: as written, the Respect for Marriage Act on its own lacks several crucial teeth. For one, it doesn’t codify the marriage rights embedded in the Obergefell ruling. It only requires states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states. If the Supreme Court strikes down the federal right, this bill does nothing to prevent states from no longer issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, who would have to find a better jurisdiction to get hitched. The bill heading back to the House for a final vote still permits organizations to deny recognition to same-sex and interracial couples if it violates their religious beliefs. And the provision banning polyamorous marriages—with more than two people, for the unfamiliar—is as much a dog-whistle as it is extraneous. The final bill is not so much an endorsement of inclusive marriages but rather, in the words of the LGBT twitterati’s newest pal: tolerance.

That’s right. Lummis repeatedly framed her position as one of tolerating LGBT individuals’ rights, not necessarily a desire to protect them. It’s a minor distinction, but one that rang loudly in the ears of those of us who watch LGBT politics with any consistency. It’s one thing to wrap your arms around gay neighbors, and it’s quite another not to throw a brick through their window.

“For the sake of our nation today and its survival, we do well by taking this step, not embracing or validating each other’s devoutly held views, but by the simple act of tolerating them,” Lummis said in a statement whose intentions may not have meant to fly like a brick, but still did damage.

Still, Lummis got there, along with 11 other Republicans in the Senate. An earlier version of the bill cleared the House with the support of 47 Republicans. The Senate-amended version—with changes meant to make it more palatable for conservatives—is expected to get a House vote next week and President Joe Biden is expected to sign it. Lummis’ language may not be what the crew at the Human Rights Campaign would prefer, but she at least had words in affirmation for the goal, albeit one that isn’t perfect. And, in doing so, Lummis may have just shown a whole cohort of conservatives how they can slowly evolve on a subject that most of the country has already blown past.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com