During the Clinton years, an era of theatrical polarization not unlike our own, the president would occasionally flaunt his progressive bona fides by nominating an openly gay man or woman for some low-level government job. Republicans, for their part, would oppose such moves just as dramatically.
In 1993, Clinton proposed openly gay San Francisco councilwoman Roberta Achtenberg for a minor job in the executive branch. Senate Republicans called it a provocation. “I am not going to put a lesbian into a position like that,” thundered Jesse Helms about the office of assistant secretary of housing and urban development.
Four years later, Clinton put forth the openly gay James Hormel, a rich Democratic donor, as ambassador to Luxembourg — though in a classic bit of Clintonian triangulation, he was willing to concede to Helms (now chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee) that Hormel’s partner “would not get ambassadorial spouse status.” It didn’t help much.
Many Republicans claimed to not oppose Achtenberg and Hormel for their homosexuality per se, but rather for their willingness to agitate on behalf of what Bob Dole called “a lifestyle most Americans reject.” Among other things, this included Hormel’s support for the then-radical notions of same-sex marriage and gay-themed museum exhibits, and Achtenberg’s fierce criticism of the Boy Scouts of America for their policy (at the time) of denying leadership roles to open homosexuals. After much Republican foot-dragging, both Achtenberg and Hormel were eventually installed —though Hormel required the use of a recess appointment.
Today, however, it is 2018 and many things are different. A Republican president has proposed an openly gay man, Richard Grenell, America’s former U.N. spokesperson and a longtime conservative pundit, for a deeply substantial job: U.S. ambassador to Germany.
One can only imagine what the late Senator Helms would say. Grenell is, after all, an outspoken defender of the gay “lifestyle.” He’s in a longtime romantic relationship with a man, and has, as a National Review columnist once rather uncharitably put it, “made a particular crusade of the marriage issue, with a kind of unhinged devotion that suggests a man with questionable judgment.” During that weird period when President Obama was posturing as a guardian of traditional nuptials, Grenell consistently blasted him — as well as the legions of Democrat-aligned gay activists who gave the White House a pass — for this obviously disingenuous cynicism. In 2015 he was one of over 300 dissident Republicans who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief in favor of gay marriage.
Like many gays in the GOP, Grenell has been a proponent of the idea that support for gay rights is a logical outgrowth of the broader “conservative ideal of limited government involvement in our lives,” as he put it in a 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed. When his side eventually triumphed in Obergefell v. Hodges, he cheered the ruling as a “landmark victory for conservative principles.”
None of this raises any eyebrows in Congress these days, even among the Republicans who had so much to say about the Achtenberg and Hormel nominations way back when. During a short-lived period when Grenell was being floated as a possible U.S. representative to NATO, The Atlantic did a quick reaction survey of various Republican-aligned evangelical leaders, including Jerry Falwell Jr., and received a collective shrug.
To the extent anyone is trying to weaponize Grenell’s sexuality it’s been the Log Cabin Republicans, who have taken to claiming that Senate Democrats are holding up Grenell’s nomination (they voted unanimously against it on the Foreign Relations Committee) because he’s gay. The new line is that liberals just can’t handle seeing a successful LGBT person who’s not on their side. The New York Times has reported on this with excessive incredulousness, characterizing the gay-Republican alliance in Grenell’s favor a curious coalition of “opposing factions.”
Yet by the standards of our time, citing the homosexuality of Grenell — a hawkish figure known for provocative language — as a relevant variable in his story feels as contrived and archaic as similar efforts to frame the nomination of Gina Haspel as CIA director through a gendered lens. Gay office-holders are to politics today as women have been for quite a while now: something marginally interesting as a point of historic trivia, but long ago drained of their cultural power to polarize in any politically useful way. This obviously reflects the broader normalization of homosexuality that has occurred in America in recent decades — a success, it should be stated, that reveals as much about the inability of homosexuality’s critics to offer a viable alternative agenda or argument as anything else.
As gay-friendly policy goals are achieved, once-threatening ideas and activism similarly become just another boring piece of the status quo.
As our collective awareness of homosexual people has become deeper, and the language we use to describe them more honest and respectful, reserves of traditional conservative skepticism to installing gays in positions of importance — that they are too odd or dangerous — have dried up. As gay-friendly policy goals are achieved, once-threatening ideas and activism similarly become just another boring piece of the status quo.
To be sure, President Trump has likely accelerated this process. Six short years ago, even milquetoast Mitt Romney considered Grenell too radioactive to serve as his personal spokesman, one of the many supposed base anxieties whose bluff Trump has since called. Trump’s social liberalism on everything but abortion and trans rights has helped solidify the norms of a new era where social conservatism is more transactionally focused on these two narrow policy fronts, and less on using politics as a forum for broader cultural protest.
As endorsing an openly gay executive-branch appointment devolves from intolerable point of principle to cost of doing business, it seems reasonable to declare the homosexuality-themed chapter of the American culture war, if not formally closed, at least in its boring denouement.