The New Yorker
Tim Cook introduces the new Apple products during a special event in Cupertino, California, on September 9, 2014. Tim Cook introduces the new Apple products during a special event in Cupertino, California, on September 9, 2014. Credit Photograph by Xinhua News Agency via Redux
On Thursday morning, the head of one of the world’s most admired companies, Tim Cook, of Apple, announced that he is gay. Although not entirely a surprise, Cook had guarded his privacy. As he put it in a piece for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, “While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” adding pointedly and poignantly, “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.” Cook instantly became the most prominent openly gay C.E.O. in history.
Cook’s announcement is one of many signs that gay rights is no longer an automatic wedge issue in American culture and politics. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court declined to review appellate court rulings that overturned gay-marriage bans, a move that brought marriage equality to more than a dozen new states. The news has been almost all good (with some notable exceptions, such as the continuing discrimination in Africa and other parts of the world). But, historically, an intense news focus on gay rights and same-sex marriage has usually been followed by some sort of backlash, often felt during national elections. For example, in 2004, President George W. Bush won reëlection at least in part because his political operatives drew conservative voters to the polls in swing states by placing gay marriage on the ballot in the form of state constitutional amendments. Further back, President Bill Clinton, during his 1996 reëlection campaign, was so worried about being portrayed as favoring marriage rights for gays that he signed the Republican-sponsored Defense of Marriage Act. (I was an adviser to Clinton at the time.) That same year, his opponent, Senator Bob Dole, returned a contribution from a gay Republican group because he did not want to be seen as linked to its agenda. And, in 2008, then Senator Barack Obama walked back his previous support for marriage equality in order to run for President as a candidate opposed to gay marriage. It took him until May of 2012 to publicly say that he personally supported marriage equality, in an announcement whose timing was forced by Joe Biden. Even then, Obama was said to be taking a big risk.
Not this year. When I asked Steve Elmendorf, a longtime Democratic strategist and former senior congressional aide, where the issue of gay marriage was playing in this year’s midterm elections, he replied, “Frankly, nowhere.” Fred Sainz, the communications director for the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay-rights organization, answered the same question by saying, “Exactly the way we want it.”
Marc Solomon, the national campaign director of Freedom to Marry, said, “It’s been fascinating in that so much has happened on the marriage front, with almost no peep from electeds who are in tough races who oppose us.” (Solomon is the author of a forthcoming book called “Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits—and Won.”)
In part, this is simply the result of a big shift toward gay rights in public opinion. National polls now consistently show that fifty-five per cent or more of respondents support same-sex marriage. But something more may be at work. The issue may no longer help opponents of gay rights to win elections, even those who rely on conservative support. Jeremy Peters, who covers Congress for the Times, observed in an e-mail that most conservative Republicans are “avoiding the question.” Peters added, “There were some outliers, of course, like Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee, who reacted very strongly to the Court’s decision and said they would continue to fight ‘activist judges.’ … But most Republicans are adopting what they see as a do-no-harm strategy: Don’t advocate for same-sex marriage, but don’t do anything to actively oppose it either.”
Will this trend continue or grow stronger during the 2016 Presidential race? It is in national elections that gay marriage has, in the past, most dramatically played a part. But now, with almost all Democrats in favor and most Republicans hoping to avoid the issue, things may be different. Could we even see a Republican Presidential nominee like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush supporting same-sex marriage? The answer is probably yes, even if it might take until after the primaries.
Vin Weber, a prominent Republican Party strategist and a former member of Congress from Minnesota, told me in an e-mail that there has been “a remarkable change”—one he observed closely in his own state, where members of the G.O.P. “have not wholesale embraced the cause of marriage equality. But they’ve moved essentially to a position of functional neutrality on the issue.” It is the kind of tectonic movement that the Supreme Court may be looking for before it is willing to rule definitively in favor of a national same-sex-marriage right.
Tim Cook’s coming out may be the harbinger of another chapter for the Republican Party, as it looks to its traditional constituencies in the corporate world and Wall Street and finds, increasingly, executives who are not afraid to let them know that they are at odds with the G.O.P.’s position on gay rights. Brian Ellner, a public-relations executive who was heavily involved in the New York campaign for marriage equality—which was strongly supported by senior leaders in the financial-services community—told me, “The incredible velocity of marriage wins and rising public support for equality has rendered it a non-issue in most states.” More important, Ellner added, “Opposing equality is no longer a wedge issue. It’s a loser.”