Lora Rae Anderson's political evolution is an appropriate metaphor for the future of gay rights in America.
The 23-year-old Eau Claire native, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in May with a degree in music, comes from a religious and conservative family. So she saw participation in the College Republicans as a good way to meet people and stay active in current events.
Anderson eventually rose to be the College Republicans' statewide chair. Gay rights was one of the issues that she became increasingly exposed to, and, increasingly, the GOP's stances regarding it bothered her.
It's one of the many reasons she recently quit the party and became a Democrat.
"It's one thing to be uncomfortable with differences; it's another thing to campaign against them," says Anderson, who is still religious and considers herself pro-life.
But Anderson sees signs that public attitudes toward gay people are changing, even among stalwart Republicans: "When I invited the Log Cabin Republicans [gay GOP group] from Minnesota to speak at our annual conference, they received the loudest applause of any of the speakers."
The Republican Party is still by no means an advocate of gay rights. But sooner or later, it may have no choice but to become one. Anderson is not the only young person who will hold it against the party if it doesn't.
Young people support every gay right that has entered the public dialogue. Even gay marriage was supported by 58% of Wisconsin voters under 30, according to a 2006 Badger poll. That was the same year that Wisconsin voters passed, with a 59% majority, a GOP-backed referendum to change the constitution to forbid this.
While Madison students have always leaned left, the margins by which they opposed the marriage ban four years ago are nothing short of astounding. In no student district did support for the referendum top 20%. In some districts, it was less than 10%.
State Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison) calls the 2006 referendum the "low point" of gay rights in Wisconsin, but still finds a silver lining. He attributes five Assembly seats won that year by Democrats near college campuses to the backlash against the GOP's anti-gay marriage position. As a result, he says, "it's not the conservative issue du jour anymore."
This renewed confidence that support for gay equality is smart politics shows in many statewide campaigns.
Sen. Russ Feingold, running for his fourth term in the U.S. Senate, officially backed same-sex marriage in 2006, and since then has not hesitated to wear the rainbow badge on his sleeve. His website proudly proclaims a commitment to "marriage equality," and he has accused supporters of same-sex marriage bans of "playing politics with the lives of gay and lesbian Americans."
And lieutenant governor candidate Henry Sanders not only supports marriage equality, but calls it "key to economic recovery." In a recent op-ed, Sanders wrote that same-sex marriage would be a boon to the state's tourism industry (more weddings), as well as a selling point for educated workers who seek an inclusive culture.
One of Sanders' primary opponents, state Sen. Spencer Coggs (D-Milwaukee), also unequivocally supports gay marriage and is optimistic about the realization of gay rights. As he puts it, "People are becoming much more tolerant, just like people have become much more tolerant on race."
And support for gay rights is not just a ploy to win primaries. Fresh off winning majorities in the Legislature, state Democrats, supported by Gov. Jim Doyle, pushed through a domestic partnership law, which created a registry for Wisconsin's domestic partners and guaranteed them many of the rights afforded to married couples.
Many politicians still take a cautious approach. The Democratic candidate for governor, Tom Barrett, appears reluctant to champion certain gay rights. A spokesperson for the Milwaukee mayor's campaign says "the people of Wisconsin spoke on gay marriage four years ago." But Barrett does express support for civil unions and domestic partnerships.
A recent Gallup poll indicates that national support for gay marriage is just above 40%. But some supporters of gay rights think candidates stand to gain more than they risk in siding with this minority position.
"Elections are not lost because candidates support the LGBT community," says Katie Belanger, the executive director of Fair Wisconsin, a gay rights organization. She points to the 2006 election as an example.
"[T]he constitutional amendment banning marriage equality and civil unions passed, but Gov. Doyle, who was a vocal opponent, won his reelection," she says. Moreover, "the state Senate flipped into pro-fairness leadership, and we made significant gains in the state Assembly that allowed pro-fairness leadership to take control after the 2008 elections."
Republican candidates also seem to have noticed the trend. While the party's major candidates for statewide office oppose all recognition of gay relationships, including civil unions, GOP politicians are changing their rhetorical approach.
For instance, during debates over domestic partnerships at the state level, Republicans relied almost exclusively on fiscal justifications when opposing the benefits, rather than moral or cultural ones.
Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, the leading Republican candidate for governor, also used fiscal justifications when he vetoed domestic partnership legislation passed by the Milwaukee County Board. Walker does not list a position on same-sex marriage on his website, but has said he would not refuse to hire openly gay staffers, as his primary opponent, Mark Neumann, pledged to do during his 1998 campaign for Senate.
Even Neumann, who is otherwise attacking Walker from the right, dodges questions relating to the pledge or his 1996 statement that if he were God, "homosexuality wouldn't be permitted." And like Walker, Neumann avoids mention of gay marriage on his campaign website.
Demographically, Wisconsin is not ripe territory for anti-gay crusades.
According to national polls, opposition to gay marriage and other gay rights correlates strongly with church attendance. This bodes poorly for opponents of gay rights here, since only about 40% of Wisconsinites go to church regularly (at least every two weeks).
Moreover, even observant Christians in Wisconsin are more likely to be pro-gay than their Christian comrades elsewhere in the country. National surveys of Catholics, who make up the largest portion of Christians in the Badger State, show the majority support gay marriage.
The second-largest congregation here, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, voted last year to ordain openly gay ministers. Religions, like political parties, are adjusting to changing social norms.
According to national pollster Nate Silver, support for gay marriage bans falls by an average of 2% every year. According to his model, a majority of Wisconsin voters will oppose a same-sex marriage ban by 2012.
"I think we lost the battle but won the war," says Pocan, whose marriage in Canada to his longtime partner is not recognized in Wisconsin. If the trends continue, Pocan and others in his situation will likely have their vows validated by the state within the next decade.