×

Over time, the significance of tonight’s Manhattan fund-raiser for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the org of industry activists backing the suit against Prop 8, will not be for the $1.2 million it raised or even for the collection of Wall Street leaders, conservatives and Republicans who attended, but for the message it sent. Support of same-sex marriage is very quickly losing its stigma as a political risk.

It’s evident in the numbers: An Associated Press poll earlier this week showed 52% of Americans support gay nuptials, important because it confirms a CNN poll from last month showing a similar result. What’s interesting is that this shift in opinion is a swing of 6 points from just last year, but also that it occurred largely without the blitz of 30-second spots and PSAs with crafted slogans and snappy lines.

Probably the biggest reason for the shift is in demographics: Support improves with each successive generation.

But the coverage of the Prop 8 trial and decision, along with another federal case overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, has had at least had some impact. Ted Olson and David Boies have proved to be effective in framing the issue in a way that takes it out of the partisan political realm and casts it, in the words of Olson, as an issue of “fundamental rights.” They’ve had success in framing the issue in terms of “freedom,” which carries an emotional pull, as opposed to just solely “equality,” also a shared ideal but a word that, depending on the audience, can be a bit more loaded in its meaning.

Karen Ocamb of the LGBT POV blog credits Olson and Boies in particular. “I think it’s hugely important,” she says. People “are moved by the humanity and sincerity of these two men.” What comes across with Olson, she says, “is that he is fighting not only for our rights but for what the Constitution stands for.”

The American Foundation for Equal Rights has accompanied the court case with what it calls a public awareness campaign, but it has focused on the lives of the plaintiffs and has benefited from the publicity of events, like former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman (co-hosting with Peter Thiel and Paul Singer) coming out to organize tonight’s fund-raiser. The org’s president, Chad Griffin, called the event an “unprecedented gathering of bipartisan political leaders and political titans,” including many people “who have spent their careers working against each other.” The guest list included John McCain’s chief strategist in 2008, Steve Schmidt, President George W. Bush’s communications director, Nicolle Wallace, Alex Castellanos, Christie Todd Whitman, Dick Gephardt, John Podesta and Mark McKinnon.(For a list of those who attended, including George W. Bush’s daughter Barbara, see here.)

There was a time, a generation ago, when not even Democratic politicians would take “gay” money. Now they are giving to the movement.

As Ocamb pointed out, the gathering was especially notable in the polarized political environment, of the Tea Party protests and the backlash. Even when it comes to gay rights, on other fronts the rhetoric and wrangling tends to be more frenetic and even a bit schizophrenic. In Washington tonight, two of the Republican senators who voted against an effort to bring a repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the Senate floor were honored by the Log Cabin Republicans, the very group that is leading the legal effort to overturn the ban on gays in the military. In New York, cries of protest from repeal supporters were directed not at the GOP, but at President Obama, speaking at New York fund raiser for congressional candidates.

There certainly will be more twists and turns: What will Lady Gaga say next? But as Mehlman told the crowd at his event (below), there’s now clarity on where history is headed. Per Towleroad, he said: “As someone who regrets very much not being involved, and not being on the right side of this important effort until recently, let me just say this. This will be my first but not my last event and I hope you will stay involved too.”