10/15/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Values Voter Summit: Has GOP Homophobia Been Shoved Into the Closet?

Since its inception in 2006, the Values Voter Summit, sponsored by the Family Research Council, has never failed to deliver when it comes to anti-LGBT bile hurled during prime-time events by Republican presidential contenders. But this year's conference, held over the past weekend, seemed a bit different. To be sure, there were bigoted diatribes from reliable hucksters like Mike Huckabee (attacking protections for transgender students) and the American Family Association's radio host Sandy Rios (who called the anti-gay murder of Matthew Shepard a "fraud"), but as Justin Snow at Metro Weekly explains, prominent politicians and potential president candidates spoke mostly in code on LGBT rights:

[U]nlike in years past, noticeably missing was some of the more vitriolic anti-gay rhetoric that has become a trademark of the conference. Although vague references were made to preserving traditional American families, language slamming LGBT-rights appeared to have little to no place in the primetime lineup -- or from any elected official with a political future.

Indeed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told the crowd that he's "been lectured, as many of you have, that we need to stop talking about social issues if we want to win elections, but if we're serious about saving the American dream, we can't stop talking about these issues." But for someone claiming that he shouldn't stop talking about these issues, Rubio didn't actually state what those issues are, vaguely referring to a "rising tide of intolerance in America, intolerance towards those who cherish these values." What values, exactly? He didn't say, nor did any of the other prime-time speakers.

There was a panel moderated by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council that was tepidly titled "The Future of Marriage" and focused on the supposed threat of gay marriage, and this is where Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage made his usual attack on gays and lesbians. But Peter Montgomery of RightWingWatch told me on my radio program yesterday that the panel was rather reserved compared with similar panels of years past, and that it was moved at the last minute from the morning to 7:30 in the evening on Friday, tacked onto the end of a long day of speeches. He said that it was not very well-attended.

Montgomery also noted that the anti-gay crusaders seemed to realize that they're losing big, and that the tenor of their rhetoric was different this year, with anti-gay leaders couching themselves as victims, claiming that Christianity is under attack, more than they did before. It was a theme that Rand Paul hit on with his claim of a "worldwide war on Christianity."

If homophobia is being shoved into the closet, at least among GOP presidential contenders, is that necessarily a good sign? Well, to the extent that anti-gay rhetoric fuels the haters and the people who would engage in violence, it's always positive when ugly verbal attacks are minimized. But it doesn't say much about the GOP regarding any shift if it is speaking in code while still maintaining the same bigoted positions, as we've seen with the party's history of racism as well. GOP presidential hopefuls may be fearful of video clips coming back to haunt them during a general election, but it doesn't mean that they're not still actively courting anti-gay voters in the party.

As of right now, only three GOP U.S. senators support marriage equality, and polls show that while there's been a major shift among Americans on marriage equality, with a majority now supporting it, there's not been any significant shift over the past 10 years among GOP voters, with only a little over a quarter supporting marriage equality in most polls. Until attitudes and positions change within the GOP, it's just words -- or, rather, a lack of words -- and no action.