It was an interesting week relative to gay rights.  

Texas Gov. Rick Perry admitted he “stepped right in it” when he compared homosexuality to alcoholism while discussing gay conversion therapy last week. After a national backlash, the former and possibly future presidential hopeful walked the statement back this week saying he should have said we need to be a really respectful and tolerant country and get back to talking about jobs.

A former leading advocate for gay conversion therapy, John Paulk, was part of that backlash. He took Perry and other conservatives to task for their ignorance on the topic in a revealing piece in Politico.  

Paulk, now an openly gay man, appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine in 1998 with his wife as a poster boy for going straight. Today he disavows the gay conversion movement saying it almost destroyed him. He worries about the widespread ignorance among social conservatives about what being gay means. 

On Thursday, the SEC announced that the Missouri University football team won the 2014 SEC Sportsmanship Award for how they “supported and protected” Michael Sam, the SEC defensive player of the year. 

Sam made national headlines when he revealed he was gay shortly before the NFL draft last month but he came out to his teammates much earlier at August’s preseason camp. His teammates honored his request to keep his sexual preference quiet during his senior season and the SEC honored the team for the way they treated Sam.

Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an evangelical think tank and lobbying organization, railed against what he called a “New McCarthyism” where people who oppose gay marriage are being smeared, their reputations ruined and being run out of their jobs for their beliefs. 

Perkins, speaking at the Republican Leadership Conference, a semiannual gathering of conservatives from around the country, said he fears that traditional American values are being criminalized as opposed to simply being out of fashion.

Locally, conservative firebrand Brian Nieves has made the preservation of traditional marriage in Missouri the cornerstone of his campaign to be the next Franklin County recorder of deeds. The state senator is shocked that his opponents aren’t willing to fight for traditional marriage like he is. 

What does any of this mean?

First, as Paulk notes, life is dramatically and rapidly improving for gay people across the country. There is more acceptance than ever for gay people in this country especially among young people. Poll after poll reveal that public opinion is shifting toward more tolerance. You don’t have to look any further than the Michael Sam story as evidence of this fact. 

Likewise, if you say something that could be construed as intolerant about gays you will likely face a backlash in the court of public opinion especially if it is something as ridiculous as endorsing gay conversion therapy. There is a reason why Perry and Michelle Bachmann didn’t win the Republican presidential nomination and will never be president. 

It’s also clear that many social conservatives remain uncomfortable with homosexuality. They, at least the savvy ones, recognize that public opinion is not in their favor and it makes them uneasy. 

That unease is magnified as more states legalize same-sex marriage and more courts rule that marriage bans violate the U. S. Constitution. For many conservatives, gay marriage is still a bridge too far.

Opportunistic politicians like Nieves understand this dynamic.  He has seized on the gay marriage issue as a way to fire up the conservative base and mobilize supporters in his campaign for county recorder of deeds. 

It doesn’t matter that it’s really a straw issue because the office has no say in the gay marriage debate. The reality is the county recorder of deeds doesn’t set policy on gay marriage which is already prohibited by the Missouri Constitution. But it is useful to stoke paranoia on the right.