In the 1990s, ‘Mr. Conservative’ Barry Goldwater stood tall for gay acceptance

‘There has been homosexuality ever since men and women were invented.’

There are few issues on which public opinion has so drastically changed in the last few decades other than gay acceptance.

In June 2022, a Gallup poll showed that 71% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. In 1996, only 27% believed same sex marriage should be legal. 68% of Americans opposed it.

At the time, I was one of them. As a 22-year-old conservative, I adopted many of the right-wing positions of that era, including opposition to gay marriage. The issue wasn’t thought about, at least by me, as much as some others, due to it also being an opinion overwhelmingly held by a majority of Americans. It was standard conservative fare.

But it wasn’t for Barry Goldwater.

The father of the modern American conservative movement and the Reagan Revolution’s primary inspiration had come to oppose the rise of the religious Right in the 1970s and 80s, instead sticking to the strict constitutionalism that had guided his 1964 presidential campaign and had once energized the young Right. Within this context, ‘Mr. Conservative’ Goldwater’s line of thinking in the 1990s appeared to be that homosexuality had always been a part of the human condition and therefore the “gays” deserved the same basic rights as anyone else in the U.S.

“There has been homosexuality ever since men and women were invented,” Goldwater said in 1993. This was a time in which whether gay Americans should be allowed to serve in the military was a controversial topic.

Goldwater said on that subject, “The first time this came up was with the question, should there be gays in the military? Having spent 37 years of my life in the military as a reservist, and never having met a gay in all of that time, and never having even talked about it in all those years, I just thought, why the hell shouldn’t they serve?”

“They’re American citizens,” he continued. “As long as they’re not doing things that are harmful to anyone else. So I came out for it.”

For Goldwater, gay acceptance hinged upon accepting humanity as it had always existed. One could argue that murder and war have also always existed, but there’s an important difference in noting that humans have always done bad things as opposed to acknowledging the basic humanity of individuals, of which sex and sexual attraction are core components.

Murder and war are something bad humans do. Being gay or straight is a part of who you are—and it’s an affront to no one.

Similar to Goldwater’s view in the 90s, this line of thinking was also a major part of what would later change my mind about gay acceptance and also extended to transgender people, who, despite the bizarre and counterproductive extremes of so many LGBT activists today, remain some of the most misunderstood people in society.

This doesn’t mean biological men should compete against women in sports, which is absurd and unfair to women athletes, or that minors should be allowed to have medical procedures they might later regret, which is just insane.

But it does mean deviations from heterosexuality and the two genders (and there are only two!) are part of the human condition and always have been. Peter Thiel didn’t make a choice to be attracted to men. I don’t think J. Edgar Hoover was just exploring.

This might sound like basic logic now, but in the ‘90s Goldwater was really bucking majority opinion and certainly the Republican party.

On gay people and human history, Goldwater said in 1994, “You try to find out where it started, even going back to old Egyptology – and you knew damn well the Egyptians had to have those people – but you can’t find any writings.”

Goldwater was 85 when making these statements, using language that might sound out of sorts today, but he was still defending, in his own way, the basic principle to allow gay Americans to be themselves.

“I have one grandson who’s gay,” Goldwater acknowledged. “And my brother has a granddaughter who is gay. We’re sort of at a loss to know what the hell it’s all about.”

Goldwater’s gay grandson, Ty Ross, would frame his grandfather’s views this way: “He’s pretty secure in feeling that discriminating against gays is constitutionally wrong.”

The Washington Post reported in 1994 that Ross was “close to his grandfather (whom he calls ‘Paka’) and has even brought boyfriends to meet him. Ross, who is HIV-positive but healthy.”

“We haven’t really talked about it,” Ross said. “He’s so funny. He says, ‘You people need to stand up for your rights’ – one of those ‘you people’ kind of things.”

The two specific issues Goldwater would part with many Republican voters on late in his life were gay acceptance and abortion, in which he took the pro-choice side. Both stances were based on his lifelong devotion to individual rights (on the issue of life, the pro-life position is that there are two lives involved, which I agree with, but that’s a separate debate for another space).

But long before 2023, when gay, lesbian and even trans conservatives aren’t unusual—and over a decade removed from Andrew Breitbart throwing ‘Big Ol’ Gay Parties’ after the Conservative Political Action Conferences—Barry Goldwater spoke out for the basic rights, dignity and individual liberty of gay Americans at a time when few on the Right did.

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Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter
Jack Hunter is a freelance writer, the co-author of Sen. Rand Paul’s 2011 book ‘The Tea Party Goes to Washington’ and the former politics editor for