(CNN) -- Barney Frank, to say the least, knows his way around politics. In a Chicago appearance recently, the retired congressman had the sold-out crowd at the Center on Halsted well entertained as he detailed his 45-year journey in public service.
Frank, you'll recall, was the first member of Congress to marry someone of the same-sex while in office, and among other things, he had some choice words for closeted politicians who vote against LGBT rights.
And when someone in the audience asked his thoughts about a current ballot proposal in California that would legalize killing gay people, he said he wasn't aware of the measure but told the young man not to "worry yourself about the crazy people."
"We're winning," he said before joking that the name of the California proposal -- "The Sodomite Suppression Act" -- sounded like a porno.
"We're winning" is a phrase I've heard a lot recently as it pertains to LGBT rights. And I guess if you look at where the country was 10 years ago, we definitely are. That's assuming you are part of the "we" that believes LGBT people should have the same rights as their heterosexual/cisgender counterparts.
Or at least not "be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method" as the California proposal suggests. (It's unclear whether Matt McLaughlin, the Huntington Beach lawyer who submitted the proposal, is being sincere or just an ass, but the fact remains that if he collects enough signatures there appears to be no legal way of stopping it from going on the ballot.)
Frank's "we're winning" declaration was oddly timed, too. Less than 24 hours after his talk, the governor in the next state over signed an anti-LGBT "religious freedom" bill into the law -- one that allows businesses to challenge in court local laws that forbid discriminating against customers based on sexual orientation.
"Many people of faith feel their religious liberty is under attack by government action," Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said. Not to be outdone, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he would sign a similar bill that is expected to reach his desk shortly.
So we have: A fledgling proposal to kill the gays out West, laws to deny us goods and services in the heartland, and if the rhetoric of 2016 hopeful Ted Cruz is a barometer, a federal ban on same-sex marriage still on the GOP table.
Like others, I had foolishly hoped the upcoming general election would be one defined by bold ideas.
Instead, it looks like it's going to be dragged down to a replay of Pat Buchanan's "cultural war" speech, during which he told the 1992 Republican National Convention: "We stand with (George H.W. Bush) against the amoral idea that gay and lesbian couples should have the same standing in law as married men and women" and later followed with "There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself. For this war is for the soul of America."
Progressives enjoyed poking fun at Cruz, the tea party darling when he announced his presidential bid, but according to the American Civil Liberties Union, "the Indiana RFRA [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] is one of 24 introduced in 15 states this year that could allow someone to use their religious beliefs to discriminate. Numerous other bills specifically single out the LGBT community for unequal treatment."
It's not just lawmakers. Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore made headlines for telling state officials and judges to disregard a federal court ruling that overturned the state's ban on same-sex marriage.
And this week. a federal judge in Cruz's home state of Texas blocked a federal rule that would have granted married, same-sex couples access to the Family and Medical Leave Act, a law that helps employees stay home to take care of a severely ill spouse.
It seems clear that even if Cruz doesn't capture the GOP nomination, whoever does will undoubtedly make some concessions to appease LGBT rights backlash currently underway in conservative states.
That could include one of Cruz's agenda items: a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, usurping whatever ruling comes out of the Supreme Court in June, when the court is expected to rule on whether such marriage is constitutionally protected.
And the NCAA can issue strongly worded statements, as it did over Indiana's new anti-LGBT law, and -- along with others in corporate America -- can threaten financial repercussions for discriminatory laws.
But at the end of the day, it's about votes. Frank said when progressives get angry they march in the streets, and when conservatives get mad they march to the polls. If that holds true in 2016, "winning" is going to feel very strange.
Indeed, most 2016 hopefuls on the right have been reluctant to express support for same-sex marriage.
According to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, "it's like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said, "I certainly will support Ted Cruz and others that are talking about making ... a constitutional amendment to allow states to continue to define marriage."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has a long history of fighting against same sex marriage and civil unions.
And Ben Carson said jail turns people gay, so there's that. (He later apologized)
Gallup polls may suggest voters nationwide are more gay-friendly, but the trend on the state level tells a different story. Perhaps we're witnessing the final gasp of a long-ago biases.
Or maybe those biases are having a rebirth we had underestimated.
Barney Frank said he believes Republicans want the Supreme Court to rule in favor of same-sex marriage to provide political cover in the GOP primary. That may be true, but it's doubtful that will allow a candidate to avoid taking a position on the wave of so-called "religious freedom" bills currently snaking through red-state legislatures.
Or to sidestep the topic of a constitutional amendment when it's raised in a debate or at a campaign stop -- especially with Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate.
Once again, our democracy is vexed by a woefully inadequate two-party system. Socially liberal, fiscally conservative independent voters may want to consider the full depth of a candidate's policies before making a decision, but ultimately it may come down to a single-question: to discriminate against LGBT people or not.
Unfortunately, the pending 2016 "cultural war" does not allow for much wiggle room beyond that.
I know Frank and others have said "we're winning" but sitting here, watching the life being sucked out of democracy year in and year out feels more like a defeat than a victory.
Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a CNN contributor, a senior writer for ESPN and a lecturer at Northwestern University. He is a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, and his commentary has been recognized by the Online News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Follow him on Twitter @locs_n_laughs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
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