NEW YORK — As the gay-rights movement advances, there's increasing evidence of an intriguing role reversal: Today, it's the conservative opponents of that movement who seem eager to depict themselves as victims of intolerance.
To them, the gay-rights lobby has morphed into a relentless bully — pressuring companies and law firms into policy reversals, making it taboo in some circumstances to express opposition to same-sex marriage.
"They're advocating for a lot of changes in the name of tolerance," said Jim Campbell, an attorney with the conservative Alliance Defense Fund. "Yet ironically the tolerance is not returned, for people of faith who don't agree with their agenda."
Many gay activists, recalling their movement's past struggles and mindful of remaining bias, consider such protestations by their foes to be hollow and hypocritical.
"They lost the argument on gay people and now they are losing the argument on marriage," said lawyer Evan Wolfson, president of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry. "Diversions, scare tactics and this playing the victim are all they have left."
He added: "There's been a shift in the moral understanding of people — that exclusion from marriage and anti-gay prejudice is wrong. Positions that wouldn't have been questioned in the past are now being held up to the light."
Among the recent incidents prompting some conservatives to complain of intolerance or political bullying:
—Olympic gold medal gymnast Peter Vidmar stepped down as chief of mission for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in May following controversy over his opposition to gay marriage. Vidmar, a Mormon, had publicly supported Proposition 8, the voter-approved law passed in 2008 that restricted marriage in California to one man and one woman.
—After coming under fire from gay-rights groups in April, the Atlanta-based law firm King & Spalding pulled out of an agreement with House Republicans to defend the federal ban on same-sex marriage.
—In New York, state Sen. Ruben Diaz, a Democrat from the Bronx, contends he's received death threats because he opposes legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. The alleged threats were cited last week by the New York State Catholic Conference, which also opposes gay marriage.
"We are unjustly called 'haters' and 'bigots' by those who have carefully framed their advocacy strategy," wrote the conference's executive director, Richard Barnes. "The entire campaign to enact same-sex marriage is conducted under a banner of acceptance ... Yet behind that banner of tolerance is another campaign — of intimidation, threats and ugliness."
—Apple Inc. recently withdrew two iPhone apps from its App Store after complaints and petition campaigns by gay-rights supporters.
One app was intended to publicize the Manhattan Declaration, a document signed in 2009 by scores of conservative Christian leaders. It condemns same-sex marriage as immoral and suggests that legalizing it could open the door to recognition of polygamy and sibling incest.
The other app was for Exodus International, a network of ministries which depict homosexuality as a destructive condition that can be overcome through Christian faith.
In both cases, gay activists celebrated the apps' removals, while the apps' creators contended their freedom of expression was being unjustly curtailed.
"The gay-rights groups have shown their fangs," wrote Chuck Colson, the Watergate figure turned born-again Christian who helped launch the Manhattan Declaration. "They want to silence, yes, destroy those who don't agree with their agenda."
Exodus International president Alan Chambers, who says he changed his own sexual orientation through religious counseling, said he was alarmed by the aggressive tactics of "savvy gay activists."
"We have seen individuals, ministries and even private corporations that dare to hold to a biblical worldview on sexuality bullied into a corner," Chambers wrote in a blog.
However, Wolfson said the Exodus app deserved to be removed. "They were peddling something that's been repudiated as crackpot quackery."
The campaign that pressured King & Spalding to withdraw from the Defense of Marriage Act case was criticized by a relatively wide range of commentators and legal experts, not just conservative foes of gay marriage.
"To think it's a good idea to attack lawyers defending unpopular clients — I don't have words for how stupid and wrong that is," said Wendy Kaminer, a lawyer and writer who formerly served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union.
However, the gay-rights activists involved in pressuring King & Spalding were unapologetic.
"If we made it such that no law firm would defend the indefensible, then good for us," said Fred Sainz, the Human Rights Campaign's vice president for communication. "When you have people talking about the fact that it's no longer politically correct to be anti-equality, it's a show of progress."
Sainz said it was important for activists to pick their targets carefully.
"We understand there are goodhearted Americans in the middle who are still struggling with these issues," he said. "Different activists have different ways of getting to the same end, and some of those are bound to make certain people feel uncomfortable."
Though same-sex marriage is legal in only five states, it has for the first time gained the support of a majority of Americans, according to a series of recent national opinion polls. For some gay activists, this trend has fueled efforts to make their opponents' views seem shameful.
"Their beliefs on this issue are very quickly becoming socially disgraceful, much in the way white supremacy is socially disgraceful," wrote Evan Hurst of the advocacy group Truth Wins Out. "They are certainly entitled to cling to backwoods, uneducated, reality-rejecting views ... but their 'religious freedom' doesn't call for the rest of us to somehow pretend their views aren't disgusting and hateful."
However, some gay-rights supporters see the public opinion shift as reason to be more magnanimous.
"The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia," Jonathan Rauch, a writer and guest scholar at the Brookings Institution, wrote recently in The Advocate, a gay-oriented news magazine.
"Incidents of rage against 'haters,' verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of anti-discrimination laws: Those and other 'zero-tolerance' tactics play into the 'homosexual bullies' narrative," Rauch wrote. "The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them."
As ideological foes spar over these issues, the American Civil Liberties Union is confronted with a delicate balancing act. Its national gay rights project battles aggressively against anti-gay discrimination, but, as a longtime defender of free speech, the ACLU also is expected to intervene sometimes on behalf of anti-gay expression.
For example, the ACLU pressed a lawsuit on behalf of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church, which has outraged mourning communities by picketing service members' funerals with crudely worded signs condemning homosexuality. The ACLU said the Missouri state law banning such picketing infringes on religious freedom and free speech.
Some critics — such as Wendy Kaminer — have contended that the ACLU now tilts too much toward espousing gay rights, at the expense of a more vigorous defense of anti-gay free speech.
However, James Esseks, director of the ACLU's gay rights project, said the First Amendment protection of free speech only comes into play when a government entity is seen as curtailing speech rights — which did not occur in the Vidmar or King & Spalding cases.
"What we have there is simply the push and pull in public policy discourse ... which is sometimes rough and tumble," Esseks said. "Being stigmatized for expressing unpopular views is part of being in a free society. There's nothing wrong with that."
Robert George, a conservative professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and one of the co-authors of the Manhattan Declaration, shared Esseks' view on the often sharp-elbowed nature of public debate in America.
"Democratic politics is a messy business and sometimes it's a contact sport," said George, a co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, which campaigns against same-sex marriage. He suggested that those who hold cultural power — in academia, the media and elsewhere — are inevitably going to try to impose their viewpoints.
"The power to intimidate people, to make them fear they'll be called a bigot or denied opportunities for jobs, only works if people allow themselves to be bullied," George said. "Conservatives who make themselves out to be victims run the risk of playing into the hands of their opponents, suggesting that their opponents' cultural power is so vast that there's no way it can be resisted."
To professional free-speech advocates — such as Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship — the gay rights vs. free expression cases are fascinating and often difficult.
"It's very volatile — it requires you to parse the issues very closely," she said. "I'm of the school of thought that you should know your enemy. You need to know what people are thinking."
David Crary can be reached at http://twitter.com/CraryAP