BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Eight years ago, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, said she was slowly becoming a gay-rights advocate but wasn't ready to accept same-sex married couples.
"I haven't evolved to that state yet," she told The Miami Herald in 2003. "But God isn't done with me."
Friday, several national gay-rights groups announced that Ros-Lehtinen had become the first Republican in Congress to co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act, which would repeal a 1996 law that prevents the federal government from recognizing married gay couples.
"I have had the opportunity to speak with so many members of our community on both sides of the issue of marriage equality and, after much soul-searching, have concluded that it is time for our laws to better reflect the principles of equality that serve the better angels of our nature," Ros-Lehtinen told The Herald on Friday. "I'm a pro-life, gay rights advocate so I manage to upset many folks at any given time!"
Ros-Lehtinen was among 342 'yes' votes for the '96 Defense of Marriage Act. Now, she has become the 124th co-sponsor of the bill to repeal it.
Ros-Lehtinen, a congresswoman since 1989 and married to former U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen, has said she didn't teach their children about gay rights -- she learned from them.
By 2003, Ros-Lehtinen had already co-sponsored or supported a federal hate-crimes bill that protects gays from federal employment discrimination and laws that increased funding for HIV/AIDS prevention.
In 2005, she bucked Republican Party leadership and joined 70 Democrats in supporting repeal of the military gay ban.
The next year, Ros-Lehtinen said she was one of 27 Republicans who voted against a federal constitutional amendment on gay marriage.
During summer 2008, Ros-Lehtinen told Miami gay Republicans that she opposed Florida's Amendment 2, which passed the following November and banned gay marriages, civil unions and state-recognized domestic partnerships.
Later, she learned that daughter Amanda had come out as a transgender man named Rodrigo.
In 2010, gay rights groups Equality Florida and SAVE Dade honored Ros-Lehtinen with awards at their annual Miami-Dade County receptions. This May at the SAVE Dade gala, she held a reception for gay, bisexual and transgender Republicans.
"The goal of equality is an important one and has no party labels, " Ros-Lehtinen said in May.