Almost 30 years ago, I flew around New York State with its new governor, Mario Cuomo. He told me that at a gay and lesbian advocacy dinner that week he and Bella Abzug, a firebrand left-wing former congresswoman, were the only straight people in attendance.

I offhandedly remarked that the issue made me a little uncomfortable. Cuomo pounced. Every time you think about that, he said, assume that your young son is gay and ask yourself how you would want him to be treated.

That conversation flashed back vividly last month when Cuomo’s son, Andrew, now himself the governor of New York, signed legislation making gay marriage legal in the state. America has come a long way on this issue, and many people now believe the government has no business prohibiting them or their sons or daughters or friends or colleagues or anyone else from getting married because of their sexual orientation.

Only seven years ago, in the aftermath of the legalization of same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, President George W. Bush’s strategist, Karl Rove, used the issue to scare voters in Ohio and elsewhere. It worked.

About that time, the most respected Republican pollster, Bob Teeter, noted that while the U.S. was becoming much more tolerant generally, it would probably remain divided on gay marriage for a long time. The late Mr. Teeter, like many of us, would be surprised at how rapidly attitudes are changing. Today, many surveys show majority support for gay marriage; less than a decade ago it was almost 2-to-l against. Then, the public was divided on civil unions for gays and lesbians; there are strong majorities in favor now.

Massachusetts Precedent

The politics around the issue have evolved, too. When a Massachusetts court legalized gay marriage there, many politicians expressed outrage. By contrast, there mainly was support or silence after the action by the New York State Legislature.

Most American politicians still express opposition to gay marriage. Among them is President Barack Obama, who says his views are evolving.

Among leading Republicans, with their social-conservative base, opposition is almost mandatory. Yet the party’s top presidential candidates -- former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty -- dodged the issue, and made no statements. Nor was there any mention on their campaign websites.

It was the same with the party’s congressional leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

‘Burden of Discrimination’

Perhaps they watched the contortions of some who did comment. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said he still believes marriage is defined as “between a man and a woman.” He went on to praise the state legislature for lifting the “burden of discrimination against gays and lesbians” and credited the “leadership” of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Even the blunt-talking Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a favorite presidential candidate of many in the religious right, equivocated. It is appropriate that this is a matter of state law, she said. Then she added that she would support a federal initiative to overturn the decisions of the states.

Count on Senator Rick Santorum, who argues that there is no right to privacy in sexual matters, to go against the grain. On one of his presidential campaign treks to Iowa, the former Pennsylvania senator said actions such as New York’s are part of a left-wing plot to “cheapen” heterosexual marriage and “devastate kids.”

Traditional Marriage

The change in attitude reflects the public’s growing rejection of critics’ claims that gay marriage threatens traditional marriage, are destabilizing to society, and are antithetical to the central purpose of marriage, to have children.

In those few states where same-sex marriages have been allowed, none of these dire consequences came to pass. An aide to Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown said the lawmaker still supports the Defense of Marriage Act, which bans federal recognition of gay marriage. At the same time, he suggested the debate over the issue is so yesterday: “It’s time to move on,” the aide said. “Senator Brown’s focus is on jobs.”

Still, there remain difficult issues.

State Law

Clearly, the gay marriage movement is about state law. Religions are and should be largely free to set their own standards. The New York measure specifically forbids forcing any religion to recognize gay marriages.

Nevertheless, there are thorny issues such as public funding for religious-affiliated groups that discriminate against gays on the marriage question.

There would be an outcry if public funds were provided to a group that practiced racial discrimination as there was not too long ago about Bob Jones University. The shrill and demagogic attack on same-sex marriage from some Catholic bishops has been counterproductive.

Still, recognizing the rights of gays and lesbians to marry should minimally impede the work of important faith-based groups such as the Catholic charities that often work in partnership with government.

Most every study suggests it’s better for parentless children to be adopted by gay or lesbian couples than to be stuck in a frightful foster-care system. The Catholic Church is an invaluable adoption agency, and probably would leave the field if forced to approve gay adoption.

Further, the matter isn’t settled politically.

Obama, a progressive Democrat, still tries to straddle the line. He’s for civil unions, and in favor of granting health insurance and inheritance rights to same-sex couples, and says the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional. But he hasn’t embraced same-sex marriage.

That’s an illogical position: Same-sex couples can act exactly like those in traditional marriages; they just can’t call their relationship a marriage.

The president’s evolving views are rooted in politics. He will endorse gay marriage; the only question is whether he will do so before (probably) or after the 2012 election.

Moreover, referendums to allow gay marriage were rejected, though narrowly, in recent years in California and Maine, two of the more socially progressive states. There are likely to be similar initiatives soon in Minnesota, North Carolina and elsewhere.

If so, some will succeed, others won’t. There will be, however, a continuum toward more tolerance.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.