The ‘Spotlight’ series is dedicated to highlighting civil and human rights concerns and abuses, at home and abroad.
In 1996, Gallup asked a representative sample of Americans: “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriage?” This was in the context of Congress passing the Defense of Marriage Act, Section 3 of which has recently been found unconstitutional: 68% of Americans responded that they did not approve of same-sex marriage, while 27% said they did.
Seventeen years later, the numbers have changed. Confronted with the same question, Gallup found that 53% of Americans now approve of same-sex marriage, while 45% disapprove. In 1996, no state allowed same-sex unions of any kind – though Hawaii would go on to legalize them a year later. Presently, 13 states as well as the District of Columbia recognize same-sex marriage; the populations of those states comprise around 30% of the country.
It doesn’t take an advanced degree in social science to see that public opinion on gay marriage has changed quickly. Issues like interracial marriage, extramarital sex, marijuana use, single parenthood, women in the workforce, slavery, and women’s suffrage percolated for a long time before changing public policy. In contrast, It doesn’t take an advanced degree in social science to see that public opinion on gay marriage has changed quickly.
Typically, large changes in public opinion happen through a process euphemistically known as ‘cohort replacement’: that is, younger people who grew up with a different way of seeing the world eventually replace their parents. The older generation never changes its mind, it just dies off. In this spirit, Max Planck is credited with observing that “science advances one funeral at a time.” This is sad, but true.
On gay marriage, however, something pretty remarkable is happening: people are actually changing their minds. Why?
There are a few good reasons. One is that the straight community and the gay community have always been more intertwined than racial groups have historically been. In the 1950s, there was little chance that your son or neighbor might surprise you by coming out as black. Homosexuality is obviously different, and that sort of exposure and familiarity has a way of softening positions. Likewise, racial lines are rarely crossed unknowingly – when you have cross-racial contact, you usually know that’s what you’re doing and you might filter the experience through that lens. Again, homosexuality is different. Building a relationship with someone, and only later learning that he’s gay, challenges preconceived notions in a way in which racial prejudice isn’t usually confronted.
I’m sure that coming out isn’t easy – and it used to be a lot harder than it is now – but it is effective precisely because people come out to others with whom they already have social bonds.
The gay rights movement has also benefitted from, as well as been a part of, a general loosening of community control over private lives. As society decriminalized adultery, the full compliment of sexual acts between consenting adults, and introduced no-fault divorce, it became easier for people to reason about gay rights through the rubric of: if it doesn’t harm me, who cares?
There’s an air of inevitability in looking at gay rights in that way – but that would be a mistake. The truth is that the gay rights movement has also been incredibly savvy. By focusing on marriage, military service, and adoption, the gay rights movement framed the issue in a way Karl Rove would have been proud of. Advocates for equal rights found a way to talk about their issue through traditional and conservative values. Martin Luther King Jr. did the same thing when he framed the struggle for civil rights in terms of a ‘promissory note’ issued at the country’s founding: both movements asked the country to move forward by simultaneously reclaiming something older. These were progressive efforts couched in the language of traditional values.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been tension in the gay community over this strategy, with some corners arguing for a more root-and-branch approach to countering patriarchy and hetero-normativity. Opponents often highlight such arguments to portray the gay community as radical, but the truth is that this is the same split we’ve seen in every other social movement: MLK had the Black Panthers to contend with, Professor Xavier dealt with Magneto, and Chris Christie will need to figure out what to do with Ted Cruz. In general, the gay community has supported an equality agenda rather than a more radical approach because, in the end, gay people are just people…only gay. Marriage, mini-vans, soccer practice, and ballet recitals appeal to them as much – or as little – as they do to the rest of us.
But the celebratory tone surrounding strides towards equal marriage rights, as well as repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military, has served to obscure some troubling realities. Here’s a county-level map showing those jurisdiction where an employer may fire you for no other reason than being gay:
And here’s a map showing states where you can be denied housing because you are gay:
Work and housing are, to state the obvious, pretty crucial services. But it hardly ends there. For example, LGBT teenagers are five times more likely than their heterosexual peers to commit suicide. Lesbian and bisexual women are three times as likely as heterosexual women to report having been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes; for gay and bisexual men, their risk of having been sexually assaulted is up to fifteen times higher than it is for heterosexual men. The current Congress has only six openly LGBT members – or less than 0.01% of the body.
Very little of this is talked about. Public actors always have to contend with the bandwidth challenge – that is, the public has a limited attention span and so you have to keep that in mind when trying to get them to do something. Focusing on marriage has worked to leverage change, but it won’t be enough. Real equality will require a more diverse effort and that will mean a more diffused movement taking up greater bandwidth – that will require more Americans to care and do something.
Part of what has made marriage equality relatively fertile ground is the fact that moving towards it doesn’t require anyone to make any actual sacrifices. The way towards progress is also clear: change the laws. For some of the other areas mentioned here, change would also be largely painless and primarily legal, but tackling some of the outcomes mentioned above is going to require more active involvement. In that sense, gay rights aren’t that different from the struggle around race: it was one thing to end legal discrimination, but it’s been a whole other challenge to tackle racism.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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