Debate on gay unions splits along generations

Recent polls suggest that young adults and older people view gay rights in starkly different terms.

For today's teenagers, homosexuality has never been a taboo topic.

They've grown up with positive gay characters on MTV's the Real World, and on network shows like Will and Grace. Many have "gay-straight alliances" at their high schools. And it's a safe bet that they know someone who's gay. All of which helps explain why for many young people, their reaction to today's debates over gay rights issues from marriage to antisodomy laws is simply: What's the big deal?

In fact, the biggest divide over gay rights in America today may not be along political parties or religious factions, but among generations.

In a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of those aged 18-29 agreed homosexual relations should be legal, compared with 39 percent of those aged 65 and older. Most Americans don't believe same-sex couples should be able to marry, yet 59 percent of incoming college freshmen support same-sex marriage, according to the latest survey by the Higher Education Research Institute.

It's a trend that disturbs some Americans, reassures others, and leaves a large number of families split on an issue that's as sensitive as abortion.

"There's an increasing sense among young people that they don't get it - why do their parents and grandparents disapprove of this?" says Gilbert Herdt, professor of sexuality and anthropology at San Francisco State University and director of the National Sexuality Resource Center.

But young people's openness is something many of their parents and grandparents find hard to understand. Marriage, for them, will always be between a man and a woman.

On the more general matter of homosexual relations, opinion has been shifting among older as well as younger generations: The latest Gallup poll found that six in 10 Americans agree gay sex should be legal (up from a low of 32 percent in 1986), and that 88 percent oppose discrimination against homosexuals.

The shift has been paralleled by the increasing exposure of homosexuality in popular culture. In the 1990s, Dr. Herdt notes, media celebrities like Oprah Winfrey began having same-sex couples and gay parents on TV, highlighting the normalcy of gay life. The AIDS epidemic was bringing more gays out of the closet. And homosexuality was batted about the airwaves during the gays-in-the-military debate in 1993. "It was no longer about shame, silence, and fear, as it was for my parents," says Herdt.

These days, certainly, gay rights is about anything but silence. The recent Supreme Court case affirming the legality of same-sex relations is the biggest case in point. But every week seems to bring a new development: gay marriage in Canada; Wal-Mart adopting a nondiscrimination policy; a gay reality TV show to air on Bravo.

In this light, many see the Supreme Court's reversal of its 1986 decision upholding anti-sodomy laws as a symbol of how dramatically public opinion has changed.

Nirmal Chandraratna measures that change in little things - like the fact that the cable pay-per-view company he works for in New York just threw him a shower. "When you come out of the closet, this is the last thing you expect," laughs Mr. Chandraratna, who held a commitment ceremony last month with his partner of four years.

His parents attended the ceremony but aren't comfortable telling anyone in his hometown of Palos Verdes, Calif., that their son is gay. "My mom's religious values are in conflict with this way of life," he explains.

He sees differences among younger generations as well. Among his peers - those in their early 30s - Chandraratna says he's often the first gay person they've met. Friends his age tend to be women or other gay men. Yet he has befriended some younger straight men in their early 20s, and he's amazed how comfortable they are hanging out with gay men. "They know about the gay lifestyle," he says, ""They know how to joke around."

IT'S that simple fact of knowing gays and lesbians - who have come out of the closet in ever increasing numbers and at younger ages - that has changed the opinion of many Americans. Nowadays, too, schools are more actively promoting tolerance. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), for instance, lists over 1,700 gay-straight alliances, in small towns and big cities, from Georgia to Utah.

"More and more people begin to recognize that LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people are part of their communities," says Eliza Byard of GLSEN. "They've grown up with them. They've had them in classes. It would be very hard to convince that generation of people that there's a legitimate reason their classmates shouldn't have the same rights they do."

That's exactly what worries Americans such as Glenn Stanton, an analyst for marriage and family for Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian group in Colorado Springs, Colo.

"What kind of culture are [young people] going to be creating for us, and are those decisions good?" he asks. "They were raised in the midst of a huge family experiment called no-fault divorce.... They don't realize they're going to subject a whole other generation to another experiment."

But he and other social conservatives say there's something older generations have learned that young people are missing - "how marriage uniquely solves the paradox of humanity that helps a male and female come together." He says "Marriage is a natural thing.... When we reduce this to rights talk, which young people typically do, we're failing to recognize the natural law present in marriage."

For now, the momentum in public thought appears to be toward increasing openness to the idea of gay marriage. Linda Davies and Gloria Bailey - a lesbian couple who have been together 32 years - are among the plaintiffs in a gay-marriage case now before the Massachusetts high court. They say they feel growing support from their own generation. Just recently, they got a standing ovation as they reported to their Unitarian church in Brewster, Mass., about the court case. Says Ms. Bailey: "It was mind boggling."

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