The gay marriage paradox: as acceptance rises, so do legal barriers
President Obama's embrace of gay marriage mirrors growing support among many Americans, but states continue to ban it. The US Supreme Court could play a key role.
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By the last round of interviews, in 2010, the hushed tones had diminished. And more interviewees reported having a gay friend or relative. “How do you have an increase in gay relatives?” he says. “People had become more open.”Skip to next paragraph
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Powell also believes that, ironically, social conservatives helped remove the taboo around discussion of gay rights: All the advocacy to protect traditional marriage kept the issue in public consciousness, he says, making discussion more routine.
The news media and the film and television industry have also been influential. Same-sex wedding announcements now appear regularly in newspapers. When Vice President Joe Biden revealed May 6 that he was “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage – forcing Obama’s hand on the matter – he cited the influence of “Will & Grace.” The TV sitcom, which ran from 1998 to 2006, was about a straight woman and her gay best friend, but it did not involve gay marriage.
Still, “Will & Grace” paved the way for today’s “Modern Family,” the most popular show on TV, which includes a family headed by two men. Portrayals of gay relationships on TV are now so routine that the mainstream media almost yawn.
Among social conservative activists, the news media and entertainment world are a big part of the problem – especially when it comes to the most striking result in polls: the generational split among Evangelicals. A survey last year by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 44 percent of white evangelical Millennials – those between ages 18 and 29 – favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, compared with 19 percent of white Evangelicals overall.
Fighting the tide
Advocates for traditional marriage aren’t surprised.
“Three institutions very strongly promote acceptance of homosexuality: the education establishment – both higher ed and K through 12 – and also the news media and entertainment media,” says Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council in Washington. “So I find when I talk to students, they’ve rarely ever heard the arguments against same-sex marriage. All they’ve ever grown up with is the arguments in favor. It’s difficult for them to overcome that conditioning.”
But Mr. Sprigg doesn’t believe young adults can’t come to a more conservative position on the matter. After all, he says, people get more conservative as they age. In addition, conservatives tend to have larger families, which over time could help shift public opinion. He also doesn’t buy the argument that federal recognition of gay marriage is inevitable.
“Don’t underestimate the strength of the bulwark that social conservatives have put up through the passage of now-31 state constitutional amendments defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” Sprigg says. “The only way we’re likely to see same-sex marriage nationwide in the near future is if the US Supreme Court were to impose it, by declaring it to be a constitutional right.”
“I can’t rule out that possibility,” he adds, “but I’m cautiously optimistic that they will not do that.”
Still, an analysis of public opinion toward same-sex marriage shows the challenge conservatives face. Majorities in 16 states now support gay marriage, says Gregory B. Lewis, a public policy professor at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Even Massachusetts didn’t have majority support when the state’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled in 2003 for same-sex marriage. In 2011, Massachusetts topped the list with 67 percent support.