As images of gay couples exchanging heartfelt vows flicker across TV screens nationwide, the cultural debate on one of today's most divisive issues has grown as clangorous as wedding bells, as contentious as a nasty divorce. With coverage from Massachusetts to San Francisco, where thousands have lined up for marriage licenses, an abstract issue suddenly has a human face - thousands of them.
Some say all the talk of "gay marriage" has made the term less dissonant, scattering it through the public consciousness so that it grows familiar, if not popular. San Francisco's move has sparked spontaneous support from far-flung places - Australians sending flowers to couples at City Hall; a Minnesota church mailing cards; a message from Atlanta reading "Straight, but not narrow-minded."
But the omnipresent public displays have also spurred a backlash. Many conservative activists are convinced that gay marriage writ large is a graphic reminder to those on the fence of what could be just around the corner at their own city halls.
Jesse Kenney says the images work both ways. Watching people get married cultivates the notion that gay couples are regular people, explains the South Boston construction worker. "But when it's done in a brash way and gets flaunted, that sways me. I don't like it."
Among his fellow construction workers, he continues, "a lot of guys don't like it. If some guys are hanging out and watching a couple of guys on TV getting married, a couple of jokes get made" - and those who are "a little homophobic ... tend to get defensive."
Tolerance of gays and lesbians, even civil unions, has unquestionably grown fast in recent years: 45 percent of Americans now support civil unions, according an ABC News/Washington Post poll. But often, it's tempered by caveats like Mr. Kenney's: "As long as they don't flaunt it," say many, or "what people do - in private - is their own business."
Even within the gay-rights movement, there's no consensus that wedding fever is a good thing, particularly San Francisco's civil-disobedience approach. Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, one of three openly gay members of Congress, has suggested San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom may be undermining Massachusetts' more deliberate legal approach. California Sen. Barbara Boxer (D), a vocal supporter of gay rights, has also said she disagrees with the mayor.
"I'm somewhat uncomfortable with what's going on in San Francisco," says Joseph Kociubes, president of the Boston Bar Association, who filed an amicus brief to the Massachusetts court supporting gay marriage. "Ultimately, I think it's not a municipal decision, but a statewide decision. But having said that, the part that intrigues me is that it could serve to bring the issue to a head more quickly."
Opposition is already clear, most notably in President Bush's support of a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman - protecting, in his words, "the most fundamental institution of civilization." His move was seen by some as a means of polarizing the electorate, playing up Americans' tendency to vote more along cultural than economic lines. Georgia's state legislature is debating a ban on gay marriage, and Kentucky legislators were, until Wednesday, seeking a constitutional amendment along the same lines.
The backlash is also clear in polls. In the three weeks between Jan. 18 and Feb. 22, support for a constitutional amendment enshrining marriage as a union between a man and a woman rose from 30 percent to 42 percent in the West, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll. Some of that, notes Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center, is driven by older people disturbed by unfamiliar images. "When you have a societal change of this magnitude, to see pictures of gay couples if you're not prepared for it - it's a surprise, a new thing. Now it's thrust in their face on the evening news, and the initial reaction is somewhat negative."
Still, Mr. Doherty adds, opposition to gay marriage has remained relatively constant (about 60 percent nationwide). Most people want states to decide, he continues, and favor an amendment only when they feel states aren't doing their jobs.
It's unclear what San Francisco's 3,000-plus marriage certificates will ultimately mean. But historically, local change is often a necessary precursor to state-level change, says Jenny Pizer, a senior staff attorney at Lambda Legal's western office.
Beyond San Francisco, many gay-rights advocates have been hailing the outspoken support for gay marriage from mayors, including Richard Daley of Chicago, R.T. Ryback of Minneapolis, and Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City. Hearing Mayor Daley say he'd have "no problem" with Cook County issuing licenses to same-sex couples is "worth 10,000 gay activists speaking out," says Rick Garcia, political director for Equality Illinois. "People respect Mayor Daley. They know he's not a knee-jerk liberal. They know he's a strong family man. He's a devout Catholic. Hearing him speak out makes people who may not support gay marriage pause and rethink."
To Richard Rohan, riding a Boston subway, media exposure "only strengthens the feeling" that gays should have the right to marry. He felt that way already, he says, and suspects that the barrage of coverage confirms people in their old opinions.
To some, it's simply a matter of "live and let live." "I've been married a few times, so what do I have to say about it?" asks Bill, a Boston electrician. "It's none of my business."
• Sara B. Miller and Noel C. Paul contributed to this report from Boston.