Gay marriage: Prop. 8 seems a relic of different era in California

California voters approved Prop. 8, which bans gay marriage, in 2008. Between then and today, when the US Supreme Court takes up Prop. 8's constitutionality, the social landscape has changed.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
Supporting and opposing views converge during a demonstration on the issue of Proposition 8 in San Francisco in 2009. California Supreme Court justices were hearing arguments on lawsuits seeking to overturn the state's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. Now Prop. 8 is before the US Supreme Court.

When the United States Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday morning about Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in the state, legal experts will analyze every comment and gesture to learn what the justices think of the law. In California, by contrast, what residents think of the law is hardly mystery.

Little more than four years after Californians approved the ban, their attitudes toward gay marriage have shifted dramatically. In 2008, the inititiave passed with 52 percent of the vote. Today, some 61 percent of California voters approve of allowing same-sex couples to marry – with only 32 percent opposed.

In many ways, the forces reshaping Californians’ opinions of gay marriage are the same as those that have driven similar shifts in states nationwide. As homosexuality becomes more accepted and open, more people report having gay friends or family, which has removed many former objections.

But activists say Prop. 8 itself created a backlash that only accelerated Californians’ willingness to take a fresh look at gay rights. And Hollywood, California’s most famous industry, has taken a leading role in breaking down stereotypes and fears.

“We are all simply more comfortable with gays in our midst,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “Everyone has a gay friend or their children do, and so this fear that they are just awful has been allayed. And therein lies the change.”

Research from Williams Institute states that there are approximately 581,300 same-sex couples in the United States, including 50,000 to 80,000 legally married same-sex spouses and another 85,000 who are in civil unions or registered domestic partnerships. Approximately 20 percent of same-sex couples are raising nearly 250,000 children.

With that broader context, California has felt the issue acutely, in large part because of the controversy surrounding Prop. 8.

Jane Wishon, who has been married to her husband for 37 years and who has three kids, says her own experience points to California’s broader post-Prop. 8 transformation. An elder in the Presbyterian church, she says she grew up with the solid conviction that marriage was simply between a man and a woman. Her husband suggested to her that “separate but equal is never really equal,” but while she had no animus toward gays, she felt unbudgeable on the issue: “Like red is just red.”

Then she stood near the signature gatherers for Prop. 8. She was only trying to help – explaining to people the complicated fact that a “yes” for Prop. 8 meant “no” to gay marriage and that a “no” meant “yes” to gay marriage. But some people had thought she was a gay-rights activist.

“They just treated me differently,” she says. Many kept a conspicuous distance.

“I realized what LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people put up with day after day, and that cemented my support for equality,” she says.

Later, getting involved with a marriage-equality group, she met many gays who wanted to get married.

“I realized here was a whole group of people who simply loved others and wanted to spend their lives together but were never shown the respect and dignity that comes with marriage,” she says.

She doesn’t want to tell others what to think, but suggests that the American government is not living up to its promise of “all men are created equal.”

Ironically, Prop. 8 helped the gay-rights cause in California, activists say.

“Prop. 8 really activated the gay community in the state,” says Michael McKeon of Love, Honor, Cherish, a group that formed in Los Angeles to fight for marriage equality in 2008.

“Nobody really thought it would pass, but when it did, I realized I had to do something, and get involved,” he says.  

Dozens of teams began a focused, door-knocking campaign, with he and his partner of 15 years spending many hours talking to people and explaining the issues. “We introduced ourselves, talked about who we were and why the stakes were so important,” he says. “We had thousands of conversations ... and we changed people's minds.”

At the same time, gay rights has become more mainstream, with President Obama last year becoming the first president to announce his support for gay marriage while in office.

High-profile California companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook are among nearly 300 companies that filed a brief in support of the challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which allows only heterosexual couples to be eligible for federal marriage benefits. 

“Companies should care about repealing DOMA because DOMA forces companies to live in the past,” says Joe Solmenese, co-founder at the law firm Gavin/Solmonese.

Hollywood has also played a role in reflecting this shift in attitudes, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. While Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out on “Ellen” was seen as a watershed moment for gays on television, more recent portrayals – such as “Will and Grace” and “Modern Family” – have knit gay characters more seamlessly into everyday American life.

“Pop culture is not so good at pushing the envelope as it is in licking it,” says Mr. Thompson. Everyone knew gay people in the 1950s, but just didn’t know they were gay, he says. “Now we do."

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