It’s 1972 in America: “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face”, by Roberta Flack, tops the Billboard chart, The Godfather is released in cinemas, the Watergate scandal rocks the nation, the immaculate reception gives the Pittsburgh Steelers their first ever playoff win, and homosexuality can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of the American Psychiatric Association as a mental illness.
To be sure, America has seen tremendous change in the last forty-four years. Perhaps none more surprising than the stark reversal in public opinion on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In fact, in 1972, a significant percentage of Americans believed that basic civil liberties, like freedom of speech, didn’t extend to gays or lesbians, with only 60% of the country supporting a gay person’s right to speak before a public audience.
Today, in 2017, the same percentage of Americans, sixty percent, think marriages between same sex couples should be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages.
It is that dramatic shift in public opinion that has informed, and at times directed, public policy for several decades — ending with the Supreme Court declaring same-sex marriage legal in all fifty states earlier this year. While the evolution of public opinion on this issue began decades ago, the majority of support for same-sex marriage has come in just the last eight years. Accelerated by lived experience and generational change, the evolution of the American public on the issue of same-sex marriage has redefined what liberty and equality mean in the 21stcentury.
The drastic transformation of public opinion about homosexuality is not limited to opinion of same-sex marriage though. In fact, public opinion has shifted just as dramatically in a myriad of issues related to homosexuality.
In 2003, for instance, when asked whether or not same-sex couples should have the legal right to adopt a child, 49% of Americans thought they should while 48% thought they should not. Asked the same question again in 2014, 63% of Americans thought same-sex couples should have the legal right to adopt a child and 35% thought they should not.
In 2004, the country was split on whether or not gay and lesbian relations between two consenting adults should be legal. By 2015, 68% of Americans believed gay and lesbian relations should be legal while 28% believed it should not be legal.
In 2001, when asked if gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable, regardless of legality, 40% of Americans believed it was morally acceptable while 53% believed it was morally wrong. Again, by 2015, those numbers had more than flip-flopped with 63% believing it to be morally acceptable and 34% believing it to be morally wrong.
Interestingly, as less people oppose same-sex marriage overall, more people see it as a major factor in how they vote for major offices: in 2008 only 16% of Americans said that the candidate for whom they’d vote must share their views on same-sex marriage, that number jumped to 26% in May of 2015. That 10% jump is likely a function of opposing political parties digging in the trenches, one month before the Supreme Court was to make its ruling on gay marriage public, and highlights the contrasting degree of support for same-sex marriage across demographics.
While support for same-sex marriage has risen across nearly every demographic since 2001, with the pace picking up substantially since 2008, there remains a stark contrast in the degree of support by political ideology. Support for same-sex marriage now stands at 79% among liberals, up from 56% in 2001 and 62% in 2008; at 64% among moderates, up from 41% in 2001 and 45% in 2008; at 30% among conservatives, up from 18% in 2001 and 20% in 2008. Far fewer conservatives support same-sex marriage, and are doing so at a much slower rate.
To be certain, religion plays a significant role in low support for same-sex marriage among conservatives. Polls looking at attitudes of same-sex marriage by religious affiliation confirm the connection between religiosity, particularly evangelism, and opposition to same-sex marriage. Among people who are religiously unaffiliated, 82% express support for same-sex marriage. White mainline Protestants are the most supportive religious denomination with 62% expressing support, followed by Catholics with 57% expressing support, and Black Protestants with 34% expressing support. White evangelical Protestants express the lowest level of support with 24%. Moreover, when people who oppose same-sex marriage were asked the reasons why they oppose it, 47% said their religion/The Bible says it’s wrong and an additional 36% cited a traditional view of marriage or moral reservations as reasons why the oppose same-sex marriage.
When trying to understand the rapid shift in public opinion, the most informative demographics to look at are Millennials and Generation Xrs. Nearly seven in ten Americans born in 1965 or later now support same-sex marriage, while less than half of the Baby Boomers express support. Moreover, younger generations are expressing support at a much faster rate. The Silent Generation, however, has also become more supportive of same-sex marriage in recent years, going from 23% expressing support in 2009 to 39% in 2015.
So why has public opinion about same-sex marriage changed so fast, particularly in the last 8 years?
Without a doubt, the generational change we explored earlier has been, and will continue to be, a main factor in increasing support of same-sex marriage. But there are other significant factors that shouldn’t be ignored, as they could very well be the underpinnings of the younger generation’s supportive attitudes.
One such factor is lived experience. In 1985, only 24% of Americans said they had a friend, relative, or coworker who is gay or lesbian, in 2008 that number went up to 57%, and by 2013, 75% of Americans said they had a friend, relative, or coworker who is gay or lesbian. Not only do most Americans know someone who is gay today but, because of the increased rate at which states legalized same-sex marriage beginning in 2008, many Americans have attended a same-sex wedding, had a same-sex couple move in next door, or seen same-sex couples playing with their kids in the park.
Even if Americans don’t know anybody that is gay or lesbian, they are certainly familiar with at least one gay or lesbian character in a TV show or movie. Shows like Soap, The Office, Modern Family, Glee, The Walking Dead, Shameless, and many others, give viewers a feeling that they know someone who is gay or lesbian, even if they don’t know any personally. Furthermore, they give the viewer a chance to open their hearts and minds (and maybe even reevaluate their position on gays and lesbians completely).
In 1977, only 13% of Americans thought being gay or lesbian was something a person is born with, that number went up to 35% in 2009, and by 2015, 51% of Americans thought being gay or lesbian was something a person is born with. This data suggests that, today, more Americans consider being gay or lesbian to be an immutable characteristic; as something no more changeable than the size of one’s feet; as something no more open to discrimination than the color of one’s skin, eyes, or hair.
Since 2008, the question of same-sex marriage has increasingly become a question of equal rights and personal liberty. When those who support same-sex marriage were asked of the reasons why 32% cited equal rights and freedoms, an additional 32% cited personal choice of love and happiness independent of sexual orientation. Indeed, when invalidating bans on same-sex marriage nation wide, the Supreme Court rested on the same principles of liberty and equality that have ushered the shift in public opinion. In his majority opinion in Obergfell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:
“It is through the interpretation of the equal protection clause, over the course of human history since its passing, that the Supreme Court has better understood and recognized societal changes that reveal unjustified inequality within our most fundamental institutions that once passed unnoticed and unchallenged.”
With the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 stares, the Obergfell case takes its seat next to Roe and Brown in the annals of history; it effectively shuts the door on the question of state sponsored bans on gay love.
The history of human experience on this spinning rock we call Earth teaches us that it’s much too easy to deny the minority that which the majority enjoys. And that, often, we do this out of a fear of the unknown.
As the smoke from the battle for same-sex marriage clears, the battle for acceptance, outside of the law, continues; as gays and lesbians attempt to persuade their fellow citizens that happiness, tragedy, and love belong to the human condition, occurring independent of sexual orientation.
That battle can only be adjudicated in the court of public opinion. For now, the winds of change are at their back — as many more Americans are realizing that gays and lesbians are not so different after all.