Why have public attitudes about gays changed so amazingly fast?
More than a few Americans, especially those on the Religious Right, no doubt were shocked at the overwhelming public outcry (above) against a legislative proposal in Arizona that was widely seen as anti-gay and eventually was vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
Even I, a long-time supporter of gay rights, was surprised at the breadth of the uprising against the bill at issue.
Jonathan Cohn EXAMINES the factors behind this phenomenon:
Why have attitudes changed? The transformation may seem inevitable now, but it didn’t always. And it’s happened with breathtaking speed…[I]t was just ten years ago that President Bush and the Republicans unabashedly used the threat of gay marriage to whip conservative voters into a frenzy. Since that time, support for same-sex marriage has increased 21 percent, according to a just-released poll from the Public Religion Research Institute. A majority now express support for same-sex marriage, up from about a third in 2003. Other polls show similar shifts.
It’s easy to assume the change represents nothing more than a generational shift. And, superficially, the survey data would seem to support that: In virtually every demographic category, support for same-sex marriage is higher among younger generations. But that’s not the whole story—not by a longshot. Pollsters have found that, over time, support for same-sex marriage has risen even within generations…
One likely reason for this, according to most social scientists, is the contact theory. As more people realize that they have a gay neighbor or friend or family member, the reality of that relationship crashes into—and destroys—their stereotypes and preconceptions….
But even that explanation is inadequate. For one thing, there’s a possible selection bias in the polling data: The people most likely to hear that a friend or loved one is gay may be the ones most likely to take the news well. (Think about it: If you’re gay, the people you tend to tell will be the ones you expect to react positively.) In addition, all of those LGBT people didn’t magically appear out of thin air. They were there all along—only, they were in the closet, unable to talk about their sexual orientation. So the real mystery here, or at least a big part of it, is what suddenly made the environment more hospitable?
At this point, social scientists admit, they have no answers they can verify—only theories that seem roughly to fit the facts. And one of those theories is about popular culture. Cultural conservatives complain that Hollywood has foisted acceptance of homosexuality on the country. There’s something to that. In movies and on television, through the worlds of music and art, performers and producers have aggressively challenged majority views about homosexuality…
But the pop culture explanation has limits, too. “LGBT presence on TV has been rising fairly steadily, as has support for same-sex marriage,” notes Lewis, who teaches at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, “but people who chose to watch ‘Will and Grace’ were systematically different from those who did not.” And that’s why, ultimately, a full explanation will have to account for individual actions—not from politicians and business leaders, but from the millions of Americans who identified themselves as gay during the years when it was a lot less acceptable than it is today. This may have created a critical mass, enabling many more people to talk about their sexual identity and, simultaneously, enabling them to have more serious conversations about it.
Of course, to identify as gay is still to take real risks—of ostracism, discrimination, even physical harm. But the risk is smaller than it once was, and that’s in no small part of those individuals who decided to be real trailblazers. It was their courage, as much as any politician’s or business leader’s, that made possible this week’s victory in Arizona.