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.



  1. Shawn Robinson

    Older people who believed homosexuality was wrong are dying off. Younger people who deal with “out” gay people on a day to day basis do not find them threatening. In the mean time religious conservatism has disenfranchised itself from being taken seriously after impeachment, a war on false premises, and day to day attacks on science while presenting false history.
    In short, they’ve made the gay people look great. When stacked up to conservatives, Obama looks like a champion of reason rather than a big compromiser.

  2. Robert

    And then we have Scott Lively and the Evangelicals to thank for this. Nothing the far right Christians like more than some good old fashioned punishment, up to and including death by stoning. Are you happy now, Scott? America exports more than manufactured goods, they export hate in the name of Jesus and Christianity. Of course Scotty will claim he argued for lesser punishments but what could he do? He’s just a lowly soldier of Christ. Notice the stunning silence from the Evangelicals here in the USA regarding this situation. That speaks louder than words.


  3. Alan Campagna

    The observation that the Fortune 500 companies forced the decision in Arizona is right on the money, and points to rift in the GOP and where it is going. The importance of tolerance to gays is very much underestimated by much of the GOP. It is not understood by them as being seen by the younger voters as indicative of general intolerance of women, immigrants, minorities, and young people’s issues.

    As a long time liberal I admit that after the intolerance and religious extremism of the Bush era, I was totally unprepared for the backlash that gay rights represents. Happy about it, but surprised.

    I see the Arizona decision and the statements by John Boehner about his own party as a strong indication that the fiscal conservatives, the backbone of the GOP for decades, are tired of losing elections and therefore reducing the power of the GOP, caused by Tea Party and religious extremists. A serious split is coming, I think, and I would not be surprised to see a third party form from those who do not want to return to the fiscal orientation of the GOP. The back-to-business Republicans will not be patient too much longer.

    The Supreme Court’s decision on DOMA has put a knife into the heart of the anti-gay political movement. They just don’t know it yet. The more shrill the extremist rhetoric becomes, the more convinced I am that they are being moved out of political mainstream by their own party.

    All of this is due to gay people not giving up on us. I can’t thank them enough.

  4. Let’s not get to carried away with how much attitudes towards gays have changed when we have a church in NYC’s Harlem district, advocating for the stoning of gays and all in the name of Jesus.

    And what about that politician in IL that just won the republican nomination for Congress that blames tornado’s on gay rights.

    Can’t you just feel all the love from these far right Christians, who I might add are usually the face of the republican party. Nothing they like more than some good old fashioned punishment.

    “I’m here for my stoning”. I said a few weeks ago that the far right would jump at the chance to bring back this kind of punishment if they ever got into power. That old conspiracy theorists is right again. If you think that organizations like The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Jewish Anti-Defamation League don’t pay attention to people like this, think again. They know its the exact same mindset that enabled the Brown Shirts of later Nazi fame. But of course to posters like Neftali, that’s just going to far to make such connections. That’s being conspiritorial. Well, Neftali go spew your theories on those 2 organizations.

    Neftali, is there any I can do to gall you even more? It’s so easy.


  5. Uh Robbie?

    The Atlah Christian church not exactly a mainstream church. In fact, I am not sure it is really even Christian other than in name only.


  6. doc: Who the hell are you to say whether a certain church “is really even Christian other than in name only”?

    Your church has a long history of blatant sexism. How Christian is that?

  7. Really?

    My Church that makes women Saints and is ridiculed for praying to the Virgin Mary is sexist?

    Huh. There are more powerful women in my parish than there are men.

    • None are priest. And what about Rome, where all those men hang out all dressed in fancy duds at the Vatican. How many women in those ranks?

      All the woman in the Catholic church that you talk about are in traditional roles.

  8. I actually think the Catholic Church is equally as guilty of male bashing. I have always wanted to be a nun and the church just won’t let me.

    • expdoc, in most of the big cities, there’s lots of drag shows where male performers get to act out opposite sex fantasies. Maybe you could indulge your desire to be a nun in that venue to see if its really what you want to be or if its just a passing phase?

      Were you thinking of the old fashioned floor length black gowns and habits that covered all but the oval of the face, or the more modern knee length skirts and plain blouse look?

      As a youngster, I always wonder if the nuns I grew up with at St. Anthony’s had hair or if it was cut off in a butch hair cut style. They were very mysterious to a youngster, especially Mother Superior. Maybe you could incorporate a yard stick in your act with some good old fashioned discipline scenes. My sister actually witnessed that kind of thing in her class, so it was true about nuns and rulers. I suspect some adults might find that appealing, kind of like re-living old times only with an adult kinky twist to it.

  9. Here’s some more Christian love, and don’t give me that its from the Old Testament BS because a lot of what the so called loving Christians use to defend their prejudices and bigotry comes from the old testament. I think all religious organizations must practice and enforce all aspects of their good book or lose their tax free status. But instead they use the buffet version of selective enforcement against those aspects that don’t personally benefit them and can be used to increase those donations. The Bible and other religious books are the most violent books ever written and all in the name of love… sick, sick, sick I tell you… and let’s not forget about eating the body and blood of christ, ceremonially but only because they can’t sacrifice anymore, at least here in the USA, so they eat him in the form of a wafer and wine… think about what your indulging in and you might see how sick it is.

    If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

    Deuteronomy 13:12-16 If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in 13 that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), 14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, 15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely,[a] both its people and its livestock. 16 You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt,

    Deuteronomy 17:2-7 “If there is found in your midst, in any of your [a]towns, which the Lord your God is giving you, a man or a woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, by transgressing His covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the heavenly host, which I have not commanded, 4 and if it is told you and you have heard of it, then you shall inquire thoroughly. Behold, if it is true and the thing certain that this detestable thing has been done in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil deed to your gates, that is, the man or the woman, and you shall stone them to [b]death. 6 On the [c]evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the [d]evidence of one witness. 7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

    Leviticus 21:17-18

    17 “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. 18 No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed;

  10. Sorry for the delay in my response.

    I just got back from a stoning.

    My response? Say it with me,

    Haters are always going to hate.

  11. “My response? Say it with me,

    Haters are always going to hate.”

    Yup, Haters gonna hate and it’s all there in the Bible to prove it. Damn, you’re catching on.

  12. Robert,

    You know what I think about you?


    …33″Little children, I am with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34″A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35″By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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