Gay Marriage

Jonathan Rauch Explores America's Enormous 20-Year Shift on Gay Issues, But Where's the Credit for Tech Innovations?

Americans are finding out about the gays next door, because communication improvements over the past 20 years allow them to stay next door


Liberation! (But no fems, plz.)

Reason contributor Jonathan Rauch uses the cover of the latest issue of American Review to discuss the remarkable, breathtaking shift in public opinion on gay and lesbian issues in this country since 1995. Rauch makes note of the many factors resulting in cultural changes, but misses one key point (which I'll get to). He opens by reminding us that it wasn't all that long ago that even floating the idea of legally recognized gay marriages suggested you were a crazy person:

The fall of 1995 does not really seem all that long ago, does it? To me, it is as vivid as yesterday, yet also ancient as Babylon. I am walking with my father in Belfast, Ireland, and he is urging me to abandon my rash idea, which is to write in support of same-sex marriage. Why? I am puzzled: he has nothing against gay people, nor any disapproval of his gay son. The problem, he admonishes me, is that the idea of a man marrying a man, or a woman marrying a woman, is nuts. In fact, it is so far outside the realm of the possible that I will ruin my credibility as a journalist by supporting it. People will think I am nuts.

In 1995, his advice was not unreasonable. The idea of same-sex marriage seemed disgusting or risible to its opponents (who were practically everybody) and a pipe dream to its supporters. Some advocates imagined that their grandchildren's generation might just possibly live to see it. In January of 1996, when I worked at The Economist magazine and we published a cover leader endorsing same-sex marriage, the mail which poured in was exceeded in volume and hostility only by the onslaught against the magazine's call for the abolition of the monarchy.

The Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws only 10 years ago. Now a baker's dozen of states recognize gay marriages. Of course, it's not all rainbows and disco balls. Because the Supreme Court in its gay marriage cases last term declined to rule on whether recognition was a right (confining the ruling to requiring the federal government recognize gay marriages where legal), there's still a struggle ahead. But culture shifts that have pushed America toward more acceptance of not freaking out over people being gay are not likely to reverse:

Begin with the obvious: demographics. It is very important, but perhaps not as important as you think. Support for gay marriage is correlated with age; three in four Americans under 30 favour it. Gay marriage opponents are dying off and being replaced with proponents. More is going on than generational replacement, however. We know this because support has increased impressively among every generational cohort. Tellingly, support almost doubled over the past ten years, Pew finds, among "silent generation" members born between 1928 and 1945 — people in their late 60s and older. A lot of Americans, not excluding older Americas, have changed their minds.

One reason is what I think of as the Tocqueville effect. Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman whose observations of America in the 1830s remain shrewdly relevant, famously remarked on Americans' deference to majority opinion: "As long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, everyone is silent, and the friends as well as the opponents of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety." Although he exaggerates, the broad point remains true: the legitimising effect of public opinion is such that, other things being equal, majority support tends to amplify itself. Even if I have doubts about gay marriage, the fact that most of my countrymen are on the other side weakens my resolve and impels me to acknowledge the legitimacy of their view. The difference between support at, say, 55 per cent versus 45 per cent — that is, the different between majority and minority standing — is one of kind, not merely of degree. That is not to say that opposition evaporates or crawls under a rock when it loses majority standing. But its power and relevance are greatly reduced.

Rauch goes further in exploring why individuals have had changes of heart on gay issues. He uses David Blankenhorn, the Proposition 8 defender whose switch in position I wrote about last year, as an example:

Why the change of heart? Not just, or even mainly, because he had been argued out of his position. Rather, he had come to know gay people and gay couples, and had come to understand better their lives and aspirations. "I changed my opposition to gay marriage because of personal relationships," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "Put simply, becoming friends with gay people who were married or wanted to get married led me to realise that I couldn't in good conscience continue to oppose it."

He spoke not just for himself but for millions. When Pew asked people, in 2013, why they had changed their minds on gay marriage, the response they most often volunteered was that they know someone who is gay. Today, Pew finds, 87 per cent report knowing someone who is gay or lesbian, and half have a close friend or family member who is gay. Where homosexuals used to seem a shadowy menace, they have come to be the couple next door, or the colleague at the office. It is hard to hate or fear people you know and like. The process of "coming out" has proved to be the most potent of all forms of egalitarian activism.

Read Rauch's whole essay here.

I have one criticism of Rauch's analysis in that it ignores another major transformation that has taken place over the past 20 years: our massive technological and communication revolution. How did gays become the couple next door or the colleague in the office? Sure, more gay people have come out of the closet, but there's more. In 1995, gay men and women were still having to turn to personal ads in urban gay publications or friendly alternative weeklies to find love (or just, you know, sex). The rise of gay ghettos in cities like New York, San Francisco and Atlanta were a result of the need for places where gays and lesbians could not just be open about themselves but to find each other and build a community. But this also meant that gay people frequently weren't the "people next door" because they had moved away.

The Internet brought about huge changes. Gays didn't have to move away to find others like them. They didn't have to move anywhere. Technology allowed gays in non-urban environments to find each other, to create networks and support systems and allow them to find happiness without having to turn to the ghetto. It reduced the fear of being "the only gay in the village" and introduced the opportunity to find others to deal with rejection, depression and to simply be more courageous. Gay communities have cropped up in places where it would have once seemed crazy – like Salt Lake City. One of the major reasons more Americans are discovering their neighbors are gay is because they're staying put.

It is remarkable how amazingly different and better life has become for gays and lesbians over the last 20 years. But I think the huge changes that have come about in technology and communication over that same period don't get enough credit sometimes.

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  1. Q) What do two gay guys do on their second date?
    A) What second date?

    1. Q) What does a lesbian bring on her second date?
      A) A U-Haul

      1. Q) What does a lesbian bring on her first date?
        A) A toothbrush.

        1. Three gay guys sitting in a hot tub. One looks down, sees something white floating, and says “Hey who farted!”

  2. The most important factor is pop culture and the idiot tube, which wholly guides the opinions, desires and passions of enormous majorities of the country. Yay for sheep when the sheep are on your side.

  3. “David Blankenship”

    Congratulations on getting the support of a NASCAR driver!

    Meanwhile, another guy named David Blankenhorn famously changed his views on SSM – why not mention *him*?

    And it’s good to mention the effect of peer pressure, “pop culture and the idiot tube” – this was much more influential than reasoned discussion and determination on the merits.

    1. In other words, “all the cool kids are doing it – you *do* want to be cool, don’t you”? was more influential than reasoned discourse on this matter.

      1. Imagine if the pop culture promoted the message that gays were all just a bunch of subhuman sexual deviants. Most people in America would have a different attitude than today if that were the case.

    2. Arguable the NASCAR driver is more important.

      But fixed!

  4. “I changed my opposition to gay marriage because of personal relationships”

    My least-favorite reason. Any reason’s better than none, but “I have black/Jewish/gay/dwarf/cisgenedered/Jezebel poster friends” just….grates me.

    It’s not you, it’s me…

    1. It’s kind of sad to think that A) these people had gay/black/Jewish/dwarf/etc friends and never got hip to it, and B) they were unable to recognize someone else’s perspective without having some personal relationship with them.

      1. IOW, the real lesson may be that the people you consider your friends are so goddamn oblivious, stupid, narcissistic, or all three that they may in fact forget who you even are when you aren’t in their immediate presence.

      2. It’s kind of sad to think that … they were unable to recognize someone else’s perspective without having some personal relationship with them.

        Gee, it’s almost like they’re human or something. For better or worse, it’s far easier for people to empathize if they actually know someone who’s gay/ black/ Jewish/ whatever. People are what they are.

        1. Maybe I’m weird, but I don’t have that terribly much difficulty wrapping my head around the thoughts, opinions, and perspectives of people, even if I don’t know them personally. Or even if I dislike or disagree with them. I could at least sketch a decent mental caricature.

          1. Yeah, you’re weird. In a good way, mind you, but still weird. That’s a lot harder for most people than it is for you. If you can truly empathize with people with no personal investment, then good for you. For most people, that’s not so easy. Doesn’t make ’em evil, just makes ’em human.

            Myself, I’ve come around to a (mostly) pro-same-sex marriage POV not because I’m sure it’s a good idea (I’m not, and I’m not exactly 100% hetero myself), but just because too many prominent opponents are, how can I say this? Dickheads. Sometimes, you just have to be against the dickheads.

    2. Keep in mind that this guy wasn’t a libertarian… “Personal Relationships” is probably going to be the most likely reason that a non-libertarian is going to change his/her views on a social matter. It’s not ideal, but a win is a win…

      1. Eh, tbh, I almost hate agreeing with people who have come to the same conclusion as me without any reasoned thought put into it more than I do disagreeing bitterly with someone who has nevertheless put forth an effort.

        1. USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!

        2. You seem to be assuming that someone who changed their mind because of a personal relationship did so without any thought. I don’t think that’s a valid assumption. Maybe it was a close friend or family mamber coming out that caused them to stop and think about the issue, and then they came to the conclusions that they were wrong.

          Like I said above, it’s a lot easier for most people to empathize with others if they know someone.

          1. I suspect it is more the case that they are simply ruled by whatever fleeting emotion is grabbing them at the time. When they have an emotional reaction to a loved one or friend coming out, they change their perspective based on the emotion, probably in the same way that they may have formulated their original position based on a visceral reaction to homosexuality in the first place (“They stick it in each other’s asses? That’s gross dude!”).

            I could be wrong though.

            1. Probably just depends on the person. Some I’m sure are just emoting, but others may have just not put much actual thought into it until they realized they knew someone who was gay.

            2. Being bigoted against gays because you don’t know any is just as emotion-based of a stance.

              I’m not going to beat anyone up for coming to the right conclusion for the “wrong” reasons. Leaving other people alone to live their lives is not a innate viewpoint as most of us would like to think it is. Assuming the obviousness of our way of thinking is a dead end.

              1. Being bigoted against gays because you don’t know any is just as emotion-based of a stance.

                I wasn’t saying it was. Just the opposite. I don’t think the people who were weirded out by gays and then got un-weirded out when they found out their brother in law was gay put much thought into the position before or after.

                1. I’d also exercise more caution throwing around the term “bigot”, even though its overuse has left it nearly as meaningless as “racist”. I don’t think a lot of people gave much of a shit about sexual orientation until it became the cause celebre of a generation. There’s a huge difference between ambivalence and hostility.

            3. Or, you know, active propaganda that gays were coming to rape your little boys.

              Produced with the cooperation of the Inglewood Police Department and the Inglewood Unified School District.

              A much funnier riff on it.

              1. jesse? Are you a dandy camper or a flappychap?

              2. I guess in the over 65 demographic, maybe. That hasn’t been the main driver of changing attitudes on gays though. I don’t think anybody who went from anti or neutral to pro-gay in the last 20 years was indoctrinated by propaganda films from 1950.

                1. PM: Not directly, the people in the swing demographic were raised by parents with attitudes that were informed by 1940s/50s equivalent of blood libel.

                  SF: Clearly I’m a (cis)flappychap with dandy camper-queer tendencies. I thought you knew me better than to have to ask.

                  1. True, but bear in mind you’re talking about the same generation that was exposed to Reefer Madness and then spawned the Woodstock generation, so I don’t know how much real influence shit like that actually has.

                    1. It was just 10 years ago that a state was trying to enforce an anti-sodomy law until the SCOTUS struck it down (and even recently, there was a sheriff arresting gay guys in Louisiana for soliciting free sex with other men) and according to Gallup (who has decades of polling data on this), even today about 30% of the country thinks homosexual acts should be illegal. To act like there aren’t a lot of people out there that truly despise gay people, or that people didn’t care about sexual orientation 50 years ago, is simply whitewashing history and contemporary society.

                    2. To act like there aren’t a lot of people out there that truly despise gay people, or that people didn’t care about sexual orientation 50 years ago, is simply whitewashing history and contemporary society.

                      On the other hand, acting like the country is a crazed mob of thugs looking for the next Matthew Shepard belies the fact that all polling data indicates increasing tolerance for gays, support for gay marriage, the fact that homosexuality has been made a protected class in civil rights law, the legalization of gay marriage in 13 states, etc. You’re in the same untenable position as the race hustlers who claim that a country filled to the brim by roving gangs of lynch mobs and institutionally fortified persecution of minorities somehow managed to make affirmative action a requirement in public colleges, pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, literally making it criminal to be a racist, forcibly integrated the schools, etc. You can’t have it both ways (no pun intended). If folks were as vehemently, violently, savagely anti-gay as you purport them to be, they sure turned on a dime.

                    3. That loops back around to the discussion above though: a large percentage of that generation directly experienced the ’60s/’70s drug culture, but only a very small percentage of that generation had personal experience with smoking pole. The rejection of “Refer Madness” was personal, but they had no reason to even consider whether or not “Boys Beware” was a load of shit unless they had to try to square that cultural background assumption with real experiences with gay people.

              3. I like how “Jimmy” gets probation in the first video. Oh, and the school bus in the video is still in service today at Inglewood High School.

              4. To be fair, that same producer made a film that outright states that all heterosexual males were coming to rape your little girls.

                Maybe the whole point was that all men were sexual predators.

      2. As I said, “any reason’s better than none”

        1. I’d really rather people do the right thing for a silly reason than do evil with pure hearts. I’m a bit utilitarian that way. Sure, doing the right thing for the right reason would be ideal solution, but I’ll take what I can get.

  5. The fact that people hilariously overestimate the number of homosexuals in a given population may contribute to this. It’s just not well known how marginal that group is.

    1. I’d rather the government doesn’t make an exact count, just in case President Rick Santorum comes to power.

    2. You mean 50% of the population isn’t gay, or at least maybe a little bicurious? Preposterous! Next thing you know you’ll be telling me that not everybody under the age of 30 is ripped with 34D tits and fucking like jackrabbits between bouts of MDMA-induced serotonin syndrome. TV never lies!

      1. *blinks, staring*

        You’ve destroyed my world!!

        *runs away sobbing*

      2. But what about that Kinsey study from like 60 years ago that proved everyone is a sexual deviant?? Sure it was refuted almost immediately due to extreme selection bias, but that doesn’t stop it from still being taught in classrooms today.

        1. But what about that Kinsey study from like 60 years ago that proved everyone is a sexual deviant??

          I thought it might be an overestimate until I started commenting here…

          1. How you doin’?

        2. Define “sexual deviance”

    3. So, for you to state that estimates of the percentage of gays in the population are “overestimated”, you must have an actual, non-estimated, incontrovertible number. Produce your evidence, Sir.

      1. Gays are everywhere… In the closet, under the bed, in our schools and churches, on our sitcoms and our CNBC, lurking in our breezeways… The ubiquity of the homosexual agenda cannot be denied!

        Gays are everywhere! That’s why there are so few of them!

      2. Estimates are a bit spread out, but 5%-10% of the US population would probably be a good guess based on the existing research:…..ion/62248/…..d=13320565

          1. Note that clear back in 2002 Gallup indicates people estimated the percentage of the population that is gay to be around 20%, which is twice the absolute highest estimate.

      3. I don’t believe saying one thinks the number is inflated requires one to produce the provable number. It is incumbent on those who are asserting the original number to make a demonstration of proof.

        1. What exactly is this overinflated number people have been peddling?

          1. *shrug* I dunno. I was making the point in a vacuum.

          2. The Gallup poll data I linked to above is from 2002 and indicated that most people over-estimated the percentage of the population that is gay by double the highest estimate. I don’t know that anyone has been “peddling” any specific number, but it doesn’t seem to be inaccurate to say that people tend to overestimate it.

  6. I lived in Salt Lake in the late ’70s/early ’80s and there was a very active and open gay community there. Why would that now seem “crazy”? There’s a long history of it there.

    Side note: I went to see “Personal Best” (mmmm, pre-silicone Mariel Hemingway tits!) at the Blue Mouse when it was first released (1982?). I was the only person in the audience whose gender could be determined at first glance.

    1. Why would that now seem “crazy”? There’s a long history of it there.

      Because SLC is in Utah. Therefore a moralistic Mormon slave camp. The fuck is wrong with your stereotypes?

      1. I suffer the disadvantage of having lived there for six years.

  7. Also, the mass migration of gays to cities had as much to do with getting away from small towns where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and where family pressure to conform to sexual norms is strong. The cities offered both community and relative anonymity.

  8. Well played on the alt-text, Shackford.

    1. Whoa. At first glance, I thought that was a targeted ad…

    2. BTW Jesse, what’s your take on the role of gay counter culture vs acceptance of gay marriage? At first thought, it seems highly counter productive to me…

      1. That’s a thorny question. The status of gays in the US has changed remarkably over time. I have a hard time seeing that improvement having gone faster with a more assimilationist blend of activists. While I skew more conservative I appreciate that someone created enough space for me to be able to come out and have that be “normal” in a way that it wasn’t before queer radicals started running amok.

        1. I’m glad that I asked then, because I had the exact opposite impression, but hadn’t even considered what role that the earlier counter culture might have had in you deciding to come out….

          1. I think that things like gay pride have generated revulsion in some quarters, but on net I think they have made people’s comfort zone larger even if the counter culture itself remains outside that comfort zone.

  9. “In January of 1996, when I worked at The Economist magazine and we published a cover leader endorsing same-sex marriage, the mail which poured in was exceeded in volume and hostility only by the onslaught against the magazine’s call for the abolition of the monarchy.”

    They hate the queens, but love The Queen!

  10. We should remember that Vice President Dick Cheney coming out in support of this was what mainstreamed this.

    He was far from a radical lefitst out to destroy America, or a sexual pervert.To the contrary, he was a conservative and he was faithfully married to his wife for decades. When he came out, many people stopped believing that matrimony between persons of the same sex was immoral.

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