When the Political Became the Personal, Gay Rights Triumphed

How prosperity, AIDS, and pop culture changed people's minds


The Path to Gay Rights: How Activism and Coming Out Changed Public Opinion, by Jeremiah J. Garretson, NYU Press, 352 pages, $35

NYU Press

"The single most important thing you can do politically for gay rights is to come out," declared Barney Frank, who in 1987 was the first member of Congress to exit the closet voluntarily. "Not to write a letter to your congressman, but to come out."

How did public support for the legality of same-sex relations double from the 1980s to today? How did support for both gay marriage and gay adoption grow by more than 20 percent in just two decades? Jeremiah Garretson tackles these questions in The Path to Gay Rights, a scholarly analysis of the LGBT movement's success. The book's narrative is hopeful—it's a story of how countless personal interactions and individual changes of heart, not elite opinion or legal mandates, drove one of the most remarkable attitudinal shifts in modern history.

Garretson traces the history of the gay liberation movement from the aftermath of World War II until the present. His book covers the struggles of the Mattachine Society, one of the first modern "homophile" organizations, in opposing the "lavender scare" of the early Cold War years—a moral panic that culminated in the government barring homosexuals from federal employment on the grounds that they posed a special security risk due to blackmail concerns. It shows how gay and lesbian enclaves stabilized in certain urban centers, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, in the wake of the Stonewall riots. It looks at the social conservative backlash led by the singer Anita Bryant and other evangelical activists, and it documents how the LGBT community forged a sense of common identity in opposition to the persecution. (In the 1970s, for instance, gay bars boycotted Florida oranges and took the orange juice–based screwdriver off their menus because Bryant was a brand ambassador for the state's Citrus Commission.)

Building a community helped gays and lesbians win support from the politicians who represented their enclaves, albeit at a still mostly local level. An important early victory came in 1978, with the defeat of Proposition 6, the "Briggs Initiative," which would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. Meanwhile, nonpolitical gay- and lesbian-themed organizations—from swim clubs to dental referral services—helped integrate more people into the community.

All this was the starting point for the LGBT movement. But Garretson argues that the tipping point was, paradoxically, the community's darkest period: the AIDS crisis, which pushed people out of the closet and into activism in unprecedented numbers.

Garretson arrives at this conclusion by way of a theory of "affective liberalization." A person's view of a social group, he argues, is influenced far more by his or her emotional reaction, or affect, than by facts and logic. As the AIDS crisis propelled more gays and lesbians to live openly, the proportion of Americans who were aware that they knew a member of that group ballooned. A personal connection with a homosexual colleague, friend, or family member—or even just seeing a recurring LGBT character on mainstream TV—helped build sympathy over time.

One prevailing misconception among political scientists is that politicians voicing more tolerant views on LGBT issues drove changing attitudes among the general public. Garretson uses decades of survey data and dozens of regression analyses to show that, in fact, greater exposure to gays and lesbians led to more positive attitudes regardless of how much attention a person paid to so-called elite opinion makers.

Garretson also makes a strong case that younger generations are more supportive of gay rights not because of their youth per se but because there were more "out" people around them during their formative years. While older Americans have grown increasingly sympathetic to this population as they've come to know gays and lesbians, that new affect still clashes with pre-existing notions forged during the decades when most LGBT people stayed in the closet. Younger Americans are less likely to have such hangups.

That doesn't mean politics didn't matter. Garretson argues that activism was another important piece of the puzzle. Groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) shifted the media narrative and put pressure on government, forcing a national debate around LGBT issues that would not have otherwise materialized.

ACT UP and similar groups pressured The New York Times to print more information on the AIDS crisis and staged "die-ins" at the Food and Drug Administration to protest the over-regulation that lengthened approval times for anti-AIDS drugs. Groups such as Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York coupled these external demands with efforts to spread information that would help prevent HIV transmission. For the first time, the general public saw the gay movement not just as victims of persecution but as a community of real people demanding their rights and working to take care of their friends and loved ones during difficult times.

In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton addressed a crowd of LGBT supporters at a campaign rally in Hollywood and promised to support a variety of causes important to them. He dared to attend that event, and broke new ground in doing so, because gays and lesbians had built a group consciousness through their AIDS activism. They had organized enough to become a serious political bloc with something to offer a national coalition. Turning out in large numbers meant politicians had a reason to compete for LGBT support in primaries. Debates over the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and the Defense of Marriage Act continued the conversation, prompting more people to come out in a positive feedback loop of increasing public support.

The Path to Gay Rights thus lends credence to bottom-up models of social change, showing that the spontaneous order of thousands of individual interactions created the conditions for elites to finally support gay rights, not the other way around. Consciously or not, the book also echoes public choice theory, which argues that political leaders don't alter their stances simply because a large number of their constituents favor something. Lawmakers didn't automatically change their tune as baseline support for the gay and lesbian community rose in many parts of the country. It took incessant pressure by LGBT interest groups to pressure politicians to take the risk of supporting the protections they sought. For gays and lesbians, as for any other group, nothing moves in politics that isn't pushed.

The Path to Gay Rights doesn't limit its scope to the United States. Garretson finds that the gap in support for gay rights is far greater between liberal and illiberal countries (broadly speaking) than between the left and right in the West. And liberalization is linked to a country's wealth. People who were born in 1920 have similarly negative views on homosexuality regardless of where they live—but citizens of countries with higher per capita GDPs express significantly more positive views the closer they were born to the present. Similar results appear in countries with greater numbers of influential political parties, and these effects are even stronger in countries with freer presses and more TVs per capita.

Building person-to-person empathy was central to LGBT progress. Perhaps that's how freedom will advance elsewhere as well.