The Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club brought a vivid reminder of the harsh realities of what it was like to be a gay in the culturally conservative South of the mid-1980s. As someone born, churched, and educated in the South during that era, I remember that the idea of being gay or lesbian was simply dismissed, and the term “homosexuality” was reserved for hushed conversations about those sinful urban areas far north and west of the Mason-Dixon Line. While the film has been in theaters, however, the news has also been filled with contemporary coverage of a remarkable bevy of judicial decisions overturning bans on same-sex marriage in southern states such as Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas. While serving as the lead author of a recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute about attitudes about same-sex marriage, I was astounded at the shifts we found in southern attitudes over the past decade.
These changes are, of course, happening amid shifts in the country as a whole. Between 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and December 2013, support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry rose 21 percentage points nationwide, from 32 percent to 53 percent. As of the end of 2013, the number of states recognizing same-sex marriages increased to 17 plus the District of Columbia. And there has been enough judicial ferment at the state level that most court observers believe the issue will end up, in the not too distant future, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Our recent study confirms that these changes cannot be explained away as merely another example of federal judicial activism circumventing the will of the people in southern states. Rather, we are witnessing dramatic cultural transformations, which include changing minds even among culturally and religiously conservative Americans in the South.
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In 1990, 75 percent of Americans believed homosexual sex was immoral, and gay marriage was illegal in literally every jurisdiction in the world. Not quite 25 years later, a majority of Americans support gay marriage, and among young people support is as high as 70 percent. That is a breathtaking transformation; if you’d told LGBT organizations and advocates a quarter century ago that they were on the verge of a public relations coup of this magnitude, almost none of them would have believed it. Even now, it’s hard to credit. How on earth did it happen?
Leigh Moscowitz’s new book, The Battle Over Marriage: Gay Rights Activism Through the Media doesn’t set out to answer that question, but it does hint at one possibility: that the public relations revolution was achieved, in part, through the tremendous savviness and hard work of gay rights activists.
In the 1990s and early 2000s antipathy to LGBT people in the media was intense, and appeared in ways both overt and subtle. Even when the topic was gay marriage or gays in the military, gay life was exoticized: Images accompanying LGBT news items often showed “seedy gay bars or seminaked parade revelers,” in the words of an Advocate article Moscowitz quotes. News networks often framed debates in terms of God vs. gays, with gay activists on one side and anti-homosexual religious leaders, with all the respectability that religion lends, on the other.
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This video of kids watching same-sex marriage proposals has already been viewed 2 million times in the 48 hours since its publication. What does that say?
For most gay Americans in the 20th century, the church was a place of pain. It cast them out and called them evil. It cleaved them from their families. It condemned their love and denied their souls. In 2004, a president was elected when religious voters surged from their pews to vote against the legal recognition of gay relationships. When it came to gay rights, religion was the enemy.
A decade later, the story is very different. Congregations across the country increasingly accept, nurture, and even marry their gay brethren. Polls show majorities of major Christian denominations — including American Catholics, despite their church’s staunch opposition — support legal gay marriage. Leaders of some of the most conservative sects, like the Southern Baptists, have moved away from the vitriolic rhetoric of yesteryear and toward a more compassionate tone. Mormons march in gay-pride parades. A sitting Republican senator, a Methodist from the heartland state of Ohio, says the question was settled for him by “the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.” A new pope says, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
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The misery of masquerading
The Supreme Court made history this morning. Celebrate by reading Jonathan Rauch’s ‘Denial’, a stirring memoir about self-discovery.
PHOTO: Edith Windsor, shortly after she learned that the Supreme Court struck down DOMA.
(Credit: Ariel Levy/The New Yorker)
As natural as Obama’s statement may have sounded, his words were as carefully chosen as the interview. The testimonial to the gay men and women in his life; the discussion of values and the Golden Rule; the remarkable fact that America’s first black president, discussing an issue many see as a modern civil-rights struggle (with a black interviewer, no less), made no reference to civil rights — these were all talking points straight out of the new playbook of the gay-rights movement.
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Framing the gay marriage debate from both a legalistic and educational standpoint proved successful for Democrats in 2012, but what exactly prevents it from being framed as civil rights issue?