A few nights ago, we saw a very revealing movie. “No Strings Attached” is a silly romantic comedy. Plenty of skin was shown, but that was not the most revealing feature. I found the portrayal of gay people much more interesting.
The film was targeted at young heterosexual filmgoers. Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman, the current heart-throbs of young people, are the stars, and the main characters are in their 20s, as is the script writer. It had no message except the obvious – don’t give up, love wins in the end. But among the supporting roles were gay men and women, friends of the main lovers. I found it notable that these characters were portrayed as normal human beings, friends and workers, silly or wise, in relationships or searching for one. Their homosexuality was a fact, not an issue.
Is Hollywood trying to push a gay agenda on right-thinking Americans, as some people claim? I think it’s the other way around: Hollywood is trying to sell products. So movie producers, like makers of toys and cars, try to appeal to their potential customers by creating products that fit their ideas. Today in America, the majority idea is “gay is okay”.
The biggest political issue around homosexuality these days is same-sex marriage. In the 1980s, polls showed that about 10% of Americans supported same-sex marriage, while over 70% were opposed. Since then public opinion has been shifting gradually and constantly. Right now, we seem to have reached a tipping point. In August 2010, FOX News asked, “Should gays and lesbians have a constitutional right to get married?” 52% said yes, 46% said no, with 2% unsure.
Gay marriage is the political issue with the greatest opposition. In all polls, about 10-15% more people are in favor of legalizing civil unions. Even more, about 2/3 of all Americans, support hate crimes protection for gays, and outlawing discrimination in housing and jobs.
But even when a majority are supportive, Hollywood has been reluctant to take a stand on controversial political issues. What matters is not just overall support, but support in the particular demographic that buys a product. For silly romances with youthful stars, the key demographic is age. And age makes a major difference in attitudes towards homosexuality. In a 2008 Newsweek poll, when 55% of Americans were still opposed to single-sex marriage, responses were widely divided by age. Among those over 65, 69% were opposed, but among 18-34 year olds, a majority was in favor. Since then young people have become even more supportive.
A likely explanation is that older people do not know anyone their age who is openly gay, so their opposition to homosexuality is an ideological abstraction. Young people are much more likely to have friends or relatives who have come out; being anti-gay means being against their friends, or possibly their family.
Geography makes a difference, too. The states with the greatest support for any issue involving homosexuality are in the Northeast, while those with the least support are in the South. Illinois is right in the middle. A September 2010 Chicago Tribune poll showed that 57% of Illinois voters favor civil unions, the same percentage as in the nation. Civil unions are now legal in Illinois because that’s what the majority wants.
These poll results show that the controversy about same-sex marriage or civil unions is not mainly about the sanctity of marriage. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are also more likely to defend the right to discriminate against homosexuals in all areas of civil life. They don’t want gays around at all.
Although the Westboro Baptist Church proclaims “God hates fags”, and more mainstream Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell echoed this sentiment, I don’t think the opposition to gay rights is mainly about what God wants. The age and geographic distribution of anti-gay opinion is exactly the same as the opposition to civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s or to equality for women in the 1970s. At that time, those who wished to continue discriminating against blacks and women also defended their ideas with quotations from the Bible and assurances that this was what God commanded.
Maybe God changed his mind about civil rights. More likely, Americans changed their minds about what was right and moral, led by young people who recognized the irrationality of race and gender discrimination. Once again, young people, who know gays and who know gays are people just like them, are leading the way to a more just society.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 8, 2011