Usually public opinion on important and emotional subjects shifts gradually. The realization that discrimination against African Americans and women was wrong came very slowly. For more than a century, Americans spoke out against sexism and racism. In the 19th century, they were considered radicals, advocating unpopular political positions against traditional beliefs in white male superiority. By the 20th century, opinion in America was split and some discriminatory laws were changed, but common practices based in prejudice persisted.
Only after World War II did majority public opinion shift away from entrenched discrimination, but even then progress was halting. The two Supreme Court decisions that declared school segregation (1954) and laws against mixed-race marriages (1967) unconstitutional were 13 years apart, and they were just way stations along a much longer journey toward equality. In both cases, defenders of discrimination used religious arguments to oppose equal treatment for blacks and women, citing Biblical verses written thousands of years ago to claim that God had declared the superiority of white men for all time.
Change comes more quickly in modern society, as we can see in the technological innovations which replace each other with bewildering rapidity. In 1999, Ray Kurzweil proposed the “The Law of Accelerating Returns”; he believed that change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems, including technology, would come with accelerated speed. We might see this “law” operating in the third great shift in public opinion about traditional discriminatory practices, the acceptance of homosexual people as normal and deserving of equal rights.
Data from the Pew Research Center shows a dramatic recent shift in American public opinion on same-sex marriage, which may be taken as an indicator of more general attitudes about homosexuality. After years of relative stability, in the last 8 years the proportion of Americans who oppose gay marriage dropped from 54% to 32%, as the number who favor it rose from 37% to 62%. That same amount of opinion shift on inter-racial marriage took about twice as long.
The popular shift has been rapid, but not smooth. After Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003, 12 states passed constitutional amendments outlawing it in the next year alone, and eventually 30 states passed such backlash legislation. The Supreme Court decision in 2015 that rights guaranteed by the Constitution to all citizens included the right to get married came four years after support for same-sex marriage reached majority status.
Like many shifts in social attitudes, this was led by young people. The latest Pew survey shows 18- to 29-year-olds against discrimination by 79% to 19%, while Americans over 72 remain opposed to this change by 49% to 41%. But every demographic group, whatever their attitudes were a few years ago, has shifted towards acceptance. Opposition remains concentrated among white evangelical Protestants, conservative Republicans, and the oldest Americans, groups which considerably overlap. Those who demonize their neighbors who have a different sexual orientation continue to use arguments derived from Christian tradition as justification.
What caused this rapid shift in public opinion? When Pew asked why people had changed their minds, the most common answer was that they knew someone who is homosexual. Visibility has been a significant factor in the increasing acceptance of gays in America. While race and gender are usually obvious, homosexuality was not.
I grew up in an America where homosexuality was queer, meaning strange and unnatural. It was dangerous for a gay person to reveal their orientation, which could cost them their jobs. Homosexual relations were criminal across the country, until Illinois was the first state to decriminalize same-sex relations in 1962. So I didn’t know any homosexuals. I, like most Americans, had no evidence from life experience that gay people were not as they were portrayed in medical practice (sick), in official propaganda (dangerous), and in common talk (weird).
Over the course of 30 years, the proportion of Americans who said that someone they knew revealed to them that they were gay rose from 24% in 1985 to 75% in 2013. Since it is unlikely that the incidence of homosexuality has changed significantly, what did change was the realization that there are gay people in everyone’s social circle.
The end of discrimination against homosexuality is determined by changing public opinion and political practice, which differ from country to country. Germany, in many ways more officially opposed to discrimination of all kinds than the US, just legalized gay marriage last week. A recent poll showed that 83% of Germans approved of same-sex marriage, much higher than in the US. But the politics of the conservative party, the Christian Democrats, who have led the government since 2005, prevented any vote on the issue until now.
Bigots will keep using religion as a cover for prejudice, as in the so-called religious freedom laws. But the shift toward acceptance of homosexuality will continue, as older opponents are replaced by younger advocates. Because our gay relatives and friends do not fit the prejudicial stereotypes, discriminatory impulses will lose their persuasive power.
Happy birthday, America.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, July 4, 2017