A decade ago, most Americans would have never predicted that gay marriage would become commonplace and a much less controversial political issue in the U.S. today.
In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, after a court ruling. But, the majority of Americans were staunchly opposed to it. Just 41% of Americans supported and 55% opposed gay marriage, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
President George W. Bush (a Republican) called for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, a position supported by Vice President Dick Cheney. It was the biggest social issue in the presidential election in 2004, and Bush used it to great advantage to gain reelection.
By this year, so much has changed. The same national poll now shows that 58% of Americans support gay marriage and just 36% oppose it. Democrat party members of all ages support gay marriage, political independents support it, and even a majority of Republicans ages 18-49 support it. Only Republicans over the age of 50 stand in opposition, and that opposition is softening.
While the federal government does not recognize gay marriage, the legalization of gay marriage is spreading across the 50 states. Just this spring, three more states — Rhode Island, Delaware, and Minnesota — legalized same-sex marriage, bringing the total to 12 states and the District of Columbia.
Statewide gay activist efforts led by groups like MassEquality (in Massachusetts) and One Iowa (in Iowa) have been important in advancing gay marriage. Now that laws and court rulings in the first gay marriage states have survived challenges for several years, other states are less reluctant to consider the issue.
But, although the large public campaigns are helpful in arguing for equal rights, arguments alone aren’t always effective in changing opinions.
“We think logically that the public will respond to rational arguments,” says Dr. Dean Mundy, a professor of public relations at Appalachian State University, who has studied gay advocacy groups in the U.S. “But the only thing that will move somebody is that they know a gay person or couple.”
Psychologist Gordon Allport, in his classic book The Nature of Prejudice (1954), called this the “contact hypothesis.” It’s the idea that positive contact between different groups increases understanding and reduces prejudice.
Mundy says that this positive contact is most effective at the local level. In states that have legalized gay marriage, the effort began with gay and lesbian individuals and couples meeting with neighbors, and letting them know they are gay. “They start to gain allies in the straight community,” Mundy says.
In the next step, gay people sit down with legislators in their districts and talk to them. “Some legislators think there are no gay people in their district,” Mundy says.
Other elected officials don’t need a visit from neighbors or constituents; sometimes the gay person they meet is in their own family. That connection has helped to change the minds and hearts of well-known Republicans like former vice president Dick Cheney, who has a gay daughter, and U.S. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, who this spring became the first Republican senator to endorse gay marriage, two years after his son told him that he was gay.
In a March 15, 2013 newspaper column announcing his support of gay marriage, Portman wrote “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.”
The recent marriage equality victories are based on years of work. “It takes time,” Mundy says. “People want change now, but it takes 10 to 15 years of work and ongoing conversations.” Back in 1996, when President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which required the federal government to deny federal benefits and recognition of same-sex marriages, it looked like the issue of gay marriage was dead.
Now, the trend is quite the opposite. President Clinton now favors gay marriage, and President Obama announced in 2012 that he had evolved in his thinking, too, and supports gay marriage.
Of course, there are still national legal issues. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court will rule on two cases relating to gay marriage.
The first is on the legality of Proposition 8, a California constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2008 that banned gay marriage.
The second is on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, in a case brought by an 83-year-old woman, Edie Windsor, who was in a relationship with another woman for 44 years. When her spouse died, Windsor was forced to pay $363,000 in inheritance taxes on the value of what her partner left her. If the government recognized her marriage as legal, she would have paid no inheritance tax.
It is likely that the majority of social conservatives on the court will not overturn both laws. Yet, as more and more Americans get to know their family members, friends, and neighbors who are gay and have the same kinds of hopes and dreams as them, laws supporting anti-gay discrimination will continue to fall.
“We’re close to the tipping point,” Mundy says.
This article also appeared in the weekend (hétvége) section of Népszabadság, Hungary’s leading daily newspaper, on June 22, 2013.