Shift In Gay Marriage Support Mirrors A Changing America

Mar 25, 2013
Originally published on March 25, 2013 8:42 am

When Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman recently reversed his stance on gay marriage after his son came out as gay, he joined a tidal wave of Americans who have altered their views on the subject.

This dramatic change forms the backdrop to two Supreme Court cases this week about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. Support has reverberated at the highest level: The White House has urged the high court to come down in favor of gay rights, and President Obama has reversed his own stance on the issue.

"There's just been a real huge sea change in how people view gay marriage," says Dawn Michelle Baunach, a sociologist at Georgia State University who has tracked attitudes toward same-sex marriage over the past two decades.

"In 1988, we had 72 percent of people who said they disapproved of gay marriage, and only 13 percent approved. But by 2010, we had cut disapproval almost in half, and approval has quadrupled," she says.

The latest public opinion surveys show an even greater jump. About one-third of Americans now oppose gay marriage, while some 58 percent support it.

Baunach notes that there has been an acceleration in how quickly opinions about same-sex marriage changed after 2008. She says that for many Americans, gay marriage was no longer an abstract issue, but a personal issue that touches the life of someone they know.

"They can think about it on a more personal level," she says. "Instead of just reacting on a more, 'Oh, that doesn't seem right' [level], they [think], 'Well, you know, Jane is a great person, I like her, I've met her girlfriend and it seems perfectly reasonable that they should be able to get married.' "

Baunach's research suggests that the dramatic shift in attitudes is not because of what sociologists would call "generational change." It has long been known that older people are more likely than younger people to oppose gay marriage. But Baunach says the national change was less about older Americans dying and leaving behind a more liberal America, and more about the fact that many Americans who once opposed gay marriage have changed their minds or softened their opposition.

Support for gay marriage two decades ago was largely restricted to secular and highly educated urban dwellers. Increasingly, though, Baunach says, rural people, those with less education, and even religious people were showing signs of support. Opposition among Republicans, evangelicals and African-Americans, however, remains strong.

Another explanation for the change is that the institution of marriage among heterosexuals has been undergoing a substantial transition, Baunach says.

Many Americans are redefining their intimate relationships in nontraditional ways, she says. Revised views on gay marriage could be related to steadily changing perspectives toward sexuality over the past several decades.

Yet another explanation might have to do with the way the issue of gay rights has come to be framed as an individual rights issue, Baunach says. Other research suggests that Americans resonate with messages that highlight the importance of individual liberty.

Baunach predicts that if current trends continue, the country will soon look like a mirror image of itself from a quarter-century ago: A minority of Americans may be left opposing same-sex marriage, while an overwhelming majority support it.

But she also notes that such a trend is hardly irreversible: While minorities of Americans appear to be fervently for and fervently against gay marriage — and can reliably be expected to stick to their views — a substantial bloc of Americans appear to have views that are open to persuasion.

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As the Supreme Court prepares this week to hear two cases testing the constitutionality of gay marriage, there's one undeniable fact surrounding the debate: Americans' views on gay marriage are changing dramatically. Steve Inskeep explored why with NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who joins us regularly to talk about social science research.


Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay. It feels like gay marriage views in America have changed very, very quickly. Is that reality?

VEDANTAM: You know, for many people this has become the defining civil rights struggle of our time and the speed really has been staggering, Steve. And what's remarkable is how widely it's effected change across the country. People who were vehemently opposed to gay marriage 20 years ago might now be only mildly opposed to gay marriage. People who were mildly opposed are now neutral.

People who were neutral are now pro-gay marriage. You know, 20 years ago, support for gay marriage was largely concentrated amongst secular, highly educated urban Americans, and now, you know, there's change. It's not universal, but you see pockets of support for gay marriage in rural areas, among older Americans, and even among religious Americans.

I spoke with Dawn Michelle Baunach. She's a sociologist at Georgia State University. She's been studying trends in attitudes toward gay marriage over the last 20 years. Here's what she told me.

DAWN MICHELLE BAUNACH: There's just been a real huge sea change in how people view gay marriage. In 1988, we had 72 percent of people who said they disapproved of gay marriage, and only 13 percent approved. But by 2010 we had cut disapproval almost in half, and approval has quadrupled.

INSKEEP: Quadrupled. So only 13 percent favored gay marriage. Double that, triple that, quadruple that, that's more than 50 percent. I know that polls move around a little bit, but more than 50 percent in many surveys are supporting gay marriage now. A number of people are still opposing it at the same time, though.

VEDANTAM: Yeah, Steve. And one of the striking things that Baunach has found is that the speed of change in attitudes toward gay marriage seems to be accelerating. So starting around 2008, the balance seems to have really tipped. Instead of a small minority being for gay marriage and everyone else being against it, we seem to be rapidly heading to a situation where you have a core group that's against gay marriage and everyone else is for it.

INSKEEP: So what explains the change?

VEDANTAM: Well, you know, there are lots of possible explanations. You know, the gay rights movement has systematically championed the language of individual rights and you and I talked last week, Steve, about how it appeals to individual liberty, appeals to Americans. Another possibility is that the institution of marriage among heterosexuals is under significant change as well. So lots of heterosexuals are defining relationships in nontraditional ways, and so gay marriage might be part of this larger evolution in our views on sexuality.

Dawn Michelle Baunach pointed out something really interesting to me. She said, for a long time most Americans were not so much opposed to gay marriage as simply unaware of the issues. And as gay people have started to come out of the closet, it's changed the views of many Americans.

BAUNACH: They can think about it on a more personal level. Instead of just reacting on a more, oh, that doesn't seem right, they act, well, you know, Jane is a great person, I like her. I've met her girlfriend and it seems perfectly reasonable that they should be able to get married.

INSKEEP: You know, this is reminding me, Shankar Vedantam, of the story of Senator Rob Portman, a Republican of Ohio who said in recent days that he is now in favor of gay marriage after learning that one of his sons is gay. Some people criticized him and said, why did you have to wait until a family member was affected? But my first thought was, isn't that kind of what's happened to about half of America here?

VEDANTAM: Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think Senator Portman's conversion is actually interesting for another reason. The gay rights movement has obviously faced significant obstacles and prejudice over the last 20 years, but they've also had an advantage that some other marginalized groups have not had. Lots of kids of senators and CEOs and newspaper editors are gay.

You know, lots of movie stars and authors and philanthropists are gay, so one reason for the speed of change is it's possible that this group has really shown the way on how you organize around an issue and how you fight. There's one other thing that I found really interesting about Baunach's research. There's always been a core group for gay marriage and it looks like there'll always be a core group that's against gay marriage.

But there's a sizable number of Americans in the middle whose views are really not strongly attached to one side or the other. When they believed that most Americans were against gay marriage, they were against gay marriage. When they believed most Americans were for gay marriage, magically their views changed.

INSKEEP: Shankar, thanks.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Steve. That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam. You can follow him on Twitter @HiddenBrain. You can also follow this program @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.