Blogs > Stephanie Coontz > Why America changed its mind on gay marriage

Oct 13, 2014 4:14 pm

Why America changed its mind on gay marriage

Stephanie Coontz teaches at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families. She is the author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage."

In 2003, Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage. At that time, 60% of Americans opposed the idea and the move provoked an immediate backlash. In the next year, 12 states passed constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage. Eventually 30 states, including traditionally liberal California, passed such measures.

But since then there has been an astounding transformation of public opinion and legal thinking. Support for gay and lesbian civil rights, starting from a much lower base than support for racial and gender equality, has risen with stunning speed. Between 2003 and 2013, the proportion of Americans supporting same-sex marriage rose 21 points nationwide, from 32% to 53%, writes Robert P. Jones in The Atlantic.

Even in the socially conservative South, support more than doubled, increasing from 22% to 48%. By contrast, in 1978, 11 years after the Supreme Court struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage, only 36% of Americans supported such unions.

This rapid and massive change in public attitudes toward same-sex marriage undercuts the argument that "judicial activism" has frustrated the will of the American people. But the legal tide has certainly turned as well. In the past year and a half, 42 separate court rulings have upheld marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Because of this month's Supreme Court decision not to hear appeals of such rulings, 24 states and the District of Columbia now permit same-sex marriage. Today more than 50% of Americans live in places where it is legal for gays and lesbians to wed. That will soon rise to 60%, because the Supreme Court's actions affect six other states in the judicial circuits overseen by the same appellate courts.

Many factors have contributed to these changes in public and legal opinion. One is the increased visibility of gays and lesbians across the culture, as more come out of the closet. Three-quarters of Americans now say they have a relative, friend or co-worker who is gay and millions have become used to sympathetic gay and lesbian characters on television and to openly gay talk-show hosts and entertainers. It is harder to deny rights to people who are no longer faceless "others."...

Click here to read the rest of my column. 

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