Culture Shift

The following poll comes courtesy the Daily Kos (via a friend’s facebook page):

QUESTION:  “Do you want to reject the new law that lets same-sex couples marry?” A yes vote takes away the right of same-sex couples to marry. A no vote keeps the right of same-sex couples to marry. If the election were held today would you vote YES or NO on this question?

ALL 48 46 6
MEN 52 43 5
WOMEN 44 49 7
18-29 43 52 5
30-44 45 49 6
45-59 51 44 5
60+ 55 38 7
DISRICT 1 45 50 5
DISTRICT 2 51 42 7

Obviously, this suggests a close vote on the same sex marriage issue.   At this point, the “Yes” vote (which would take away the right to same sex marriage — yes means no to same sex marriage) leads 48-46, with six percent unsure.  The fact that it is conceivable that voters will approve same sex marriage is evidence of a culture in transformation.

The other night my wife and I finally got around to watching the film Milk staring Sean Penn.  It was the late seventies in San Francisco, the gay rights movement was just getting started, and they had to endure attacks and condemnations, even in San Francisco itself.  The end of the film is about an historic effort to defeat proposition six, which would have meant gay teachers, or people that assist gay teachers, would be fired.   Gays, some claimed, should not be allowed to teach.   They would, it was argued, recruit children into their lifestyle.   Proposition six was defeated, as Californians decided that destroying a person’s career just because of their sexuality was not a good idea.   Even Ronald Reagan opposed Proposition six.

Now, thirty years later, gays can marry in many states.   Most states have moved that way through judicial action.  In Maine the state legislature approved same sex marriage, and the governor signed it.  Proposition One is an effort driven primarily by the religious right to exercise a “people’s veto” to overturn the legislature and keep gay marriage illegal.   If Maine’s initiative fails, Maine will be the first state where a majority in a referendum approved of allowing same sex marriage.

Thirty years ago it was OK to suppress gays, the police could torment gay hang outs, and bigotry was not only present, but condoned and built into the culture.  The idea they could be teachers, or treated as normal citizens was extremely controversial.   Now and then someone might say that gays should be allowed to marry, but that wasn’t in the realm of political possibility.   In the civil rights movement, gay rights was the latecomer, representing to many people an ungodly form of chosen behavior, not identity.

What a difference thirty years makes!  Being gay is no longer considered a choice, but a fact of nature, attested to by the medical and psychological communities.   Discrimination against gays is on the books in many states as illegal, as people’s attitudes continue to change.   Note in the poll numbers above the impact of age and gender.   There is a clear and study increase in support for gay marriage as you move from older voters to younger votes.   A majority of voters under 30 approve of gay marriage.  It is only among people over 45 that the anti-gay marriage group (supporters of Proposition 1) has more support.  Of course, older voters tend to turn out to vote more often.  Democrats and Independent have majorities against passing proposition 1, while the Republicans have 74% supporting the proposition to ban same sex marriage.

However the vote goes, the fact it’s quite possible that voters in a referendum will approve same sex marriage shows that a cultural sea change has hit the country.   To be sure, in many parts of the country opponents of gay marriage would still score an easy victory.   Maine is part of New England, where Democrats have been dominant for years.   Yet Maine is neither Massachusetts nor Vermont.  Our two Senators are Republican (albeit pragmatic female Republicans), and many parts of the state are quite conservative.  If voters protect gay marriage in Maine, it could signal that same sex marriage might not have to rely on legal rulings to gain status, but gain true public support.

Another point of cultural change is the election of a black man as President.   Not just any black man either, one who was raised by a single mom, who lived long periods in Indonesia and Hawaii, and who has a name that seems destined to sink him: Barack Hussein Obama.   Can anyone imagine him being elected 20 years or ago, or even ten years ago?

As I get older and watch these changes, I realize why some people get cranky.   If you don’t like the change, if the era of your childhood seems normal, and you were used to seeing gays as really strange and not be trusted, it might seem like you’re losing the country you grew up in.   If you were comfortable in a culture of more traditional values and norms, change seems threatening.   It must feel to many, seeing Obama as President, gays marrying, and other culture shifts, that they are literally losing the country they once knew.  I’m sure people used to the 1940s felt the same way in the 70s.  Then strange rock music, long hair, women’s rights/bra burning, the anti-war movement, civil rights riots, etc. were said to be tearing away at the fabric of society (think Archie Bunker vs. “the Meathead.”)  Today’s youth will probably find the culture in the year 2040 to be off base.

But for me, I like it.  It gives me confidence that humans do change, and that false beliefs and cultural bigotries can be overcome.   I use the term “cultural bigotries” for a reason.  I think most people who oppose gay marriage are not themselves bigots.  I think they are driven by certain cultural beliefs which they consider proper, but I consider to have built in bigotry.   Cultures program us to think a particular way, it’s not easy to alter that programming.    It takes time, and there is a long way to go.  This election could itself go either way.   But just the fact the question is being seriously considered is a sign of a truly profound cultural shift.

  1. #1 by notesalongthepath on September 19, 2009 - 02:18

    Wow, that shift in thinking! For me, opening up and accepting people who are different sometimes fell along religious lines. I had been raised to see certain actions as sins and that’s just the way it was, God’s rules, not mine.
    But as I grew older and wiser, I began to realize that some of my own actions were considered sins, too. I had to either give up on myself and be damned, or accept that we’re all human, we all make mistakes and that God loves all of us anyway. I went with Love, not just for myself, but because it’s the only thing that makes sense to me.
    If I was a citizen of Maine, I would vote to allow same-sex marriage, believing that laws should be put in place that protect the rights of its citizens who live without harming others.

  2. #2 by Diane on September 19, 2009 - 13:10

    Thanks for putting this out there Scott. The wording on the bill is confusing, a common tactic used to confuse votes on which way to vote, and clarifying which vote means what is important. Hopefully those young people on the shown poll will show up at the polls to make sure this doesn’t pass. I am sure around the state there are many student groups active on campuses enocouraging people to get out and vote this down.

    It is sometimes still shocking to me to see what fear will do, and how people will use fear to manipuilate others (in this day and age I don’t know WHY this EVER surprises me!) but last night I saw a TV ad on the side of this bill which was stating that a “no” vote (allowing same sex marriages) will ensure the teaching and promoting of gay marriages in school. C’mon people!! I think this is an old, tired and worn tactic overused against any variety of issues. Can’;t they come up with any new attacks? The next thing you know they will spread that the people wanting same sex marriages are communist or socialist! That seems to freak people out!

    • #3 by Scott Erb on September 19, 2009 - 13:44

      That kind of tactic shows desperation — and the fact they can’t really argue the bill on its merits. They need fear. I have to hope that doesn’t work. (Thanks, Diane, for your recent comments on the blog — very thoughtful and appreciated!)

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on September 19, 2009 - 13:35

    On this issue, I have always found myself twisted around the pole that marks the middle.

    While I don’t necessarily agree with gay marriage, civil unions, whatever terminology you want to use, I also don’t disagree. I figure, whatever they want to do is fine by me. As long as it isn’t directly causing me some form of harm, I don’t care. One of my brothers-in-law became (realized he was?) gay sometime shortly after graduating high school. Some of the family members were a bit shocked. We assumed the other twin would be the one to go gay.

    I occasionally use terms like gay and queer in a derogatory sense, towards my closer (and straight)friends in the course of making fun of them for whatever reason comes up. It was part of our verbal culture growing up, and of course, it being Iowa, only made it more acceptable I suppose. I do use tact and not talk like that around my gay friends, with the exception of one, and only because he knows I’m joking and he himself has referred to people in the same casual manner. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely stop such talk in the context I use it in.

    But I think I would vote to let gays marry should such a vote ever come to Iowa.

    • #5 by Scott Erb on September 19, 2009 - 13:50

      You use those terms in a derogatory sense? That’s so gay…Uh, wait a minute, I mean…

      Seriously, though, I think some people do fixate too much on the verbal things that are often used without much thinking. It is considered really bad, for instance, to say “I jewed him down in price” because of the history of anti-semitism. Yet, gypsies have suffered similar discrimination, and no one gets upset when somebody says “Hey, I was gyped!” I try not to offend people in speech, and it sounds like you do the same thing, that’s what matters.

      I agree with the first part of your post — it comes down to the fact that while I don’t feel sexual attraction to other males, and can’t understand how one could, they apparently do, and can’t relate to attraction to the opposite sex. Who am I to say their feelings don’t exist or are wrong? If my gay friends get married, that isn’t going to cause me or any other straight person to ditch their family. Some people are, as Diane noted, simply afraid of things different, especially when they touch on issues like sexuality, religion or things fundamental. Life, at base, is probably about overcoming fears.

      • #6 by Mike Lovell on September 19, 2009 - 15:51

        “You use those terms in a derogatory sense? That’s so gay…Uh, wait a minute, I mean…”

        THAT sir, was an exact and impressive comedic retort!

  4. #7 by Josh on September 20, 2009 - 02:32

    We’re all bigots. Both the folks for same-sex marriage and those against do things to scare the population into
    agreeing with them. Folks against the marriage issue call those who disagree “dangerous” while those for it call those against “bigots”. Not all of them do this, but many seem to. It’s all so confusing.

    As for me, I’m going to try my best to do the right thing. I think folks on both sides of this issue are trying to do that. We fail to notice that sometimes (including myself).

    We’ve all done wrong. We have all thought bad thoughts about someone else. And that is just as bad as any kind of racism or homophobia out there.

  5. #8 by classicliberal2 on September 20, 2009 - 18:37

    I was just writing about this sort of thing in another forum. I ran into yet another of those unfortunate fellows who think there’s a “culture war” (a phrase and concept lifted directly from the Third Reich), and that efforts to get people to “accept” homosexuals is part of it. Setting aside the anti-gay bigotry and the agenda behind those pushing such bigotry (which as nothing to do with homosexuals at all), I pointed out to the fellow that this is not an “assault on our culture” (as he’d called it); it is an organic outgrowth of it. The U.S. is a liberal democratic society, dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In such a society, these things will happen. To get angry that homosexuals are trying to end discrimination in marriage is like being angry at freedom itself.

    As for me, I often become quite angry about anti-gay rhetoric and attitudes. Involvement with some less-than-hetero ladies over the years really sensitized me to it. I saw one practically disowned by her family as a teenager. I fight anti-gay sentiment, and I get as ugly about it as I feel I need to be.

    When I comes to changing times, I haven’t often found myself doing the Scoobie Doo Villain rant (“those darn kids!”), and, surprisingly, I don’t seem to do it any more the older I get, either. I’m subject to the same sort of odd nostalgia you’ve described, but it doesn’t make me bitter or make me want to turn back the clock (though I do often wish I lived in an earlier era than my own, one where people read, and where there were more venues for the films I make). I see a lot of very bad trends in the world, potentially leading to some very bad things in the future, but “those darn kids” aren’t really to blame for it, and, in any case, they’re products of us “darn adults.”

    • #9 by Scott Erb on September 21, 2009 - 01:04

      Well put. Yes — the idea of a culture war was part and parcel of the Nazi propaganda, though a similar term was also used by Bismarck as he attacked the Roman Catholic church. The Nazis played on fears that democracy was leading to “sex, drugs and cabaret,” and that Germans were losing their traditional values. They’d point to the wild scenes in Berlin and Hamburg (and they were wild — the poverty of the Weimar Republic contributed to that) as a sign that democracy was “ungerman.” Of course, this also included Jews, socialists, internationalists, liberals, and those who didn’t adhere to the strong traditional values that had made Germany great.

      To be sure, the Nazis were not German conservatives — they coopted the conservatives and used their rhetoric and ultimately support to grab power. National Socialism was a bizarre mix of corporate socialism (businesses were in bed with government) and emotion-laden hate rhetoric. But now and then I catch whiffs of similar rhetoric and ideas in our culture, and it scares me. Perhaps I’m too sensitive due to my background in German politics, and our vibrant democratic culture with a severe distrust of tyranny assures we’ll avoid the path that the statist authoritarian Germans took. Still, it’s important to speak out.

  6. #10 by Henitsirk on September 24, 2009 - 01:25

    Hoo boy. This is one of THOSE topics that gets people pretty upset. I think because sexuality is 1) about one’s inner self and 2) Americans are historically prudish while also being addicted to sexual media content. It’s like we’re stuck in adolescence — it’s embarrassing but it’s all we think about!

    My pastor has been talking regularly about the ELCA ordination of openly homosexual clergy and performing same-sex marriages. His position is that there’s a difference between tolerance and acceptance: we can tolerate something in terms of not fighting it or being disrespectful, or we can say that we feel it is acceptable. To the Missouri Synod, these decisions are tolerable, but not acceptable. Abortion, on the other hand, would be neither tolerable nor acceptable.

    I grew up in California, the referendum center of the universe! While on the one hand, I think it’s a useful political process, on the other, it is so easily subverted by minority special interests, especially when it is already difficult for the general populace to be well informed on the issues. I think it also points to the difficulty of true legislative representation for large populations.

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