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?
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.