May 22nd, 2011
Sunday afternoon musings – those who are not fond of my pontificating may want to pass this one by.
There is something magical about the name Gallup Poll. Gallup may not be the most accurate of all polling agencies, but their duration and history lend an air of credibility, especially when confirming what other polls are finding. So when on Friday the Gallup Poll announced that Americans now support marriage equality by 53% to 45%, it gave an emotional confirmation to what we have already seen from major polling all spring.
Yes, a majority of all Americans now believe that same-sex couples should have the legal rights to marriage.
But what does that mean?
Let’s start with what it does not mean. This does not mean that a majority of Americans personally approve of same-sex marriage. Legal acceptance and approval do not necessarily go hand in hand. Nor does it mean that we will from henceforth win all of our battles in either the legislature or in the ballot box. Anti-gay campaigns have proven successful at appealing to fear and – for at least a while – changing public attitude.
But it does mean that we will win. It means that the tipping point, that distinct moment at which change ceases to move at its previous trajectory and suddenly accelerates, has been reached.
And if we look at Nate Silver’s graphic of public opinion on marriage, I think that we can see something interesting.
If we look at the way in which public opinion has been going, we see – other than a bump leading into the 2004 elections – a fairly consistent rate of change. But around the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, something happened. Something changed the scale such that the rate of increase in support and rate of decrease in opposition sped up dramatically.
Why did this happen?
I think I know why. I don’t have evidence for this conjecture, and history may prove me wrong, but I believe that a single international moment occurred which changed the way in which marriage equality was viewed both within and without the gay community: Proposition 8.
When Californians voted to ban marriage in our state, it caught the world by surprise. And, unlike marriage bans in Arkansas or Texas, this seemed personal. It seemed a deliberate insult.
Also unlike Arkansas or Texas bans, it pissed us off enough to protest. Publicly in the streets. In San Francisco and San Diego and Los Angeles. But also in Chicago and Detroit and New York and Omaha and Salt Lake City and Wichita and Marquette and Sault Ste Marie. Even in London and Paris and Amsterdam.
This was an unexpected response. Those who oppose marriage didn’t expect it, the voters didn’t expect it.
And we didn’t expect it. But something about the moment of this vote and this time in this state caught our collective discontent and channeled it around a singular event. Losing proposition 8 changed us as a community, for the first time we truly began to believe – all of us, not just the activists but club kids and conservative couples and militant queers and feminist lesbians – that marriage was a right to which we are entitled and which is worth fighting for.
And, just as importantly, it showed those around us that we truly care. It ceased being a matter over which we could politely disagree and became a position which defined friendship and family and faith.
And as a consequence, those around us changed. Reluctant and hesitant and fearful people decided that if they had to choose between tradition and those they love (and, yes, now they have to choose), they would give up tradition.
So where does it go from here?
I think that from now on – for a while, at least – we are going to see ever-increasing support until only the die-hards will still oppose civil marriage. Those who currently say “no” to pollsters will increasingly feel reluctant to be out of the mainstream and will respond the way that “everyone agrees”. The Aunt Thelma’s of the world will not only find that they do think that it’s time to let Sue’s kid (he’s such a fine young man) and his partner marry, but that they are rather proud of how modern and current they are.
And this will be followed – at a few years distance – by legislative change. Politicians are followers, not leaders, so they will not be ahead of the people on this issue.
But when the Minnesota Marriage Ban Amendment fails in 2012, as I predict that it will, this will be the end of calls by anti-gay activists to “let the people vote”. And if the Supreme Court has not invalidated such bans by then, we will see initiative efforts to reverse the anti-gay bans in states like Oregon, California, and Nevada.
None of which means that we can rest on our laurels or quit the fight. As they lose, anti-gays will mount ever shriller campaigns and they may get rather painful and the South will cross the line to full equality only after dragging its feet, kicking and screaming. But while there are still battles to go, we have won the war.