The world didn't end
When Proposition 8 passed in California in 2008, there was a debate among advocates for marriage equality. The vote had been so close some thought they should go right back to the ballot box with an initiative to get voter support for the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
I was a bit more cautious and had a couple of concerns. First, putting an initiative on the ballot in 2010, where the electorate would be smaller and more conservative, seemed like a losing proposition. Voters often dislike being asked to address the same question twice and in many cases, the second time around, support is lower than the first.
Also, it seemed to me that there would be quite a difference in the minds of voters between a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage (which is what proposition 8 was) and an affirmative vote in favor of marriage equality. The latter seemed like a bigger step to ask voters to make.
I may well have been mistaken.
Until this year, gay marriage had only been allowed through the courts or state legislatures. Thirty-two times, voters in various states had a chance to voice their opinion and every time, it was to restrict marriage.
But, opinion polls changed rather quickly. As recently as 1996, just 27 percent of Americans were in favor of gay marriage, with more than two-thirds opposed.
Support remained in the 30 to 40 percent range until around 2005. It wasn’t until 2010 that any national polls showed a plurality of support for gay marriage. By 2011, most polls showed majority support. By now, the trend is more than clear. An ABC News/Washington Post poll earlier this year showed 53 percent in favor of marriage equality, with just 39 percent opposed, the lowest level of opposition yet.
In our recent election, gay marriage was on the ballot in four states. Voters in Minnesota rejected a gay marriage ban. More telling, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington all voted affirmatively in favor of marriage equality.
So, what happened?
Did it become more clear that sexual orientation was a status rather than a choice? Perhaps a bit more evidence came in, but nothing dramatic. It’s been pretty clear for decades to any honest observer that there’s not much choice involved.
Is it a generational difference? Perhaps partly. Most younger Americans see gay marriage as a nonissue, certainly nothing worth discrimination. But, the shift has been so quick, aging provides a poor explanation.
Do more Americans personally know gay people. Perhaps. It’s long been known that having a personal friend or acquaintance who is gay is associated with support for gay rights. And perhaps more gay people have come out because more Americans do report knowing at least one gay man or lesbian.
Was it the president? President Obama came out in favor of marriage equality earlier this year, after the polls had already shifted. He may have changed a few minds, but on this issue, he’s mostly leading from behind.
I think the issue is simpler. Gay marriage first became legal in several states through the courts, then in some through the legislature.
And, the world did not end.
Opponents of marriage equality cast the issue as one of defending or protecting marriage. But Americans found out that when gays were allowed to marry, life went on. Their own marriages didn’t change much. No one was forced to marry someone of the same sex. Churches were still allowed to discriminate, and pastors were still permitted to refuse to perform ceremonies. The world kept on turning.
Although there have been a few more hurricanes, that’s a result of Mother Nature and perhaps global warming. Only a crazy few among us continue to allege that permitting gay marriage causes them.
This is why we have a constitutional republic rather than a direct democracy. It is to protect the rights of minorities from the short-sightedness of the majority with no stake in the issue. When interracial marriage became legal, it was through the courts as well and it was against the majority of public opinion at the time. Public opinion changed, partly as a result of the courts’ actions and their lack of impact on the lives of most Americans.
People eventually learn that extending rights to others doesn’t hurt them in any significant way. Plus, it’s nice to be on the right side of history.
And, unless I’m mistaken, the sun will come up tomorrow.
Michael Carley is a resident of Porterville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.