The Key to Same-Sex Marriage's Fast Acceptance: The Courage to Come Out

Chief Justice John Roberts suggested activism is responsible for changes in public opinion. But the fact that many Americans now know openly gay people matters more.

The passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 was intended in part "to express moral disapproval of homosexuality." Less than two decades later, multiple states have blessed same-sex marriage.

What explains the rapid change?

John Roberts raised that question Wednesday at the Supreme Court. "I suppose the sea change has a lot to do with the political force and effectiveness of people representing, supporting your side of the case," he told a lawyer who wanted DOMA struck down. "You don't doubt that the lobby supporting the enactment of same sex-marriage laws in different States is politically powerful, do you? .... Political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case .... I'm just trying to see where that comes from, if not from the political effectiveness of groups on your side."

I can think of a source that may be far more significant.

Yes, political activism by groups favoring same-sex marriage has been important. So have essays by people like Andrew Sullivan, who helped to pioneer the intellectual arguments for same-sex marriage. What I suspect, however, is that the most important factor of all has been the decision by countless gays and lesbians to come out of the closet and be open about their identities.

"A poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, released last week and conducted in mid-March, found that 14 percent of Americans say they have changed their minds about same-sex marriage. Roughly a third of them told pollsters it was because they know someone -- a friend or family member or other acquaintance -- who is gay," the Los Angeles Times reports. And the reason that so many young people grow up supporting gay marriage, compared to their cohort a generation ago, is partly that their coming of age has been spent conceiving of gays and lesbians as real people whom they know, not abstract others who are easily stigmatized and demonized by virtue of being made into untested caricatures.

Having even one gay friend or co-worker is enough for many straight people to unconsciously conclude that the mainstream descriptions of homosexuality from just a generation ago are absurd.

As Neil Steinberg put it, "All that coming out of the closet worked."

He adds some tragic context: the role the AIDS epidemic played in forcing gay people out of the closet. "The old bargain -- stay silent and we won't hurt you, maybe -- was now a fatal compromise. Silence = Death," he wrote. "So gay people became more visible. Families that didn't know they had gay members discovered -- not typically to their delight -- they did. Businesses found they had gay employees .... Coming out was never easy -- it's not easy now, as growing acceptance is one thing, facing your own dad something very different. It takes courage. And most gay men and lesbians no doubt think of coming out in private terms. But they should also realize that it had enormous political implications, which pollsters like Pew are now seeing."

Exposure to gays doesn't change the minds of sincere traditionalists whose opposition to gay marriage is rooted in a notion of marriage as a sacramental, procreative institution, rather than one grounded in love. But as public opinion on divorce law and prevailing attitudes about straight marriage attest, that is a tiny group of people -- not nearly enough to constitute a majority that can block gay marriage. That requires the addition of the "yuck, gays" vote, which is rapidly shrinking. It turns out that once Americans get to know gay people they find they rather like them.