The Oscar-winning movie Dallas Buyers Club brought a vivid reminder of the harsh realities of what it was like to be a gay in the culturally conservative South of the mid-1980s. As someone born, churched, and educated in the South during that era, I remember that the idea of being gay or lesbian was simply dismissed, and the term “homosexuality” was reserved for hushed conversations about those sinful urban areas far north and west of the Mason-Dixon Line. While the film has been in theaters, however, the news has also been filled with contemporary coverage of a remarkable bevy of judicial decisions overturning bans on same-sex marriage in southern states such as Virginia, Kentucky, and Texas. While serving as the lead author of a recent study from the Public Religion Research Institute about attitudes about same-sex marriage, I was astounded at the shifts we found in southern attitudes over the past decade.
These changes are, of course, happening amid shifts in the country as a whole. Between 2003, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, and December 2013, support for allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally marry rose 21 percentage points nationwide, from 32 percent to 53 percent. As of the end of 2013, the number of states recognizing same-sex marriages increased to 17 plus the District of Columbia. And there has been enough judicial ferment at the state level that most court observers believe the issue will end up, in the not too distant future, before the U.S. Supreme Court. Our recent study confirms that these changes cannot be explained away as merely another example of federal judicial activism circumventing the will of the people in southern states. Rather, we are witnessing dramatic cultural transformations, which include changing minds even among culturally and religiously conservative Americans in the South.