The South's Stunning Embrace of Gay Marriage

Even in the nation's most culturally conservative region, attitudes are now evenly split on marriage equality.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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.

Like remnants of Jim Crow-era racism, the hostility toward gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people depicted in Dallas Buyer’s Club can of course still be found in the contemporary South, but it’s no longer unquestioned. Contrary to what one might expect, today Texans and southerners are evenly divided on the issue of same-sex marriage. Forty-eight percent of Texans favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, compared to 49 percent who oppose. Support for same-sex marriage among Texans has doubled during the last 10 years, up from 24 percent a decade ago according to a 2003 poll from Pew Research Center. And despite Texans’ pride in being “like a whole other country,” Texas is no outlier among southern states. In the South overall, support for same-sex marriage has similarly risen from 22 percent in 2003 to 48 percent in 2013.

Given recent history, these shifts are stunning. Just months after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down its ban on same-sex marriage, voters in many southern states reacted to this Yankee court action by overwhelmingly passing bans in their own states. In August 2004, Missouri was the first state after the Massachusetts ruling to vote on a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. At the time, I was teaching at Missouri State University and remember vividly that, among my Springfield neighbors, community leaders, and even among my students at a large state university, few were willing to voice opposition to the ban. It passed with 71 percent of the vote. Three months later, the 2004 national elections saw a sweep of 11 states passing constitutional bans against same-sex marriage, and the following year the Texas constitutional ban passed with the approval of 76 percent of the voters.

What explains the rising swell of support for same-sex marriage in the South? There are at least three factors driving this rising tide across Dixieland.

First, it is difficult to overstate the effect of the generation gap. A decade ago, when most of these same-sex marriage bans were passed across the South, the vast majority of today’s Millennials were neither counted in public-opinion surveys of adults nor eligible to vote. Their attitudes strongly diverge from their parents and grandparents. Nationwide, nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans ages 18 to 33 favor same-sex marriage, compared to just 37 percent of Americans ages 68 and older. This generation gap is evident in virtually every subgroup in America, including among southerners. Today, nearly two thirds of southern Millennials (65 percent) support same-sex marriage, compared to just 28 percent of southerners in the Silent Generation.

Second, and perhaps not surprisingly given the value southerners place on hospitality, there is a growing “friends and family effect” at work in southerners’ changing attitudes. Despite the generally conservative cultural climate, more gay and lesbian southerners are coming out to those who are close to them. Nearly two thirds of southerners (64 percent) today say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, a factor that strongly influences support for same-sex marriage. Within that group, 56 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally; among southerners with no gay or lesbian close friends or family members, only 32 percent favor same-sex marriage. These more intimate social connections have moved the debate from the abstract to the personal, to one about the rightness of denying legal recognition for the relationships and commitments of close LGBT friends and family members. For many, if this has not come to seem unjust, it has at least come to feel impolite, a judgment that retains considerable power in the South.

Finally, there is some evidence in the recent survey that southerners may be rediscovering a value that is part of the historical DNA of groups such as Southern Baptists: the separation of church and state. Southerners are drawing a distinction between personal moral objections to same-gender sexual relationships and support for public policy that would legally recognize same-sex marriage. While 48 percent of southerners now favor same-sex marriage, only 37 percent of southerners say sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable. To put it bluntly, support for the legality of same-sex marriage outpaces moral approval of same-gender sex by double-digit numbers.

The trend lines all point to a rising swell of support for same-sex marriage—even way down south in Dixie—powered by the coming of age of Millennial southerners, the coming out of LGBT southerners, and the comeback of the principle of separation of church and state. The sea change in southern attitudes signals that old times there may indeed be being forgotten.