Why More Americans Accept Gay Marriage Than Ever

Jo Becker offers perspective on surging acceptance—and continued obstacles—in the fight for marriage equality.

Same-sex marriage remains a hot-button issue for fictional politicians. House of Cards, for example, recently inserted a testy exchange between actor Kevin Spacey's President Frank Underwood and a reporter questioning his fuzzy stance on gay marriage. But in reality, it's reached a "turning point," according to Jo Becker, investigative reporter with The New York Times and author of Forcing the Spring: Inside the Fight for Marriage Equality.

Same-sex marriage has become a culturally accepted norm in American politics. I asked Becker to identify the key elements of this transition, and she highlighted seven key facts about the dynamic shift in American perception of a civil-rights issue. What follows are excerpts from our conversation:

America is becoming more accepting of same-sex marriage and LGBT rights.

For the most part, as change has swept across America, you’ve seen remarkably little opposition. When Utah was going to legalize same-sex marriage, people thought, “What’s going to happen?” Well, very little happened. There were very few protests at the time. In recent months, [there's been] some pushback to the extent that you see some of these different religious-liberty bills rear up in different places.

We’re going to see a new round of litigation over these bills. Some of these bills that say local municipalities can’t pass protections for LGBT citizens mirror Romer v. Evans, which struck down a similar law in Colorado years and years ago. There might be some pushback, but remarkably little, and you have to keep the pushback in perspective. I think for the most part, states have accepted this. They’ve moved on. For most people, it’s kind of a big shrug.

Resistance against same-sex marriage is muted compared to past civil-rights movements.

There are a few voices out there that certainly have protested. But I don’t think you’re going to see the kind of massive resistance that you saw in the previous century to the Supreme Court’s desegregation orders, for instance. One Alabama Supreme Court justice does not make massive resistance. I do think that for the most part, most Americans—the majority of Americans, the polling shows—support same-sex marriage. I think that for those who don’t, many see it as an inevitability.

Same-sex marriage is not a politically decisive issue anymore.

In the last election, when President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage, many of his advisers were quite worried about whether that would hurt him. In fact, what the polling shows is that it helped him. It helped him with younger voters, who just don’t see this as an issue; for them, marriage equality is a touchstone issue, up there with global warming. And I think his pollsters would tell you that it helped turn those voters out for Obama. When you look at the polling numbers even for self-identified religious conservatives, this is not one of their top five [or] ten concerns. And so you don’t have the same level of pressure on the side of people who don’t support this.

We have seen this shift—and it is a shift. I mean, basically both candidates on the Republican and Democratic side, including Barack Obama during the first presidential race [in 2008], were opposed to same-sex marriage—they came out against same-sex marriage, based on a liability.

What you have seen in recent years is what many political scientists and pollsters have said is the most remarkable shift in public opinion on any social issue in modern political history.

More people coming out helped make same-sex marriage more accepted.

How did we get to where we are? The number one reason why we have gotten to where we are is that more and more people have come out, and they’ve told their story. And in telling their story, I think that it really does change people’s views. If you look at the polling, people who know someone who is gay are far, far, far more likely to support marriage equality than people who don’t. I think for many years, people just didn’t realize that they knew gay people because gay people weren’t out. And so, I think that the movement began years and years ago and took decades and decades of work for people to come out and tell their story, [starting with] Harvey Milk. It was his mantra: Come out and tell your story, that’s what it will take [for widespread acceptance]. And I do think that’s enormously important.

Proposition 8 and DOMA made same-sex marriage part of the national conversation.

What I think happened in 2008 when California went to the polls to pass Proposition 8—there was a real feeling that what could be won at the state level could be easily snatched away. And by that I mean, the California Supreme Court had said that the California constitution contained the right for gays and lesbians to get married, so people went to get married. Then voters went to the polls and had a voter initiative to change the [state] Constitution. For a lot of people, the lesson was that anything that could be won at that level could also be taken away.

There was also a recognition, I think, that at that point—and it’s hard to imagine today since we’ve seen so much change—that gays and lesbians were 0 for 30 at the ballot box. Every time their right to marry was put up for a vote, they lost. And so that was sort of a flashpoint, it activated many people. We saw people in the streets. Basically the next thing that happens is that you have a new strategy, a federal litigation strategy. You had both the Proposition 8 case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court and demanded full marriage equality, and that case was decided on a technicality that resulted in marriage equality for all of California, but we are still awaiting a 50-state decision.

Separately, you had the DOMA case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court, and resulted in a very sweeping opinion. [It's] the basis for many of the subsequent decisions that we’ve seen striking down, these bans in state after state after state after state. I don’t think that you can underestimate the importance of both of those cases and the legal strategies in this latest phase that we’ve seen.

One of the important things about Proposition 8 is that it sort of put a bipartisan face in the sense that it had David Boies and Ted Olson, sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, opposite sides of the Bush v. Gore case that decided a presidential election, come together and bring this case. And Edie Windsor was the perfect plaintiff with [Roberta] Kaplan: [They] put a face on why people so wanted to marry. And I think there was a really very public-education effort that was part of that litigation strategy and that was very helpful as well.

Same-sex marriage may be accepted, but people who come out as homosexual are still at risk for employment discrimination.

Even if all of that [cases currently headed for the Supreme Court] succeeds, you still have the fact that in many states across the country, people might be able to get married, but you could still get fired just for being gay. You could still be denied housing, just for being gay. That requires a federal law, and there’s a lot of debate about it.

So dealing with that issue—that there is no federal law protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination—will require an act of Congress. And so far the votes haven’t been there. You could have a result where somebody could get married in the state of Mississippi, post Facebook pictures, and their employer could literally fire them and say, “It’s because you’re gay.” And there'd be nothing you could do about it as long as that was a state where there was no state protection.

Same-sex marriage is a bipartisan issue and will have a role in the 2016 presidential elections.

One of the things that I think has been so important in the last few years helping to get marriage equality the place we find it, getting it to the tipping point we now are [at], is that there was a real effort to be bipartisan about it. With the presidential election coming up, I think that it’s something to keep in mind. Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton, who has come out for marriage equality—of course, she used to not be for it. And you have a Republican Party that is working through this issue. Some are more opposed than others. You have a lot of people on the ground, people like Ken Mehlman who was the architect of the Bush reelection and came out as gay, he’s been working really hard to change opinions, and he shows data that basically looks at the numbers we were talking about, about how young people feel, that this isn’t a top ten issue among people who identify as social conservatives—but it’s taking some time to work through that. One of the lessons of Proposition 8 is to be open to different sorts of allies.

In the presidential campaign, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. So far, while there are clear differences in opinions, it’s been somewhat muted, and I haven’t seen a huge amount—what you mostly see is people who just don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about it. Most people who look at the numbers do understand that in the long term, [coming out against] same-sex marriage, given where young people are, is not a really great long-term strategy.

In the short term, though, we’ll have to see how it plays out. The fact that there wasn’t a huge amount of discussion on it at CPAC suggests to me that this is not going to be a huge issue in the Republican race and what will be interesting when the Supreme Court rules in June [will be] how people will react. There have been a lot of reactions, and a lot of people I’ve talked to have said that from a Republican standpoint—for at least a number of people and operatives—it would be a good thing for the Supreme Court to take it off the table so they don’t have to talk about it. But we’ll see.