A Practical View of Gay Marriage

I try to avoid politics on this blog, but this isn’t a directly political post. I’m in favor of legalized same-sex marriage, but if you’re not, I won’t try to change your mind. Instead I’m going to offer you a practical reason to just keep quiet about the subject.

Many people think of gay marriage as one of a group of “social issues” that divide the US, like abortion or the death penalty. It’s actually something very different. Here are some recent results from two polling firms on public approval of gay marriage:

gay marriage polls

Don’t get distracted by the difference between the two polls in 2011, which probably comes from phrasing the question a little differently. Just focus on the sheer speed of change: a 50% increase in the last seven years alone, and a doubling of support in the last fifteen years. Part of what’s going on here is that people are changing their minds about the issue as they learn more about it, see more openly gay people on TV or get to know them in their own life, and so on. That may be a one-time shift. But the other factor is simply demographic — young people are overwhelmingly more supportive of gay marriage than older people:

So even if that one-time shift is largely over, all it takes is the passage of time for support to keep steadily rising.

Public opinion on abortion does not exhibit these same trends — it’s actually been pretty stable over the last 40 years, and the differences by age are much more muddled. And support for the death penalty, while more cyclical (peaking with high crime rates) has also been relatively flat over the long term. Support for gun control has been steadily weakening but at a much slower rate.

In fact, it’s hard to think of another modern social issue where public opinion has been such a dramatic straight line upward. How about interracial marriage?


If you click here for more charts, you’ll see that the same kinds of significant age gaps are driving that line upward. “Millennials” (18-29) are well above 90% on this question, with their parents in the 80-90% range and their grandparents in the 60s. Members of those older generations have become significantly more tolerant over time, but that effect seems to be levelling off, with the simple demographic turnover now dominating.

Now, I am not directly comparing gay marriage to interracial marriage. There are obviously some important differences. For one thing, interracial marriage hasn’t been a legal issue (in the US) since the last anti-miscegenation laws were struck down by the Supreme Court in 1967. The law in that case was a leading indicator of public opinion, with only 20% of Americans approving of interracial marriage at the time. With gay marriage, which the courts are just beginning to get to, it may be more of a trailing indicator. (Here’s one good discussion of some other differences.)

What I am comparing is the standing of those two issues in polite society. Concern about interracial marriage is (happily) no longer a legitimate subject of mainstream political rhetoric in the US. Showing even a hint of doubt about it would take you out of contention for nationwide office in either party, as this recent Onion article jokes about. When Mitt Romney was asked about it recently, he gave perhaps the most direct answer of his career:

Romney was confronted at a town hall meeting here Monday by a young man who read from a book of scripture published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and asked Romney whether he agreed with his church’s one-time belief that interracial marriage was a sin.

Romney, who is on the cusp of becoming the first Mormon ever to win a major party’s presidential nomination, became visibly agitated with the man’s line of questioning. The former Massachusetts governor replied to his question with a terse “No.”

I have no reason to doubt him, but was the answer to that question ever in doubt? Any American politician today, whatever they really thought, would give the same reply. To do otherwise would be political suicide.

How long has opposition to interracial marriage been politically beyond the pale, not just as a legal proposition but even as a talking point? Well, there are obviously big regional differences, but at the national level I’d put the shift somewhere in the ‘80s or ‘90s, when the polls were about where they are now on gay marriage. The last Presidential contender who I can imagine even flirting with the subject was Pat Buchanan, and his last gasp was winning a few primaries in 1996. Anyway, some people would put it even earlier, but it’s hard to say exactly when things changed — and if you’re an opponent of gay marriage, that’s the part of the story that should really worry you. There was no alarm bell that went off to warn people that their views were about to go from a strain of mainstream social conservatism to the sort of fringe bigotry that most conservatives would be embarrassed by.

So here’s the alarm bell: if you have a problem with gay marriage, it’s going to become your problem. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve come to that view for simple homophobic reasons or more nuanced intellectual or religious ones. It doesn’t even matter whether you’re right or wrong. Either way, you are lashing yourself to a hopeless losing cause, and not the kind that people forget about. There will come a time — not this year or next, but sometime in the next decade or two — when your position today will be just as embarrassing to you as if you’d taken a firm stand against interracial marriage in 1980. When that happens, I can almost guarantee that you’ll change your tune in public, whether or not you actually change your mind. So why not save yourself a lot of stress and get it over with now?

Few things are more unpleasant than having been on the wrong side of history on a subject like this, but few things are easier to avoid. You don’t have to march in any pride parades or shout anything from the rooftops. Just drop the subject. That’s all. Focus on your other political priorities. This one’s a losing battle.

I am hardly the first person to make this point — for example, see here for one recent op-ed, or here for a better statistical analysis — so it’s amazing to me that so many smart people are unable to see the writing on the wall and get themselves ahead of this issue. Take this NYT column by Ross Douthat, a young and relatively moderate conservative pundit, in which he rejects almost every rationale for opposing gay marriage but still finds his own complex reason to object to it. I don’t know why he would write a column like this, but I do know that one day he’ll be embarrassed that he did. Actually, in some ways this kind of qualified intellectual defense of prejudice is harder to live down than just the crude prejudice on its own. For example, William Buckley had to fight harder to repudiate his ‘50s segregationist views than did Robert Byrd and other Southern senators, largely because people had higher expectations of an intellectual like Buckley. Similarly, Bill Clinton won’t have to work hard to make people forget that he signed the Defense of Marriage Act — in fact, it seems like many liberals have already forgotten it — but in twenty years, Douthat may still have readers linking to that column in the comments section of everything he writes.

If your opposition to gay marriage is really one of your top priorities, I don’t expect to have much influence on you. But for most of the people I’ve met with that viewpoint, it’s not a top priority at all. It’s one of a cluster of conservative positions, many of which are far more important to them. So why are they risking so much of their own personal reputation and political identity on this one?

What if you’re already in favor of gay marriage? Well, if you know someone who’s not, you might want to show them some of those numbers. It’s a lot easier to change someone’s priorities than it is to change their mind. And you shouldn’t do it just because a less vocal opposition means faster progress — you’ll be doing them a favor on a personal level too. One day they may even thank you for it.

9 thoughts on “A Practical View of Gay Marriage”

  1. So people should abstain from defending unpopular opinions? I guess however defended gay marriage back when it was unpopular should have kept his opinions to himself. Or is it just opinions that have recently be come unpopular? Just present the facts, do some sociological analysis and refrain from advocating self-censorship.

    As to the substance of gay marriage, the while debate is ridiculous. No evil comes from gay marriage, just like no evil has ever come from extending marriage to new groups (civil marriage, interracial, etc.). what changed marriage was easier divorce, dissociating marriage from filiation and equal rights to both sexes, i.e. when it was substantively altered in its effects.

  2. I don’t think self-censorship is always a bad thing. More to your point, there’s a big difference between an unpopular cause and a hopeless one. And there’s a further difference between a hopeless cause that can’t hurt anyone (like my beloved Mets) and one that can.

  3. Polling on “politically correct” topics like interracial and gay marriage aren’t necessarily indicators of acceptance per se. You have a bit of a Bradley effect where people are more likely to give a more politically correct answer when polled than they actually feel. For example, while most people in public will say they are ok with interracial marriage, the fact that interracial marraiges that occur are small by percentage should tell you that most people don’t approve of them on a personal level. It’s easier to give a politically correct answer when it’s posed to you in the abstract. But when it’s YOUR daughter that says she’s marrying a black guy, then the feelings may be different from what’s indicated by the poll. Rather than polling Americans on whether they “approve of interracial marriage” it should be asked, “how would you feel if you found out tomorrow that your son or daughter were marrying someone out of your race?” You might get a completely different answer. I think you’d see something similar with gay marraige. Sure, many may “approve” it in the abstract, but how many will be thrilled when their son comes out the closet tomorrow and says he’s marrying Bob his co-worker. Sure some will still be happy, but it will be way lower than the number who approve it in the abstract. Ask how many people would prefer their son be born straight rather than gay. I bet the number would be 80% at least. Don’t rely too much on polls to accurrately guage people’s feelings on sensitive topics like race, sex and homosexuality. People are notorious for giving one view in public but privately holding a different opinion. That’s why gay marraige votes fail even in very liberal states like California and liberal activists scratch their head wondering how it didn’t pass even deep in blue territory like the West Coast.

    Another factor that will complicate this is reproductive rates. Conservatives have a higher fertility rate than liberals. Although society tends to liberalize over time, if conservatives are outbreeding liberals, that might somewhat neutralize this effect. And keep in mind that native born US fertility rates are under-replacement level and the only thing keeping the US population stable is immigration, most of it from conservative Catholic countries in Latin America that don’t look favorably upon gay marriage. In fact you can say gay marriage is pretty much a liberal, urban white thing. Blacks and Latinos generally don’t support and neither do non-urban non-liberal whites in the bible belt. These groups are growing faster demographically than the white, liberal urban base that supports it. I guess that’s why there’s such a frantic rush to try and get it passed, because if there’s every a Hispanic, Catholic majority in America, gay marriage is toast.

    1. Actually, Tulio, conservatives who have gay family members are much MORE likely to have a positive attitude to marriage equality and homosexuality, as can be seen by the former vice president and a few senators.

      And immigrants from Catholic Latin American countries are MORE tolerant of gay marriage than either American Catholics, or Americans of the same economic class as the immigrants.

      Even young evangelical Christians are in the majority in favor of marriage equality and don’t understand the biases of their church elders.

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