National opinion on gay marriage was the fastest cultural change since the 1960s.
Even before the Supreme Court decided on Friday in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex marriage rights were universal, the popular verdict was in: gay marriage—and gay life—had become as American as apple pie.
Two years ago, in June 2013 the Supreme Court refused to limit the words “marriage” and “spouse” to heterosexual unions, invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act. That November, the Senate passed ENDA, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act banning anti-gay discrimination in the workplace 64 to 32—including 10 Republican votes, although the House of Representative has yet to pass it. Until recently, Democrats often opposed gay marriage publicly, even while approving it privately; now, Republicans are increasingly supporting gay marriage publicly—or dodging the issue Chris Christie style—even while disapproving it privately. This reversal in what constitutes the politically safe position on gays probably represents America’s fastest, sharpest U-turn on a fundamental social issue since the 1960s.
Twenty-two years ago, when the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, admitted he approved of gays serving in the military, the resulting firestorm ultimately imposed “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Despite the Democratic majority in Congress, only 69 House members signed a letter supporting gay rights. Three years later in 1996, Clinton wooed the center by signing the Defense of Marriage Act, whose key provision many Clinton nominees to the Supreme Court eventually gutted in U.S. v. Windsor (2013) as placing an unfair “stigma” on gay spouses. As of January 2004 gay marriage was illegal in all 50 states.
Even as recently as seven years ago, when Barack Obama’s presidency began, gays were weaker politically. Obama’s 2008 campaign triggered a surge of socially conservative black and Hispanic voters who helped pass California’s Proposition 8 banning same sex marriage. With many blacks—and Democrats—still opposing civil unions, Obama had not endorsed gay marriage. As president, he only approved same sex marriage on May 9, 2012, thanks to Vice President Joe Biden’s blurting out his own endorsement days earlier on “Meet the Press.”
What John Adams would have labeled a revolution “in the minds and hearts of the people,” has been rapid and radical. Since Thomas Jefferson’s wonderfully subversive phrase in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming “all men are created equal,” gradually, “all” broadened to include blacks, gays and others. “Men” expanded to include women; even the notion of “equal” grew.
Those seeking to create a heroic history of gay liberation emphasize the Stonewall protests of 1969, along with four decades’ worth of protests producing legislative and legal victories. But in fact, a mass cultural conversion precipitated this political change.
Gays changed their collective image by embracing marriage during an epidemic of heterosexual divorce.
While rooted in the Sixties’ sexual revolution and the Seventies’ “Me Decade,” this cultural revolution went national in the 1980s. Ironically, the AIDS tragedy helped mainstream gay life. Many gays became more open about their lifestyles, while many heterosexuals became more aware of gays around them, especially after the disease killed President Ronald Reagan’s friend, the Hollywood legend Rock Hudson, in 1985.
In the 1990s, despite the complex politics handcuffing Clinton, Hollywood propagandized effectively for gay equality. Movie blockbusters like Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, and The Birdcage, starring Robin Williams and Gene Hackman, cast in celluloid the dominant Hollywood stereotype of gays as normal, respectable, family-loving Americans underneath whatever flamboyant facades some might choose—with conservative opponents cast as Neanderthals awaiting redemption. A year later, the comedienne Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet on The Oprah Winfrey Show. With art first imitating, then shaping, life, DeGeneres’s popular sitcom character “Ellen” subsequently came out to her therapist, played by Oprah Winfrey.
Will and Grace debuted in 1998 introducing Will Truman, an openly-gay lawyer sporting an all-American name and a conservative personality. By 2005, the American public proved surprisingly open to a sexually explicit macho males’ love story in Brokeback Mountain. Movies and television had not only normalized what most once deemed abnormal, they glamorized what most once deemed repulsive.
As with the Reagan years, the George W. Bush years proved surprisingly good for gays in their march to social and political acceptance. Mary Cheney’s lesbianism was not that scandalous, and actually softened the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney image. When Bush’s former Republican National Committee chair, Ken Mehlman, came out in 2010, many emphasized the shocking fact that few were shocked.
Cheney’s and Mehlman’s outsider-as-insider stories, paralleling millions of others’ paths, reveal gays’ power as both an invisible minority and as the privileged oppressed. Like Jews, gays frequently pass easily in society, often asserting their distinct identity as they please. It becomes hard to hate “them” when “they” are “us.”
And, like women, many gays sit at the most elite familial, corporate and governmental tables in the land, giving them the exclusive access long denied to African-Americans and other minorities. This growing intimacy, familiarity, and prominence, with millions coming out to relatives and colleagues, set the stage for this decade’s political and legal changes. Before Friday, 37 states and Washington, D.C., allowed same-sex marriages.
Ironically—but cleverly—gays changed their collective image by embracing marriage during an epidemic of heterosexual divorce. Emphasizing their conventionality and familiarity, rather than flamboyance and rebelliousness, gays have framed equal treatment as a civil rights issue, appealing to an increasingly fluid and tolerant society that worships individual rights and abhors discrimination.
The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” This time, cultural transformation triggered liberal change. Especially in today’s horizontal democracy, culture matters, ideas count, media transforms—and sometimes, politics and the law just catch up.