Gay Marriage Accelerated to Legal Acceptance from Cultural Shifts, Millions of Personal Decisions

By Raasch, Chuck | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), June 28, 2015 | Go to article overview

Gay Marriage Accelerated to Legal Acceptance from Cultural Shifts, Millions of Personal Decisions


Raasch, Chuck, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


WASHINGTON * Nineteen years ago, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, signed the Defense of Marriage Act in the middle of an election year, with virtually none of the usual presidential fanfare.

Pictures weren't taken. Pens weren't saved. Clinton issued a signing statement stressing equal rights that, in the wake of Friday's Supreme Court decision, reads like he signed the law banning gay marriage under duress.

It was as if the first president to openly court gay Americans knew that he was sitting on a cauldron of public opinion that would dramatically shift and overflow as it did on Friday, when the Supreme Court by one vote rebuked his signature and made same-sex marriage the law of the land.

In a nation where tectonic shifts in opinion sometimes take centuries and once spawned a Civil War, the change of attitudes and opinions on gay marriage has been, to borrow from President Barack Obama's declaration Friday, like a "thunderbolt" on the nation's social landscape.

How did it move this fast, and why?

The answers lie in two decades of personal decisions by gay Americans to publicly declare their sexuality; a pop culture that humanized abstract politics around the debate; generational shifts in beliefs about what effect government should have on people's lives; and a culmination of political wedge politics that drove millions of Americans to the ballot box.

EVERYDAY COURAGE

Richard Socarides was Clinton's adviser on gay rights when Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Justly or not, he said, Clinton felt "boxed in" by politics as he faced re-election in 1996. Some gay activists were bitterly critical.

Ultimately, Socarides says today, it was the courage of everyday gay Americans that opened the door to the court's ruling, and he now believes that gay marriage will cease being an issue after the 2016 presidential campaign.

Politics followed public opinion.

"I think as it became easier for people to come out and be open and honest about who they were, that had a huge impact on everyone in the country," Socarides told the Post-Dispatch.

"People like Ellen DeGeneres, who came out in the late '90s, started a trend where people in public life were willing to show themselves as who they were," he continued. "So I think that one of the big factors is that we have created a cultural and political environment where people felt more comfortable about being honest about who they are. And that changed everything."

In May 1996, when DOMA was introduced in Congress, 27 percent of Americans told Gallup they supported gay marriage.

Last month, 60 percent did.

"It is a combination of popular culture, more people knowing gay people, and some states trying it out and the roof not collapsing on them," said Ilya Shapiro, senior fellow in constitutional studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, explaining the flip.

THE 'HARM PRINCIPLE'

He said that younger Americans mainly millennials, the oldest of whom were in grade school when Clinton signed DOMA have had a huge effect as they cascade by the millions into adulthood.

Shapiro dubs it the "harm principle," where many in this generation of younger Americans ask, "Why restrict or ban something that doesn't tangibly hurt people?"

The "harm principle" among millennials is cutting across the usual right-left divisions in the social landscape. While millennials are likely to support gay marriage a traditionally liberal position they also are far less likely to support abortion rights, leaning toward a more traditional conservative principle, Shapiro says.

He predicted that the court's decision will escalate other marriage-related fights over things such as tax-exempt status of groups opposing the decision and the services private businesses must provide to same-sex couples. …

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