I’ve had two discussions lately that have raised—in very different ways—the strategic questions facing gay activists right now. One of those conversations was with a straight friend who is very savvy politically, and very “gay friendly,” but otherwise not connected to any of the campaigns for gay rights. The other was with a gay friend who spends virtually all his time on those campaigns.
My political friend and I were having one of our periodic lunches to discuss recent national and local politics. (Okay, the truth is, we meet every so often to swap political gossip…) Apropos of nothing in particular, he recounted a conversation he’d had with his wife about the apparent speed with which gay marriage is being accepted. “Who’d have thought Iowa! And who’d have expected that a state legislature—not a court, but a democratically-elected body—would support same-sex marriage to such a degree that it would be able to override a veto! It’s amazing! Does it seem to you that this issue is moving faster than other civil rights movements have moved?”
My response was the typical lawyer hedge: yes and no.
On the one hand, I know how long gay and lesbian people have struggled for the barest legal and social recognition. I remember vividly when the “Coming Out” movement was getting underway, and the amount of real courage it took for many people to simply live an honest, un-closeted existence. So the struggle didn’t just start a couple of years ago. On the marriage front alone, there have been enormous setbacks—just look at the number of states with constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage. Think about Matthew Shepard, and the long history of vicious gay-bashing.
On the other hand, it does seem to me that the gay rights movement, and particularly same-sex marriage, has reached what I’d call “critical mass” more quickly than other civil rights efforts. Brown v. Board of Education was decided in the 1950s, and there are still plenty of schools where segregation is countenanced, if not officially legal. And there’s good reason we still have the Voting Rights Act on the books in a number of southern states. By way of contrast, as I write this, same-sex marriage is legal in four states and pending in another two—not to mention California, where it’s likely to win another referendum even if the California court leaves Prop 8 intact. Marriage advocates face a landscape that would have been unimaginable a mere ten years ago.
Mention of Proposition 8 leads me to the second conversation, the one with my activist friend. He takes the long view, as he should, and he worries about backlash. Nearly every advance in civil liberties, he reminds me, has come at a price. Roe v. Wade energized the anti-choice movement we face today. Brown led to a massive exodus from our common, public schools—an exodus from which we still suffer more than a half-century later. When the Hawaiian Supreme Court ruled that the state’s constitution required equality, the ruling triggered not only an amendment to Hawaii’s constitution, but the passage of DOMA and the so-called “little DOMAs.” My friend’s point was irrefutable, and I will admit I harbor many of the same fears. How do you achieve progress while at the same time minimizing the likelihood of reactions that could wipe that progress out and set the whole movement back? It’s a conundrum.
Or maybe not. Because this morning, as I began to write this column, I saw a brand-new CBS/New York Times poll that measured support for same-sex marriage. This poll was taken in the immediate aftermath of Iowa and Vermont—and it showed a level of support exceeding any that has previously been reported. According to CBS,
Forty-two percent of Americans now say same sex couples should be allowed to legally marry, a new CBS News/New York Times poll finds. That’s up nine points from last month, when 33 percent supported legalizing same sex marriage.
Support for same sex marriage is now at its highest point since CBS News starting asking about it in 2004.
Twenty-eight percent say same sex couples should have no legal recognition – down from 35 percent in March – while 25 percent support civil unions, but not marriage, for gay couples.
I think gay rights activists are “over the hump” in this country. It won’t happen tomorrow, but it won’t be very long. There may be some backlash here and there, among the remnants of the reactionary right, but this battle is over.
And the good guys won.