Marriage equality advocates should be optimistic about same-sex marriage legalization

By: Rachel Goldstein In May 2011, 53 percent of surveyed Americans —a record-breaking majority—supported the legalization of same-sex marriage (SSM). These results revealed a notable attitudinal shift amongst the American public.

The graph below illustrates the rapid downward trend in opposition to and increasing support for SSM. From 2000 to 2004, opposition and support both held relatively constant around 60 percent and 35 percent respectively; in the years following, opposition steadily decreased and support steadily increased.

Nate Silver, Support for Gay Marriage Outweighs Opposition in Polls, 2012, FiveThirtyEight, New York Times

A few socio-political trends can offer a possible explanation for the slow but steady deterioration of fundamental obstacles to marriage equality: (1) decreased endorsement of radical social conservative arguments, (2) increased political support and legislative gains, and (3) heightened visibility and acceptance of the LGBTQ community.  

1. Decreased endorsement of radical social conservative arguments

The radical social conservative camp postulates two main arguments: (1) that SSM is morally wrong, and (2) that SSM will impose significant societal costs, including increased divorce rates and adverse effects on the children of same-sex parents. Both of these arguments are losing traction.

While radical social conservative tirades—linking SSM with polygamy, for example—continue to litter the headlines, buy-in from the American public is declining. The public seems to be attributing less meaning to anti-SSM arguments based on “moral” reasoning. The substantial increase in the percentage of Americans in favor of SSM almost parallels the growth in those calling gay relations “morally acceptable.” A May 2012 Gallup poll titled “U.S. Acceptance of Gay/ Lesbian Relations is the New Normal,” reported that for the third year in a row, a majority of Americans called homosexual relations “morally acceptable.” If these upward trends continue, the “morality” argument will likely become null.

The social cost notion is increasingly untenable, as it is frequently refuted by scientific analysis. As early as 2004, the American Psychological Association announced a policy resolution citing lack of scientific evidence that lesbian and gay parents are any less effective parents than their heterosexual counterparts.

Many journal articles report no correlation between permitting same-sex marriage and increased divorce and abortion rates, which social conservatives often attribute to the perversion of “traditional family values” (try “Same-Sex Marriage and Negative Externalities” for an interesting and fair read). In addition, the percentage of Americans that believe same-sex parenting is bad for society is decreasing —50 percent in 2007 to 35 percent in 2011.

  2.  Increased political support and legislative gains

Marriage equality advocates have suffered discouraging blows in the past few years—North Carolina’s 2012 vote to ban same-sex marriage is a primary example. However, recent political and legislative developments provide sound reason for optimism.

Although critics deemed President Obama’s 2012 SSM support announcement solely symbolic, his gesture should not be underestimated. The percentage of African-Americans supporting SSM increased shortly after, signifying that political leadership on the issue can shift public opinion.

The November 6th election brought substantial advances for the LGBTQ community and its allies. Minnesota voters struck down a proposal defining marriage to be between a man and a woman via constitutional amendment. Maryland, Washington, and Maine legalized same-sex marriage, bringing the number of states with full marriage equality to nine (plus Washington D.C.). A total of 16 percent of Americans live in these jurisdictions, where same-sex couples can now partake in the 1,138 benefits, responsibilities, and privileges associated with marriage (think health insurance and hospital visitation rights).

  3.  Heightened visibility and acceptance of the LQBTQ community, especially amongst millenials   

Increased support for SSM is likely connected to increased acceptance and visibility of the LGBTQ community. Seventy-one percent of Americans now know a gay friend, family member, or acquaintance—a 12-percentage point increase since 1998. Research indicates that knowing someone who is gay increases likelihood of supporting SSM by as much as 20 percent.

The dramatic increase in same-sex couple households—80.4 percentage growth from 2000 to 2010—also heightens visibility and increased acceptance of same-sex relationships. Same-sex parent families inhabit a record number of 96 percent of all U.S. counties. With these numbers on the rise, perhaps we really are reaching a “new normal.”

As of May 2011, 58 percent of Americans say they believe homosexuality should be accepted by society, while 33 percent say it should be discouraged. Acceptance is particularly widespread amongst Americans under 30, at 69 percent. As the millennial generation comes to the fore of state and federal decision-making, marriage equality advocates have every reason to be optimistic about same-sex marriage legalization.  We’re trending toward a long-overdue legislative overhaul.

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