On Tides and Counter Tides

By Brian Powell

I was invited to contribute to this essay exchange a few weeks ago.  In that short period of time:

  • Governor Chris Gregoire signed Washington’s marriage equality bill into law.
  • The Maryland state legislature passed a same-sex marriage bill that was strongly supported by Governor Martin O’Malley.
  • The New Jersey state legislature voted in favor of marriage equality for same-sex couples.
  • More than 150 mayors from over 30 states signed a pledge to support the “freedom to marry.”
  • A judicial panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Proposition 8, California’s gay marriage ban, is unconstitutional.
  • U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White became the second judge to invalidate the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
  • Just three years after voters in Maine voted to repeal the law that had legalized same-sex marriage, supporters of marriage equality have collected the signatures needed to bring the issue of same-sex marriage back to a referendum.

Many supporters of marriage equality and, more broadly, LGBT rights—and perhaps some opponents as well—may see these events as evidence that the “tide has turned.” Others might not be as convinced. The tides of change are often followed by counter tides.  For example, in the past few weeks:

  • Advocates of “traditional family” began the paperwork to challenge the Washington same-sex marriage law through Referendum 74.
  • Even before the marriage equality law in Maryland was finalized, opponents of the bill promised to contest the law by bringing it to a public vote.
  • Governor Christie took little time to veto the marriage bill approved by the New Jersey legislature.
  • Republican legislators in New Hampshire have been counting votes to see if they have a sufficient number to repeal the state law that allows same-sex marriage and to override the veto that the Governor Bill Lynch has promised.
  • Although the Obama administration has decided not to contest the judicial invalidation of DOMA, the House of Representatives indicated that it intends to appeal the judicial ruling.
  • Supporters of a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in both Minnesota and North Carolina have been optimistic of the ban being passed in upcoming votes.
  • Members of the Virginia State Senate and House voted in favor of a “conscience clause” bill that expressly allows private adoption agencies to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples.
  • In jockeying for the title of the most severe conservative, Republican candidates for the presidency have repeatedly voiced their strong opposition to same-sex marriage and have promised to protect “traditional marriage.”

The answer to the question “has the tide turned” is not as easy it might seem. Some pundits, politicians, and leaders of marriage-equality advocacy groups—many of them residing in the East or West Coast—act as if the debate is nearly over and that same-sex marriage is right around the corner. Meanwhile, opponents of same-sex marriage rights or “marriage-like” privileges (e.g., civil unions)—or, for that matter, any rights extended to the LGBT population—point to their repeated victories in resisting same-sex marriage in public referenda.

If the question is whether the tide has turned in terms of public opinion, though, the answer is a resounding yes. Public views have changed, even in a very short period of time. In the more than 1500 interviews that Catherine Bolzendahl, Claudia Geist, and Lala Carr Steelman and I describe in our book COUNTED OUT: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family and the more than 800 interviews that my research team has conducted since then, we find that Americans are gravitating toward a more open definition of family that includes same-sex couples. In 2003 nearly half of Americans held traditional, or “exclusionist,” views that did not recognize any type of same-sex couples (even those with children or those who have been living together as a couple for 10 years) as family. By 2010, this figure dropped to just one-third. In other words, for the over two-thirds of Americans, gay and lesbian couples no longer are automatically counted out of the definition of family.

Changing attitudes regarding marriage equality are equally encouraging. In 2003, three-fifths of the people we interviewed were opposed to same-sex marriage. By 2010, more than half supported it. I must admit that when I first saw the results of our 2010 survey I was unsure how much faith I should have in these numbers. But I became a true believer with each additional national survey that also has confirmed that more Americans are in favor of same-sex marriage than oppose it. Counting those who support civil unions, over two-thirds of Americans currently endorse the idea that loving, committed same-sex couples deserve rights, benefits and recognition that even a decade ago would have been unheard of.

Returning to more rigid views about family and same-sex couples is not going to happen. The greatest support for same-sex couples is among young adults who eventually will replace older generations. At the same time, an increasing number of Americans realize that some of their relatives, friends, co-workers, and neighbors are gay. These facts, among many others, signal that Americans’ endorsement of same-sex marital—and other—rights will continue to accelerate in the next few years. In this regard, then, the tide has turned.

If the question, however, is whether the tide has turned in terms of policy, the answer is less clear.  Public opinion does not necessarily translate in policy. The public is just one constituency that lawmakers and judges take into consideration when effecting change—or preventing it. Even if lawmakers are to represent the public, they are elected by a group of people who are not representative of the public. After all, the demographic profile of the American voter is not the same as the demographic profile of the American adult. For example, generational differences in both the likelihood of voting (with older adults being more likely to vote) and attitudes regarding LGBT issues (with older adults being less supportive) may work against efforts toward marital equality—for the time being.

The efforts also are uneven geographically. Tennessee, where legislators have been considering a “don’t say gay” bill that would prohibit discussions of homosexuality in elementary and middle schools, is not Maryland. And my home state of Indiana, where resistance to LGBT rights is so strong that lawmakers have proposed legislation to prevent LGBT-friendly license plates from being issued, is not Washington.

These attempts to quash any recognition of LGBT couples and the LGBT community will ultimately prove to be counterproductive. Given the remarkable changes in public opinion and legislative actions in support of marriage equality, opponents are on the losing side of history. The real question is not whether they will lose, but when.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, LGBT Activism: Has the Tide Turned?

2 responses to “On Tides and Counter Tides

  1. Dear Brian,

    I really enjoyed your post. I think it is important to seriously think about opinion-policy congruency when it comes to SSM. My paper on SSM in Canada (IJCS, 2010) looks at how in that country, elites or policy entrepreneurs played a more critical role in pursuing SSM policy than did public pressure. I have been working on a forthcoming paper in Comparative Sociology where I look at SSM policy variation across 22 western countries. I also find political entrepreneurship to be somewhat the case in other western countries like Portugal and even Spain. In thinking about how tides have turned outside the US, I had to revise that paper 4 times (since early 2010) because each time I corresponded with the editor, a new development occurred in one of my countries! I also agree with your analysis of the role of changing attitudes about marriage as playing an important (although perhaps indirect) role in creating new opportunities for legalizing gay marriage. My comparative paper looks at the World Values Survey question on people’s opinions about marriage as a social institution. Although my analysis on the link between marriage and SSM politics is not as detailed as yours and your colleagues, it seems individuals may not only be thinking of marriage in a more inclusive way, but individuals, at least in several western nations, may also think marriage is an “outdated institution” even though they may still highly value the role of “family.” Again, I really enjoyed your post and book.


  2. Pingback: Lesbian Judge Refuses to Marry Straight Couples « ~ BLOGGER.GUNNY.G.1984+. ~ (BLOG & EMAIL)

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