Marriage Equality Moves Forward
March 29, 2006
Evan Wolfson is author of Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and executive director of Freedom to Marry, the gay and non-gay partnership for marriage equality nationwide.
I was wrong.
In my book, Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality, and Gay People's Right to Marry, I wrote that our country is divided in thirds. One third supports the full inclusion of, and equality for, gay people, including the freedom to marry. Another third, I wrote, is not just adamantly against marriage for same-sex couples, but, indeed, opposes gay people and homosexuality, period. This group would, for the foreseeable future, be against any measure of protection or recognition for lesbians and gay men in American law, whether marriage or anything else.
Then there is the "middle" third—the reachable-but-not-yet reached middle. These Americans are genuinely wrestling with this civil rights question and have divided impulses and feelings to sort through. How the question is framed—tradition versus real people and real needs—and which impulses are tapped—fear or fairness—brings them to different outcomes, and their thinking continues to evolve as they come to understand the reality of who gay people are, how our families are harmed by the discriminatory denial of marriage, what marriage is and why its tangible and intangible protections and responsibilities matter. I wrote that those of us who care about equality must devote attention to that moveable middle, individually and collectively reaching out to the circles of people around us to give them the information they need and the time to absorb it.
So far, so good, and still largely right—but here's where I was wrong: I was pessimistic. Not only are we seeing the American people moving swiftly (in historical terms) toward marriage equality, but, in fact it turns out that even the third I considered unreachable on any reasonable timeline are not so adamant. Three polls released in the past few weeks—a major national survey by the Pew Research Center, the nonpartisan Field Poll in California and a Zogby poll for Garden State Equality in New Jersey—all confirm that the more we talk about gay couples and the freedom to marry, the more people favor inclusion. The moveable middle—like, alas, my own middle—is getting bigger.
First, the most surprising, and encouraging, finding: As the Pew poll reports, “’Strong' opposition to gay marriage, which surged in 2004, has ebbed to a new low." Opposition to ending discrimination in marriage has fallen significantly among most demographic groups, with “substantial declines even among Republicans.” Groups who have long opposed equal marriage, including seniors, Catholics and non-evangelical Protestants are showing that they, too, can be softened and swayed by the mainstream's flow toward acceptance and inclusion.
“Among people age 65 and over, for example,” reported Pew, “strong opposition to gay marriage jumped from 36 percent in 2003 to 58 percent in 2004, but has fallen to 33 percent today. White evangelical Protestants are the only major group in which a majority still strongly opposes gay marriage, but even here the intensity of feeling has receded somewhat.”
Likewise, California's Field Poll found that: "In 1997, 45 percent of adults described homosexual relations as always wrong and 38 percent said they were not wrong at all. In the current survey, the proportion saying such relations are always wrong has declined to 32 percent, while those who feel they are not wrong at all has grown to 43 percent." As of now, Californians support legal recognition of the relationships between lesbian and gay couples by a 3-to-1 margin, with 44 percent supporting equal marriage rights, a huge jump from just five years ago. These numbers reflect the momentum in California, where the legislature last year became the first in the country to pass a historic bill eliminating the different-sex restriction on marriage for committed couples. And California's polling numbers are mirrored or surpassed in other statewide polls such as Zogby's February survey in New Jersey, where, as in New York and Massachusetts, a majority fully supports ending discrimination in marriage.
Although a slight majority of Americans—only 51 percent, far less than many think—for now continue to oppose same-sex couples' freedom to marry, Pew reports that opposition has “declined significantly from 63 percent in February 2004, when opposition spiked following the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision and remained high throughout the 2004 election season.”
Why are we seeing this dramatic and continuing movement toward support for the freedom to marry? Well, my friend and colleague, Matt Foreman of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, put it very well: "People have thought more about gay families in the last two years than in the previous 30." What has prompted the American people to "think anew," in Lincoln's words, is quite simply the power and resonance of the stories of committed couples seeking and—in places such as Canada, Spain, and, of course, Massachusetts—exercising the freedom to marry. The more we ask our neighbors to think this through, the more they move—even many of the seemingly unmovable.
There will be bad days to come, less happy poll results and cruel right-wing election-year attacks such as those menacing several states where the gay minority likely will again get bashed by an electoral majority deprived of the chance to do that thinking-through. Snapshots during a period of national civil rights conversation such as we are having now can mislead, highlighting the volatility, the anxiety, the attacks and the obstacles that are part of any advance toward social justice. What counts ultimately, though, is not the snapshots, but the movie—the long-term trend that unequivocally shows the American people's at least acquiescence in, and growing acceptance of, marriage equality.
The really good news here is that we can all be part of the production, and the target audience is larger and more reachable than our opponents would like us to believe.