Gay marriage has dominated the national news for a couple of years, the result of a number of court cases striking down state laws banning same-sex marriage. As more states are allowing same-sex marriage, public opinion also has shifted rapidly on the issue as indicated by numerous polls. But same-sex marriage is only one aspect of the changes affecting homosexuals in America. In 2003 the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual behavior undermining a lot of case law. In 2013 the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act that also invalidated similar state laws. In 2011 the U.S. Department of Defense reversed the 1993 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that opened up the military for gays and lesbians to serve openly without fear of retribution. Corporations 30 years ago discovered the benefits of diversity in hiring practices and in retaining good employees. We have the first President to openly champion LGBT rights and to campaign on the issue. Several Fortune 500 CEO’s have come out and helped erase the stigma that threatened the careers of gays and lesbians. Sports stars and movie stars have joined the bandwagon of gay pride.
So have homophobia, discrimination, and hate talk disappeared? Obviously not, but the people who practice such evil are on the defensive today, and public opinion has shifted against them. In fact, in comparison with the slow progress of civil rights for women and African-Americans, the 40-year change in attitudes towards homosexuality has been swift. As recently as the ‘70s, homosexuals were considered moral degenerates not worthy of anything but death. A vocal minority still expresses that view, especially among some religious groups. But the majority of people around the world have rejected that hateful attitude. Public opinion varies among regions, ages, classes, and nations, but the data demonstrates a continuing upward progress in all these categories.
So what has prompted this Cultural Revolution? Was it a media blitz, a shift in political strategies, a reversal of centuries of church dogma, or simply a more secular drift in how most people live? A case can be made that the most significant impact has been the result of more and more people “coming out,” i.e. opening living their lives without lies or repression. As more people came to know and understand their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and role models as regular humans and not some frightful “other” category of nameless villains, then that personal connection made a huge impact on public opinion.
Some argue that the fight for LGBT civil rights is not comparable to that for women and African-Americans because gays and lesbians can choose their lifestyle and therefore are more accountable for their behavior. First, there is no gay lifestyle. LGBT people are as varied as straight people, and their sexual orientation and how they manifest it differ widely. The colorful characters on the floats at Gay Pride Parades are but a few of the stereotypes of gays and lesbians that fade in comparison with the millions of ordinary LGBT Americans.
Although the debate lingers on in the courts and legislatures, perhaps the most ardent debate continues to be in the hallowed cloisters of church denominations that are re-assessing their doctrines and dogmas regarding the issue. Mainstream Protestant denominations have made major shifts in accepting LGBT members into full fellowship. Some even have gone so far as to allow ordination of gays and lesbians into the clergy and/or offering rituals for same-sex marriage. There are notable exceptions, such as the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. But even in denominations such as the United Methodist Church, which has a strong homophobic official polity, many congregations, seminaries, bishops, and members are defying church orders. Most Protestant denominations have a LGBT advocacy group that operates independent of the church hierarchy and serves as a political caucus for change within the organization. Several of those groups under the auspices of the National Gay & Lesbian Task force published a booklet titled “Building an Inclusive Church: A Welcoming Toolkit” that has become a model for congregations contemplating a change in church policy on the issue.
Within recent years several evangelicals have championed the cause. Justin Lee, Director of the organization and website www.GayChristians.com published his memoir titled Torn in which he not only recounts his story but challenges evangelical Christians to reconsider their position on the issue. Matthew Vines published a video on YouTube that went viral in which he re-interpreted the seven “gotcha” scriptures in the Bible. He has now formed a national organization called the Reformation Project.
So a hundred years from now, how will historians and sociologists look back on this movement that really caught fire with the AIDS plague in the 80’s? With thousands of people dying every day, it became an issue that no longer could be ignored. Of course, the HIV epidemic quickly spread to the heterosexual population and is no longer exclusively an LGBT issue. Some would say that the media, and particularly the entertainment industry, has promoted this issue and thereby increased its visibility in public opinion. Conversely, others comment that the media merely reflect the shifts in society rather than direct it. Certainly the debates have been long and loud since they reflect strongly held beliefs and attitudes and challenge the status quo of decades. The puritanical hypocrisy about sex in the 19th Century set the stage for a repression that didn’t explode until the 1960’s. People with same-sex orientation have been around since the beginning of recorded history, but the history books generally glossed over the issue. It is not a new phenomenon, but it certainly is a more public one.
In the broader context of a culture or a particular society, what role do sexual practices have? Are they are reflection of the culture or do they help set the standards for the culture? Victorian England was one of the most sexually repressed societies, but it certainly was not inactive. It generally was duplicitous and was acceptable as long as you didn’t talk about it. So we talk about sex a lot more now, but does that it mean that as a society we are more sexually active? That’s what some of the more avant-garde media would have you believe, but do they represent the majority or just a fringe element? We can’t even agree as to how large a minority has a same-sex orientation or how active (or repressed) they are in expressing it. Some say 2 – 5%, and others claim as high at 10%. Masters & Johnson tended toward the higher end.
Have we already moved on to other concerns such as obesity and ageism? The younger generation certainly have come to accept that “that’s so gay” as not a pejorative term. Who cares how long denominational hierarchies debate their dogma. Is it relevant to the needs or interests of society at large, or is it just another religious divide that started in the 16th Century?
Stay tuned; the debates and changes in American Society aren’t over yet.