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Gay Americans win respect battle

08 August 2014

Opposition to gay equality in the US is now limited to two groups, says Bill Countryman

THE most surprising social change of recent years in the United States is the transformation of public attitudes towards gay and lesbian people, who have passed from the status of disruptive outsiders to that of respectable citizens in just a few decades. Few people, if any, foresaw it.

This is not to suggest that equality for lesbians and gay men is a settled matter. Attitudes vary greatly from one region to another. But, taking the nation as a whole, perspectives have effectively reversed themselves, and a majority now supports same-sex marriage, the most visible current index of the shift. This support, though stronger among the young than the old, is broadly based, and organised opposition is largely limited to two groups.

The Republican Party is one, but it is becoming less united on the topic. Republicans of a libertarian stripe reject all kinds of government interference in private life, regardless of sexual orientation. And the older, more business-related wing of the Republican Party finds that its constituency is losing interest in the topic.

The other centre of opposition is religious, centered primarily in Roman Catholic and Evangelical circles. The Roman Catholic Church, however, finds itself divided between a hierarchy opposed (sometimes ardently) to equal rights for gay and lesbian people, and a laity that tends to favour them.

That leaves Evangelicals, for whom this has become a defining issue. Their opposition is trenchant enough to cause significant problems for civic groups that try to appeal both to them and to the larger population. The Boy Scouts of America, for example, have been forced into a compromise that satisfies neither side - accepting openly gay Scouts, but prohibiting openly gay Scoutmasters. Although there have been a few signs that Evangelical unity on the topic may be unravelling, Evangelical leaders who show signs of questioning the party line have thus far been swiftly disowned by other Evangelicals.

If we ask why change has happened so quickly against such strong opposition, three factors come to mind. One is simply that the lesbian and gay population was so widely and deeply embedded in the larger community that, once the move toward openness began, it quickly turned into a mass movement - but one where the "protesters" were largely already well-connected to people on the "other side".

Second, the appeal for legalisation of same-sex marriage has caught people's imagination. Young heterosexual people could think of no reason why their lesbian or gay friends should not be able to look forward to a life-partnership as much as they themselves did. Older people often found themselves pleasantly bemused to find an eager and hopeful set of recruits to marriage, home, and family, at a time when many heterosexuals had begun to despair of these institutions.

Third, the efforts of the opposition to explain why this threatened a national and cultural disaster have not proved to be persuasive. Neither the general public nor the courts have found them convincing. Indeed, it looks increasingly as if they do not even convince their own young, many of whom now profess "no religion".

The next question will be how deeply Evangelicals are committed to their abhorrence of same-sex marriage. Those among them who have come to a new mind on the subject insist that they are not abandoning scripture, but reading it more deeply. Other Evangelicals do no good either to themselves or to the larger society by simply refusing to listen.

The Revd Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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