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
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 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
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
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
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,