Why America changed its mind on same-sex marriage.
The Senate on Tuesday passed the Respect for Marriage Act, a bill that would enshrine federal protections for same-sex marriage into law.
The legislation wouldn’t change anything about how marriage laws currently work in the United States. Instead, it would ensure that same-sex marriages would maintain their legal standing if the Supreme Court decides to overturn its landmark 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized marriage equality nationwide. The push to pass the RFMA was prompted by the court’s decision this past summer to overturn abortion protections established by Roe v. Wade, which relied on legal reasoning some experts believe could also put the future of Obergefell into question.
The passage of the RFMA, which was supported by all Senate Democrats and 12 Republicans, is a sign of how dramatically views on same-sex marriage have changed over the past generation. In 1996, just 27 percent of Americans said they believed same-sex partners should enjoy the same rights as opposite-sex couples. Today, more than 70 percent support marriage equality.
That shift has also been reflected in national politics. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, opposition to gay marriage was the dominant position in both parties. Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both backed legislative efforts to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Between 1998 and 2008, voters in 29 states approved ballot measures banning same-sex marriages.
Barack Obama became the first president to publicly back marriage equality in 2012, a move famously spurred by off-script comments by then-Vice President Joe Biden during an interview on NBC. In recent years, support for same-sex marriage has become close to unanimous among Democratic lawmakers. Republicans, once unified in opposition, are now divided on the issue, and marriage has been largely absent from the ongoing culture war that has targeted LGBTQ people in a wide range of other areas.
Why there’s debate
The rise in support for same-sex marriage has coincided with a broader increase in the visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ people, but experts say there are a variety of factors that have led views to shift so significantly in such a short period of time.
A major cause, most argue, is how weak the arguments against marriage equality proved to be once they were finally tested. They say fears about the “slippery slope” of expanding marriage rights and degradation of traditional marriage — which had been at the core of the opposition — have been shown to be completely unfounded as more gay couples have become integrated in communities across the country. Others say the growing understanding that homosexuality is an inherent trait, rather than a choice, has made it harder to make the case that gay people don’t deserve equal rights.
Republicans have also played a substantial role, many argue, by making the political calculation to essentially concede defeat on the issue. Though a large share of GOP lawmakers and voters still disagree with same-sex marriage, the party has largely chosen to focus on other cultural matters within their own caucus. Others credit Donald Trump with ending the debate for good when he said he was “fine with” gay marriage shortly after winning the presidency in 2016.
The RFMA will now head to the House of Representatives, where it’s expected to pass comfortably, before it can be signed into law by President Biden.
More visibility inevitably leads to more acceptance
“Research has long indicated that the biggest driver of liberal attitudes on matters of sexual orientation and gender identity is familiarity with an openly gay or trans person. Immigrant kids are not being born into native-born families, but gay kids are being born into straight families.” — Sasha Issenberg, Politico
The right’s warnings about marriage equality were shown to be little more than fear mongering
“Essentially none of the things conservatives warned would happen actually transpired. The cycle of failed prophecy is a familiar one for American conservatism.” — Jonathan Chait, New York
Opposition to same-sex marriage has become increasingly difficult to rationalize
“Though there seems to be no single ‘gay gene,’ scientists in the field generally affirm a role for genetics in the determination of sexual orientation. And imposing social or legal disadvantages on individuals for an unchosen disposition seems a violation of basic fairness.:” — Michael Gerson, Washington Post
The sudden shift in opinion was only possible because of a long, drawn-out campaign for gay rights
“Public opinion on the issue swung so swiftly and decisively — and so little uproar resulted once it was legal nationwide — that one might easily assume the march toward marriage equality was a neat, steady progression. But it was in fact a decades-long project that moved in fits and starts.” — Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR
Marriage, in every form, fits into the GOP’s pro-family agenda
“The cultural shift showing Republican support for gay marriage actually has nothing to do with Republicans actually caring about all LGBTQ people having full and equal rights. Instead, it’s proof of something we’ve known for a long time: Same-sex marriage is a conservative issue at its core, but one some conservatives have chosen not to accept until now.” — Zach Stafford, MSNBC
The Christian right has mostly tempered its opposition
“On social issues, Republicans have long catered to their evangelical base. So when evangelicals change their mind on something, their Republican representatives do, too.” — Claire Suddath, Bloomberg
Trump’s indifference ended the debate for good
“The lack of attention Trump paid to same-sex marriage is one factor that contributed to it becoming a less divisive issue. While Trump’s actual record on LBGTQ rights generally aligns with conservative Christian values, Trump had said in 2016 that he was ‘fine’ with legalizing same-sex marriage.” — Tim Lindberg, The Conversation
Traditional values around marriage have decayed
“Marriage is no longer a means of harnessing the brute facts of biology into the service of children. It is purely a means to the end of the married parties’ happiness. It means whatever they want it to mean.” — Editorial, National Review
Gay marriage affects the political elite more directly than other social issues
“So what makes gay marriage a bipartisan issue? Most Americans are unmarried, but those who are married are wealthier and better educated. Married people are also much more likely to be white. … Alternatively, abortion rights primarily benefit non-white and poor women. … In other words, there’s a pretty small overlap between people who need marriage rights and people who need abortion care.” — Elissa Asch and Laurie Essig, Boston Globe
Suburban swing voters have gradually become comfortable with same-sex marriage
“There’s a variety of suburban voters who were more traditional at one time who now care more about economic issues and less about faith-driven issues. There’s a lot of people of faith, either conservative or liberal, that might’ve traditionally been associated with being against this kind of thing that have shifted to a ‘live and let live’ mentality.” — Brian Reisenger, Newsweek
Republicans know they’ve lost the fight over marriage equality
“The GOP has, in recent years, undergone a quiet but consequential evolution: Party leaders still exhibit strong opposition to transgender rights and the top legislative priorities of the LGBTQ community. But on the most prominent battlefield of the past few decades, same-sex marriage, they’ve all but conceded defeat.” — Meridith McGraw, Politico
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