Gays did not particularly want a battle over marriage equality.
“I always thought that gays in the military was a stronger issue for us,” a San Francisco gay leader once told me.
The military issue was more marketable. Citizens demanding the right to military service were not easy to discriminate against, although the bigots tried and succeeded, coming up with odd arguments such as U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn’s concern, “What about displays of affection between members of the same sex while they are out of uniform? What about displays of affection that are otherwise permissible while in uniform, such as dancing at a formal event?”
Or there was Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s worry that a soldier might read a magazine that catered to a gay audience “in the barracks on a continuous basis to the point where it caused all those around you to be concerned about your sexual orientation and it started to cause polarization within your outfit.”
These tissue-thin arguments were easy to combat, if members of Congress had open minds.
But the marriage equality issue quickly eclipsed the military issue because (1) President Bill Clinton sold gays out on the military issue and (2) the right wing discovered it could raise huge amounts of money by portraying marriage equality as an impending threat.
Soon direct mail fundraising messages were flooding mailboxes. The gay community, taken by surprise, may not have wanted the marriage issue front and center but it could not stand immobile when there were groups trying to outlaw marriage equality.
As the issue unfolded, something happened in the first decade of the century that no one expected. Prejudice against gays began to decline, rapidly. In California, the marriage issue appeared on the statewide ballot twice, and those votes demonstrate how fast things changes. In 2000, 61.4 percent voted against the gays. In 2008, that vote was down to 52.47 percent.
Nevada’s two votes did not unfold in the same fashion. Here, an anti-marriage equality measure had to be approved by voters twice, so there was not the same passage of time to provide a comparison.
Still, during the two years between first- and second-round voting, the vote against gays declined by 2.42 percent. In 2000 it was 69.62 percent. In 2002 it was down to 67.20 percent.
Since then, opinion surveys have shown Nevadans, like residents of other states, have been changing their minds about gays in amazing numbers. It’s unlikely that Nevadans today would vote again as they did 13 years ago.
Why did sentiment change so fast? It would be nice to report that politicians showed leadership and brought the public along. Unfortunately, it was the other way around. (When he ran for president, Barack Obama’s position was that “marriage is the union between a man and a woman.”)
But more than that, it was a wonderful development within the gay community itself. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of gays came out. Year after year, their families, friends, business associates learned they were gay. People who loved or respected them discovered what it was like to know someone who was gay.
It’s easy to demonize those we do not know, to fear groups of people we know only through fakelore. But it is much more difficult to demonize those we know at close range. The anti-gay views of the people of the United States could not withstand the spread of knowledge.
There is some scholarly support for this notion. A social psychologist I know tells me it’s called the “mere exposure effect.” “The more you see something, the less you see it as strange or dangerous or different,” she said.
The decision by the right wing to push marriage equality front and center backfired, and we should be grateful for their action. In a peculiar way, the right gave legitimacy to gays, but only because gays themselves seized the opportunity with courage in a time when gays could still be murdered — and were — for being who they are. They gave us all a great gift.
Life is too short for us to spend any of it telling others who they should not love. When the Supreme Court ruling came down last week, I sent a message to a friend of mine who has been with his partner for 35 years, more or less, and married to him for 11 years. I wrote, “Congratulations, to us all.”
Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.