Legal recognition of same-sex relationships is a central issue in the so-called culture wars. Happily, for those of us who support the legal recognition of such relationships, there is now compelling evidence of a real shift in public attitudes. A recent study by The Third Way Culture Project, headed by Rachel Laser (J.D. '95), reveals "a general national warming trend on issues relating to gays and lesbians."
Nearly 90% of Americans now support equal job opportunities for gays and lesbians, and almost 80% now support gays serving openly in the military. Forty-nine of the Fortune 50 companies now include sexual orientation in their non-discrimination policies, and a majority of Fortune 500 companies provide domestic partner benefits.
Sixty-one percent of Americans now support the legal recognition of civil unions. And although Americans are more divided on same-sex marriage, 53% now oppose a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and only 39% support such an amendment. There is a dramatic age difference in attitudes toward sexual orientation. Those under 35 are much more supportive than those over 65 of civil unions (62% v. 40%), gay adoption 65% v. 40%), and openly gay political candidates (60% v. 35%). This suggests that over time overall public attitudes are likely to continue to grow more supportive of equal rights for gays and lesbians.
The Third Way report found that heterosexual Americans fall into roughly three equal size categories when it comes to gay issues. The "pro-gay polars" strongly support equal rights for gays and lesbians and do not attach any moral value to sexual orientation. Most of these individuals have come to this view over time and believe that the transformation in their thinking reflects significant insight, understanding, and personal growth. The "anti-gay polars" believe that being gay is "unnatural and against God." They tend to view gays as "societal outlaws." Although they generally oppose violence and bigotry directed against gays, they fear that extending equal rights to gays and lesbians would "put America on a dangerously wrong path." The third group, the "grays," are conflicted. They are torn between their desire to be tolerant, fair, and respectful of individual liberty and their lingering discomfort with homosexuality. The "grays" tend to accept that sexual orientation is not simply a matter of choosing a lifestyle, but they worry that "society is moving too fast."
The Third Way report concluded that those who want to move public opinion along the path toward greater acceptance of equal rights for gays and lesbians should focus particularly on the "grays" and should emphasize three points: (1) Legal protections for same-sex relationships address a real, not a made up problem. (Interestingly, a majority of Americans (56% v. 39%) do not believe that same-sex couples lack significant legal protections.) (2) The legal recognition of same-sex relationships does not undermine the institution of marriage. (Perhaps ironically, at a time when fewer and fewer Americans are marrying, there is a concern that the legal recognition of same-sex relationships could be the death knell for the institution of marriage.) (3) The legal recognition of same-sex relationships represents progress for the nation. (Although 70% of Americans believe the United States will legalize civil unions within a decade, almost half of all Americans worry that this is not progress. They are concerned that greater acceptance of gays and lesbians could cause the erosion of moral standards and damage to children raised in such families.) These are all serious political concerns that merit a serious response.
In the end, the goal, in my view, should be to enlighten all Americans to understand that the legal recognition of equal rights for gays and lesbians is an appropriate extension of the American ideal of equality and the proper next stage in the nation's long and admirable struggle to provide equal treatment to all persons, regardless of race, religion, gender, national origin, disability, and now sexual orientation.
For more information on Third Way, see www.third-way.com