Twelve years ago Vermont became the first state to legalize civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Back then the term “civil union” was unfamiliar to most Americans, and the Vermont law seemed radical to many. Its passage triggered fear campaigns and antigay ballot initiatives that energized conservatives and helped them win elections across the country.
On Election Day 2012 voters in three states—Maryland, Maine, and Washington—went far beyond civil unions and supported marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Voters in Minnesota rejected a constitutional amendment that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman. These victories mark a dramatic shift in public support for gay and lesbian equality—all in a little more than a decade since Vermont passed its civil unions bill.
Let’s start with the voters. One reason marriage equality is becoming a winning issue is because young people support it. As they turn 18 and start voting, their views are shifting the political conversation and election landscape. As young people become a larger part of the electorate, support for marriage equality is likely to become the norm. But it’s not just the youth vote that’s driving change. A recent report, “The Big Shift,” by the think tank Third Way, finds that three-quarters of the change in attitude over the past seven years came from Americans of all ages, including older voters.
The culture has also shifted. As more gay and transgender Americans have come out to their families, friends, and co-workers, they have rebutted stereotypes and rigid notions of what it means to be gay. Hollywood—never a leader in cultural trends but eager to be a close follower—has noted this growing acceptance and begun adding openly gay characters to programming. According to a recent report by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 4.4 percent of recurring characters on TV shows this season are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender—a record high. And an October poll by The Hollywood Reporter found that voters increasingly support marriage equality, with 27 percent saying that “gay TV” shows such as Glee and Modern Family influenced their views.
The laws have changed too. Four years after Vermont legalized civil unions, the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Although public opinion was trending toward support of civil unions, the Massachusetts ruling seemed to many a step too far. This fear seemed to come true when conservative lawmakers introduced 11 state bans on same-sex marriage that year—and won them all.
Even so, one state after another followed Massachusetts, legalizing marriage equality through their legislatures or courts. By 2011 same-sex marriage was legal in six states and Washington, D.C. Not until November 6, however, were supporters of marriage equality able to win through the ballot box. Thirty-two ballot initiatives had previously been rejected by voters, and that failure became a conservative talking point. But when the people spoke this November, they said yes.
It’s important to note that many of the people who voted “yes” on marriage equality are religious. Whether straight or gay, they are doing what opponents say is impossible: reconciling their faith with marriage equality and discarding theological beliefs that teach that homosexuality is sinful and unnatural.
Progress within religious institutions and faith communities has moved at an uneven pace. Some of the biggest changes have come about because gay and transgender people refused to abandon their religion. Instead they steadfastly claimed their faith and added new dimensions to old texts and beliefs. Groups such as Dignity USA in the Catholic Church, Integrity USA in the Episcopal Church, Keshet in the Jewish community, More Light Presbyterians, Al-Fatiha Foundation in the Muslim community, and many others have prodded their institutions to a broader understanding of God’s love and God’s creation of human beings who are gay and straight.
More houses of worship are displaying rainbow banners to welcome all people, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. Just as importantly, faith leaders are increasingly speaking out in support of gay and transgender equality as a core moral issue—and they are pushing back against opponents who have used religion as a weapon to demonize gay people and deny them justice and equality.
When it comes to marriage, many religious leaders are making the clear distinction between marriage as a civil matter and marriage as a religious ceremony. Marriage equality laws pertain to civil marriage. Written into these laws are strong First Amendment protections so that clergy and religious leaders who object to performing wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples are not required to do so.
In a new book, God Believes in Love, Bishop Gene Robinson—the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church—addresses religious and cultural concerns about same-sex marriage and makes a strong biblical case for it. He tackles the seven passages in the Bible that are always used to condemn homosexuality, offering fresh interpretations that take into account the culture of the time and the context of the writer. Beyond that, Robinson argues that God is still speaking, revealing new truths and understanding today. He offers as examples the use of scripture in the past to justify slavery and to subjugate women—but belief is not static, and religious institutions now know they were wrong on these two issues.
The interplay among culture, laws, and religion is not easy to untangle. Changed hearts and minds prompt new laws. At the same time new laws shift the norm, changing hearts and minds. We can see this interplay with marriage equality. After same-sex marriage was legalized, the sky did not fall. The earth did not spin off its axis. Nor was heterosexual marriage destroyed. Instead more people who love one another got married, and something that had seemed strange or fearful began to seem normal. As the cultural and political embrace of marriage equality continues to grow, look for more state victories in coming years.
Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.