Will, Grace, and a Decade of Change on Gay Rights

Reid Wilson
National Journal

Only 10 years ago, sex between two consenting males was illegal in Texas, six in 10 Americans opposed allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, including the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, and Republican strategists were actively working to enact bans on same-sex marriage on swing-state ballots because it helped their chances politically.

Today, the president of the United States, along with half the country, supports same-sex marriage, one-third of Americans live in states that allow gay couples to be married, and the Supreme Court says the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a legal bond only available to heterosexual couples, is unconstitutional. The Democratic Party openly embraces gay marriage in its platform, while Republican leaders desperately want to avoid an issue that's now a political loser for them.

The stunning shift in American attitudes toward gays and same-sex marriage, which culminated in a pair of Supreme Court rulings on Wednesday invalidating DOMA and effectively killing an anti-same-sex-marriage ballot initiative in California, has been fueled by the rising influence of a younger, more accepting generation. That generation has been influenced in part by an increasing willingness of gays and lesbians to publicly declare their sexual orientation and by the rise of a popular culture in which gay characters on television and in movies are commonplace.

Polling shows younger Americans strongly backing gay marriage. Two-thirds of millennials--those born after 1981--now support marriage equality, up from about half in 2003, according to data compiled by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. A majority of members of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980, now favor gay marriage, reflecting more than a 10-point increase over the last decade. A majority of baby boomers and the Silent Generation are still opposed to same-sex marriage, but support even among those older Americans has increased by between 9 and 17 points.

Coverage of the marriage debate in the news media has tilted strongly toward support for same-sex marriage. Pew studies show about half of all stories that covered this spring's arguments before the Supreme Court focused on those who supported marriage equality, while only one in 10 stories covered the opposition.

Researchers also credit popular culture with changing American attitudes on gay marriage. Television shows like Will & Grace, which ran in prime time from 1998 to 2006, and Modern Family, which debuted in 2009, feature gay characters in lead roles. Shows as diverse as The Simpsons, Lost, The Office, and Grey's Anatomy all featured prominent gay characters or characters who came out of the closet. Celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and Rosie O'Donnell who came out gave every American a face to attach to homosexuality.

"I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done," Vice President Joe Biden said on Meet the Press in 2012, when he inadvertently got ahead of President Obama's decision to publicly support gay marriage.

Being able to attach an individual to homosexuality has played a role, too. Data experts at Facebook showed about 70 percent of users of the popular social network has a friend who publicly identifies as gay or lesbian, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. Gallup polling conducted in May showed 75 percent of respondents said they have friends, relatives, or coworkers who have told them personally that they are gay or lesbian.

"Hollywood has made gay-rights mainstream while making Christianity seem extreme," said Chris Wilson, a Republican pollster. "Try to name one positive portrayal of an evangelical Christian in a prime-time show right now. Conversely, you can likely name at least one positive portrayal of a homosexual character in each popular prime-time program. A decade of that has an impact."

The increase in the number of Americans who know a gay or lesbian person has coincided with a rise in the percentage who say being gay is morally acceptable. Gallup pegs that figure at 59 percent, up from 44 percent in May 2003.

Politically, the sea change has been even more dramatic. In 2004, Republicans moved to put measures banning same-sex marriage on ballots in key swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Oregon. The measure passed in all 11 states in which it appeared on a ballot. In fact, between 1998, when Hawaii defined marriage as a heterosexual act in a constitutional amendment, to 2008, when California voters backed Proposition 8, 31 states voted to ban same-sex marriages or civil unions. A ban failed in only one state, Arizona, where it passed two years later.

The Democratic Party's own platform voiced support for same-sex couples, especially equality under the law, but the party didn't specifically endorse marriage equality until 2012. That year, in the face of liberal activists who threatened to pass a pro-marriage plank within the platform, President Obama said in an interview just three months before the Democratic convention that he had evolved on the issue. In 2012, efforts to ban gay marriage failed in Washington state and Minnesota, while voters in Maine and Maryland became the first two states to legalize gay marriage through voter referenda.

This spring, a host of Democratic-elected officials, even those from red states, came out in favor of gay marriage, joined by a few more centrist Republicans like Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mark Kirk of Illinois. It is unlikely the Democratic Party will ever nominate another presidential candidate who does not back same-sex marriage.

Republicans, meanwhile, have become far more quiet in the same period. While social conservatives were quick to blast the Supreme Court's decision Wednesday, Republican leaders were more muted.

"While I am obviously disappointed in the ruling, it is always critical that we protect our system of checks and balances. A robust national debate over marriage will continue in the public square, and it is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman," House Speaker John Boehner said in a statement. In other words: Marriage is a state issue, not an issue for Congress to take up.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sounded an identical note: "The House defended this law, which passed with a large bipartisan coalition and was signed by President Clinton, because courts should determine the constitutionality of laws, not presidents. I'm disappointed in this decision, and the marriage debate will continue in the states," Cantor said.

Wednesday's Supreme Court ruling came 10 years to the day after the high court invalidated sodomy laws in 14 states. It is an accident of history, but perhaps an appropriate one, that both rulings came down in June, which gays and lesbians celebrate as National Pride Month.