Reviews | How the gay rights movement became so successful

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In Washington, DC — and everywhere else, I guess, with a bohemian pulse — Pride celebrations are in full swing. Some gay people have come to resent the relentless commercial aspects of the season, as evidenced by the Pride bocce ball sets from Target and Pride dog bandanas from Walmart. But nothing big in America isn’t monetized. And gay rights are by far the most spectacular social movement of recent decades.

That’s not to say that gay life in America is all rainbow. Many young LGBTQ people still face roaming and are attracted by the false and cruel consolation of suicide. In the redder parts of the country, school libraries are being targeted for carrying LGBTQ literature. And Central America seems largely incompatible with conceptions of gender that involve prepubescent medical intervention.

Yet most people now regard equal treatment of homosexuals as a minimum commitment of a just society. In 1996, only 27% of Americans supported same-sex marriage. But that changed group after group. In 2016, for the first time, a majority of adults aged 65 and over said they support same-sex marriage. The same was true for a majority of Protestants in 2017 and Republicans in 2021. Weekly devotees remain the most resilient category. But even here 40% approve of same-sex marriage. Overall support among Americans now exceeds 70 percent.

It’s a battle in the culture wars that has never been fully joined. Following the decision of the Supreme Court Oberfell v. Hodges decision in 2015 legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, few politicians — including social conservatives — seemed keen to revisit the issue. And it’s hard to imagine that even a conservative majority on the Supreme Court would want to challenge such a decisive American majority.

Consider the contrast with abortion politics, where a Supreme Court ruling in 1973 sparked one of the most enduring struggles in American public life. Why did these two examples of social controversy play out so differently?

The strongest reason is perhaps the simplest. The abortion argument involves conflicting perspectives on human rights – one that emphasizes the autonomy of women, the other that emphasizes the value of budding human life. . It is a fundamental clash of visions that often ends in bitterness and questioning of motivations.

In the dispute over gay rights, proponents have asserted a compelling view of human dignity, while opponents have struggled to explain how the expansion of rights harms others. The advance of same sex the wedding, it seems, usually ended with cake and dancing.

Some conservatives have argued that gay marriage would somehow weaken the institution of straight marriage. But the evidence that same-sex marriage increases divorce rates, or child poverty or children living in single-parent households seems non-existent. (A decline in family stability in the United States has hurt children, but its roots long predate same-sex marriage.)

A second reason for the rapid solidification of gay rights as a core American value is an implication of genetics. Although there does not appear to be a single “gay gene”, scientists in the field generally assert a role for genetics in determining sexual orientation. And imposing social or legal disadvantages on individuals for an unchosen provision seems a violation of fundamental fairness.

The assertion by some social conservatives that a genetic tendency towards homosexuality does not make it moral – any more than a genetic tendency towards violence or crime makes it acceptable – seems biased to me. There is a big ethical difference between the criminal theft of life or property and the sexual activities of LGBTQ people that are roughly equivalent to those of their heterosexual counterparts. We ask everyone to refrain from aggression and theft; opponents of homosexuality would only have one group to abstain from sex.

Third, opposition to same sex marriage seems less religious than generational. Half a century ago, leaders could simply count on a general social unease with regard to homosexuals. Such discomfort can no longer be assumed, especially among young people. Opponents of gay rights are compelled to stand up for their views directly – which must feel intolerant coming out of their mouths.

Among young religious, certain questions are becoming more and more insistent: Why should homosexuality be evaluated according to the law of the Old Testament which also advocates the stoning of children who disobey their parents? Isn’t it possible that the apostle Paul’s views on homosexuality reflect the standards of his time, rather than the views of Jesus, who never mentioned the subject? It is not surprising that, according to a Pew Research Center pollmore than half of white evangelicals 50 and older oppose same-sex marriage while more than half of under-50s in the same group support homosexual wedding.

It is still possible for the gay rights movement to go too far in destructive ways – such as denying the right of religious schools and charities to shape their own institutional norms. But in the meantime, I’m in for Pride petanque.

About Michael Murphy

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