Published on March 28th, 20130
Ramesh Ponnuru: Why gay marriage is on the way
For social conservatives, it seems that the battle over gay rights is nearing an end before it has even fairly begun. It is true that a small majority of the American public continues to believe, as the poll question puts it, that “sexual relations between two adults of the same sex” are “always wrong.” It is true, as well, that a slightly larger majority believes that persons of the same sex should not be allowed to marry.
But public opinion has been moving with stunning rapidity. In the 1970s and ’80s, the percentage of Americans who believed gay sex was “always wrong” barely budged. The National Opinion Research Center found that 73 percent held that belief in 1973, and 76 percent did in 1990. By 2000, that number had fallen by 16 points. It fell another 6 in the next two years. In 1996, Gallup found that 26 percent of the public supported same-sex marriage. In late June of this year, 39 percent did. Young people support it more than their elders. The trend lines favor gay marriage.
So do legal developments. Elite, including legal-elite, opinion favors gay rights more than public opinion does. Still, public opinion influences the courts. If courts had imposed gay marriage in 1990, there would have been a substantial public backlash. Now the idea looks less radical. If the courts move this year, or two years from now, there may yet be a backlash — but perhaps not one large enough to be effective. Three decades after Roe, almost three years after Bush v. Gore, no one is shocked when the courts make the weightiest political decisions.
Another shift in public sentiment is less easily captured in poll numbers: the rise of what one might call an “anti-anti-gay” bloc. People in this group may have qualms about homosexuality and may not support gay marriage. But they are at least as uncomfortable with anything that strikes them as hostile to gay people, with rhetoric that singles them out for criticism, with political figures who seem to spend too much time worrying about them. It is this group — more than gays themselves or even unequivocal supporters of gay rights — that has caused the Bush White House to take a moderate line on gay issues.