After a US Supreme Court decision this month, 30 of America’s
50 states will have gay marriage laws, which is testament to the sudden
shift in attitudes towards same-sex unions in the US.
Two decades ago barely a quarter of Americans believed members of the LGBT
community should enjoy equal marriage rights; now nearly two-thirds accept
This quantum leap cannot be explained by what sociologists call generational
shift – that is older, conservative folk dying off and younger, more liberal
people taking their places. Something more radical and unforeseen took place
that precipitated a change in opinion that leapt across the generations.
So how did it happen?
Don’t ask, don’t tell … 1993
The title of Bill Clinton’s legislation to allow gay people to serve in the US
military told its own story: the gay and lesbian community could be
tolerated, but only if it kept itself to itself.
“Don’t ask don’t tell” sounds ugly now, but at the time it was a hard-fought
compromise with the generals who warned that gay soldiers would cause
dangerous confusion on the front lines.
That bill showed how far attitudes still had to travel. The Democrats had a
“no discrimination on basis of sexual orientation” clause in their policy
platform since 1980, but in practice that was far more aspiration than
Defence of Marriage … 1996
Defying the increasingly vocal gay rights movement, Congress passed
legislation defining marriage as “the legal union of a man and a woman as
husband and wife, and a spouse is a husband or wife of the opposite sex.”
Bill Clinton signed the bill into law but described it as “unnecessary and
divisive”. His press secretary went further, calling it “gay baiting, plain
and simple”, but it also reflected some hard political realities in an
At the time, only 27 per cent of Americans said gay marriages should be valid,
according to a Gallup survey of that year – and 68 per cent said not.
Ellen comes out, and loses out … 1997
TV comedienne Ellen DeGeneres comes out in an episode of her eponymous sitcom,
only to have her show cancelled shortly thereafter due to poor ratings.
In an interview with Oprah at the time, Ellen said she felt “like a freak”.
She has since become one of the most popular and recognisable figures in
American pop culture.
And then along comes Will & Grace … 1998
It wasn’t necessarily obvious at the time, but in hindsight the NBC sitcom
Will & Grace that featured a successful gay New York lawyer, William
Truman and his (straight) best friend Grace Adler has been credited with
playing a huge role in bringing gay culture out of the ghetto and into the
Speaking in 2012, before the Obama campaign officially announced it was
backing gay marriage, vice president Joe Biden estimated that Will &
Grace “probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything
anybody has ever done so far.”
Back in the real world, America gets its first openly gay congresswoman …
The needle starts to move. Three years after the Defence of Marriage Act now
35 per cent of Americans support gay marriage, but 62 per cent still do not.
In a sign of the (slowly) changing times, Tammy Baldwin becomes the first
person to campaign for national office as an openly gay person and get
elected, winning the 2nd Congressional district in Wisconsin.
US Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, the first openly gay
member of the Senate
Massachusetts become first state to pass gay marriage law … 2003
The proudly progressive state of Massachusetts becomes the first US state to
strike down ban on gay marriage, a move that sends shivers across the
conservative Deep South.
It is only in this year that the US Supreme Court, in Lawrence V Texas,
declares that anti-sodomy laws are unconstitutional.
Hillary and Julie Goodridge display their rings after their marriage
ceremony at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston, MA
The power of pop culture … 2008
Does pop culture shape the agenda or just reflect it? Difficult to say, but a
2008 Harris poll indicated that real-life attitudes can be changed by
on-screen events. Of those people who said they had recently changed their
minds on gay marriage, over a third said their views were influenced by
seeing gay or lesbian characters on TV.
Modern Family, which debuted in 2009 and prominently features a gay couple,
has changed attitudes even further.
The Obama campaign remained unmoved … 2008
Obama promised “hope and change”, but his data-obsessed
campaign managers didn’t dare to lead on gay marriage, even thought the
direction of travel was clear. Now 40 per cent of Americans said they
approved, and 56 per cent did not, but the final destination was still out
But the numbers did not … 2011
The tipping point. This was the year that graphs crossed: for the first time
since 2003 when Gallup started regular surveys of attitudes to gay marriage
more Americans said they approved of gay marriage than disapproved … and they
have never looked back.
Although that’s not to say the argument is over …
More than half of Americans might now support same sex marriage, but that
still leaves large pockets of America profoundly opposed to an idea they
believe is undermining the social and religious fabric of the country.
They might be disparaged as bigots and crazies by the liberal left, but that
only makes them holler all the louder.
Finally Obama catches up with the times … 2012
Having repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 and
decided not to enforce DOMA, announcing his support for gay marriage was a
logical step for Barack Obama. The president had “evolved”, his spin-doctors
said, although Mr Obama credited listening to his teenage daughters and
their young friends for his change of heart.
And Hillary followed suit … 2013
It didn’t take long. Barely weeks after stepping down as Secretary of State
where she was forced to stay out of domestic politics, Mrs Clinton released
a video saying the was all in favour of gay marriage.
It sounded a little opportunistic from a politician who clearly had one eye on
the 2016 presidential contest, but Mrs Clinton positively bristled at the
And DOMA got struck down … 2013
Only 17 years after the DOMA legislation was passed to defend a view of
marriage that had stood “for 200 years” the Supreme Court rules the
legislation unconstitutional in an impassioned opinion that said same-sex
unions could no longer be treated as “second-class marriages”.
Barack Obama, who himself had come out in favour of same sex marriage only the
previous year, called the lesbian couple involved from Air Force One. The
conversation was broadcast live on television.
And then even the jocks joined in … 2013
It’s perhaps not surprising that the macho culture of American professional
sports was late to the party but the impact of America’s first openly gay
pro sports star was still not to be underestimated.
Jason Collins, a 34-year-old journeyman NBA basketball player, said he didn’t
want to come out but somebody had to do it. “I’m black and I’m gay … If I
had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is
why I’m raising my hand’.
He was not the last. In February 2014, Michael Sam became the first NFL
American Football player to come out – and he did it with quite a smash.
But the Supreme Court has still not had the final word … 2014
Public support for gay marriage is undeniably growing, but the US Supreme
Court has remained cautious, moving with the times without dictating the
tempo of change, as it had done with the Roe v Wade decision on abortion.
Gay rights activists want the Court to rule same-sex marriage to be a
constitutional right – like abortion – to all Americans, in all states, but
for now the justices have ducked the question. No one expects it to go away.