Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the July 28, 2003, issue of National Review.
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.
President Bush opposes gay marriage, “hate crimes” legislation, and even the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But he has also appointed openly gay officials, refrained from picking fights with the gay lobby, and generally frustrated social-conservative groups. In March, Marc Racicot, then-leader of the Republican National Committee, met with a liberal gay organization and assured them that bigotry in his party was fading. In April, when Senator Rick Santorum was being pilloried, Bush expressed support for him — but too tepidly for social conservatives. Some of them warned that traditionalist voters would stay home in 2004. But Bush is responding to political circumstances that run far deeper than today’s tactical jockeying and that social conservatives, thus far, have been powerless to change.
The change in public attitudes toward homosexuality has several causes, but three in particular bear mentioning: the effects of the sexual revolution, the changed focus of gay activism in the 1990s, and the ineffectiveness of social-conservative organizations.