Last spring, Jason West, the mayor of New Paltz, New York, made what became the single most important and powerful argument for gay marriage: It’s inevitable. “It’s inevitable that we’ll have same-sex marriage in this country, because it’s a generational question…. Give it ten or 20 years when we’re holding state legislatures and Congress. It will just be a non-issue.” Jonathan Rauch agrees: “Young voters are pro-gay marriage.” Just last month at the Federalist Society’s National Lawyers Convention Anthony Romero of the ACLU argued that those opposing gay marriage are “on the wrong side of history.”
Are they right? Is the gay-marriage debate over because the omnipotent young have made up their more flexible minds? Many intellectual elites think so, primarily because (we suspect) their own kids are so pro-gay-marriage. A majority of college students now favor gay marriage, and elite student opinion is pretty one-sided on this question, in part because elite opinion generally has been so lopsidedly and unreflectively pro-gay-marriage. But a detailed look at recent polls suggests a different picture for the next generation as a whole.
Do a majority of young adults favor gay marriage? It depends on how the question is asked. Over the past year, polls by reputable polling companies have found the proportion of adults ages 18-29 who favor gay marriage ranging from 40 percent to 63 percent. Conversely, the proportion of young adults opposed to gay marriage has ranged from 36 percent to 54 percent.
For example, separate polls conducted just two weeks apart last spring found radically different results: A March 2004 ABC News poll found 63 percent of young adults agreeing that “it should be legal…for homosexual couples to get married” (36 percent thought such marriages should be “illegal”). Meanwhile, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found young adults opposed to gay marriage (“a law…that would allow two men [or two women] to marry each other”) by a margin of 52 to 41 percent.
Why? Respondents may be uncertain about what making gay marriage “illegal” would mean, especially compared to the status quo. Does “banning gay marriage” or making it “illegal” entail criminalizing gay people who live together as married, or who go through private or religious wedding ceremonies? If so, the greater support for gay marriage shown in these polls may reflect younger Americans’ opposition to criminalizing gay unions, rather than their support for a new legal definition of marriage that includes same-sex couples.
Nor does young-adult opinion appear particularly fixed. After the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling in Goodridge, opposition to gay marriage among adults skyrocketed. In June 2003, according to Gallup, young adults favored gay marriage 61 to 36 percent. By December 2003, opposition among young adults had jumped 17 percentage points (more than twice the 8 percentage-point shift among all adults), resulting in 53 to 44 percent opposition to gay marriage.
Perhaps most surprising (and completely unreported), is that the next “next generation” is growing increasingly opposed to gay marriage. Since 2001, Gallup has asked teenagers (ages 13-17) whether they “approve or disapprove of marriages between homosexuals.” Between 2003 and 2004, teens’ approval of same-sex marriage dropped 6 percentage points, while the proportion that disapproved rose 8 percentage points. In the most recent poll (August 2004) American teens opposed gay marriage by a 27-point margin, 63 percent to 36 percent. Teens’ disapproval of gay marriage has now risen to about the same level as adults’.
What explains teens’ increasing disapproval of gay marriage? Most likely, as more adults voice firm objections to gay marriage, they appear to be having an impact on their children’s attitudes and values.
Will young adults who currently favor gay marriage continue to do so, even as opposition to gay marriage continues to be voiced and as they move through the lifecycle, marrying and becoming parents themselves? Will teenagers’ current high levels of opposition survive the college experience? The answer to both questions is: We don’t know. And that’s the point.
Don’t let them fool you. The future of gay marriage is undiscovered territory. Or as Peter O’Toole put it in Lawrence of Arabia, “Nothing is written.” Together, we are making up the future.