Among the usually fuzzy recollections of my younger life some incidents stand out with vivid clarity. In most cases these involve significant events indelibly burned into my memory. However, some of most vivid of these memories stem from relatively mundane incidents like someone’s comment that for some reason made a lasting impression. One such comment came from my dad.
My dad was a high school math teacher and later a principal, but he loved history and he managed to pass some of his passion for history down to me. One day when I was a teenager Dad and I were discussing politics. I don’t remember much about most of the conversation, but one thing he said for some reason stayed with me to this day, perhaps because I later came to understand that it was undeniably true. He said that all through American history the predominate belief system of this country’s population has swung back and forth like a pendulum between liberalism and conservatism. He also said that these swings usually take many years to reverse directions.
After years of studying history and making my own observations I concluded that Dad was absolutely right, but I took his observations a step forward by postulating one of the reasons for these swings. It seems to me that while other factors are at work as well, once politicians of one ideological stripe or the other rise to power, their tendency is try to push the country too far to the right or too far to the left. Died in wool conservatives and liberals will never change perspectives, but sooner or later the general voting population which has more moderate views comes to recognize the negative affects associated with moving too far to one extreme or the other. The pendulum soon thereafter reaches its ideological peak and begins to swing in the opposite direction.
In my lifetime I believe that we have already seen the country’s pendulum swing to the right. In my view this swing which started with Goldwater’s failed presidential bid and was given full momentum by the Reagan presidency has already reached its peak and the pendulum is now beginning to swing in the other direction. Consistent with my theory, I believe that this is happening, at least to some extent, due to overreach by the radical far right conservatives. This change in the country’s ideological direction is best exemplified by changes in the American public’s attitudes with regard to some of the major issues of our times. I intend to examine several of these issues one at a time in this and future blogs.
Perhaps one of the trends that best illustrates that the country is beginning to move to the left is change in the population’s attitudes towards lesbians and gay men and the increasing support for gay marriage. It is undoubtedly true that our population is becoming more tolerant towards homosexual individuals and the gay community in general and as a result has become more accepting of the institutions of gay marriages, civil unions and domestic partnerships.
Even here deep in the Southern Bible Belt, where gay prejudice supported by religious belief was once particularly strong, I have noticed that more and more people are now openly accepting of gay individuals. Based on everything I see and read this is a national trend, which like most trends started elsewhere in the country, the South has been late to adopt. In numbers that would have been unthinkable twenty or even ten years ago, prominent motion picture and TV stars, and music artists, media personalities and even politicians and sports figures have been comfortable enough with the public’s new attitude towards lesbians and gays to openly declare their sexual orientation. Large companies which are rarely seen as trendsetters, especially when it comes to controversial issues, are beginning to get on board. Huge corporations, especially those in the tech areas, are making measures to combat anti gay discrimination part of their codes of conduct and are openly supportive of the gay and lesbian community. More evidence of America’s population’s shift to the left on this issue can be seen in the widespread national condemnation of the Russian anti-gay laws during the Winter Olympics.
The county’s change in attitude towards gays and lesbians has resulted in increased tolerance and even support of lasting homosexual relationships. Studies that gauged support for gay marriage, civil unions, and/or domestic partnerships found that in 2005 only 36% supported official recognition of at least one of these unions. By 2013 that number had risen to 63%. Another set of studies gauging support for gay marriage in particular found support rising from 33% in 2003 to 49% in 2013. During the same period the portion of the population that opposed gay marriage dropped from 58% to 44%. And it appears that this trend is likely to continue since it is lead by the young. 70% of the Millennials – the generation born after 1980 – favor same sex marriages.
The states are increasingly following the lead of their populations. In 2004 the State of Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same sex marriage. Since that time same sex marriages have become legal by one means or another in 16 additional states and 4 more states now recognize either civil unions or domestic partnerships.
In my opinion one of the main reasons for this overall trend has been the increasing willingness of lesbians and gay men to rebel against the conservative norms and harsh anti gay laws that for so long relegated them to living secret lives at the fringes of society. Their increased willingness to come out of the closet and publicly declare their sexual orientation has forced the rest of the population to reconsider their attitudes towards homosexuals. Most people find it much harder to maintain a negative attitude towards gays and lesbians when one of their number is a relative, an associate at work, someone they know well, or even a son or daughter. (You can ask Dick Chaney about that one.) Corporations can no longer afford to alienate talented gay employees by not providing them the support that they deserve. The willingness of the gay and lesbian community to fight for their rights has made their struggle the newest civil rights cause and their persistence is changing the attitudes of the general population.
In future blogs I intend to discuss other issues which will offer additional indications that the pendulum of public opinion is now starting to swing to the left, but on issues of basic civil rights like this one, we cannot become complacent and allow this trend to be reversed even as the country’s political ideology again, hopefully many years from now, begins again to shift to the right and population becomes more conservative. Like the civil right movement 60’s, we need to ensure that the support of gay rights becomes a constant that survives future ideological swings.