As the gay marriage issue is dominating headlines worldwide, social commentators are discussing the recent attitude shift among Americans. This decade, polls began to show a majority support of same-sex marriage. And now more and more politicians are voicing their changed opinion on the subject. Even conservatives.
Seven years ago, 70% of Americans were still opposing same-sex marriage. How can we explain this shift? Did Americans evolve? Become less conservative, all of a sudden?
It’s a reminder that people aren’t nearly as consistent and predictable as we’d like to think, says author David Berreby. Our minds aren’t wired to be either conservative or liberal. People can change their politics or hold seemingly conflicting views.
Berreby asked psychology professor Jonathan Haidt about the matter, who explains it as the result of personal experience. With more gays coming out of the closet over the past few decades, more and more straight Americans have come to see the issue in personal terms. Like Senator Rob Portman, who changed his opinion because his son is gay. It’s then no longer an abstract question about society, but a problem facing someone close.
Professor of sociology Lisa Wade says the same thing. She refers to a study in which people were asked why they changed their mind. The most common response was that knowing a gay person made them rethink their position on gay marriage. Which is consistent with a theory called the contact hypothesis; the idea that positive experiences with someone we fear or dislike will change our opinion.
To me it definitely seems a matter of social behavior, rather than a sudden evolution of moral and political thinking. Over the years, gay people have gradually become part of straight people’s social environment. Now, a tipping point may have been reached, at which gay people are no longer an alien group to most Americans, but part of their own social groups. Causing a shift from ‘them’ to ‘us’.
Hopefully, in the next few years, this shift will lead to way more acceptance of our gay friends, neighbors, family members, collegeas, teammates and lovers.