When Barack Obama was first elected president 10 years ago, just one state in the country — Massachusetts — allowed gay marriage.
By the end of Obama’s second term, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states and it was rarely mentioned during the 2016 presidential election.
Kudos to a Democratic president for advancing a cause long championed by liberals?
Not so fast, says Dr. Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor of sociology at UW-Eau Claire and the author of a new book that explores the nation’s shift in thinking about gay marriage.
Credit for making gay marriage a reality throughout the U.S. goes to a generation of young people — conservatives and liberals alike — who see and talk about homosexuality in a way that differs from their parents’ generation, he says.
“The older generation, even older liberals who supported gay marriage, talked about homosexuality as a lifestyle or a choice,” Hart-Brinson says of his research findings. “They saw it as a way of life that gays and lesbians choose to pursue. However, the younger generation talked about homosexuality as part of someone’s identity, much like their race.
“That fundamental shift in our thinking and talking about homosexuality sparked a generational change, which led to the unprecedented rise in support of gay marriage.”
In Hart-Brinson’s newly published book, “The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture,” he shares his historical analysis of gay marriage, as well as stories gleaned from nearly 100 interviews with two generations of Americans about their views on gay marriage.
The idea for his project came to him 12 years ago when he was teaching a sociology class at UW-Madison. At the time, a debate was raging in the state about a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Wisconsin.
“My students, regardless of their political or religious beliefs, were all pro-gay marriage,” Hart-Brinson says. “They couldn’t imagine why anyone would be against it. I wanted to keep the discussions balanced but it was hard to pull anything out of them about why someone might support the gay marriage ban.”
When the campus’ conservative newspaper then came out strongly opposed to the gay marriage ban, he decided to study the generational shift around gay marriage that he was witnessing.
“I was curious why there was such a difference in the older and younger generations around this issue,” Hart-Brinson says. “The young conservatives saw it so differently than the older generation of conservatives.”
During the next few years, he interviewed students at two colleges in Illinois, one a traditional campus and one a community college.
He also interviewed a parent of each of those students, providing him more than 95 voices representing different generations and a variety of backgrounds.
“The young people I interviewed came of age at a different time than their parents,” Hart-Brinson says. “The comparisons between their experiences are really at the heart of the book. The way people talked about gay marriage depended on their age and their ideology, meaning their political and religious beliefs.”
During his interview project, the comments from young liberals and older conservatives about homosexuality and gay marriage was about what he expected to hear.
However, his conversations with the older liberals and young conservatives surprised him.
Many of the older liberals supported gay marriage, but their reasons had mostly to do with wanting to be consistent with their political views around supporting equality for everyone, Hart-Brinson says. They tended to take an “it’s not my business so I have no right to judge” approach to the issue of gay marriage, he says.
The young conservatives, especially the evangelicals, tended to view homosexuality as a sin, but a sin that was no worse than other sins like lying. Since they considered themselves sinners given their understanding of the Bible, they didn’t think they had the right to judge someone else based on their sexuality, Hart-Brinson says.
“They didn’t oppose gay marriage like their parents did,” he says of the young conservatives he interviewed. “They didn’t see gay marriage as part of a cultural war. They took more of a middle ground. They were influenced by their peers as well as their parents.”
That older liberals and young conservatives were talking about gay marriage in a similar way piqued his interest, Hart-Brinson says.
“What I found is that at the end of the day, it really was two generations having very different mental images of what it means to be gay,” Hart-Brinson says. “There was a generational disconnect; not a conservative-liberal disconnect.
“The older generation defined homosexuality as a behavior. The word that kept coming up was ‘lifestyle,’ which suggests something you choose to pursue. The younger people saw homosexuality as an identity; a part of who you are. There is no ban on interracial marriage so they didn’t understand why there would be one on gay marriage.”
Interestingly, he says, both generations he interviewed view the institution of marriage in a similar way.
“The young and old viewed sexual attraction as an important part of what makes a marriage a marriage,” he says. “That shared view of marriage helped open the door for gay marriage given how the younger generation views homosexuality.”
Historically, he says, the most significant changes in how people view homosexuality came between 1987-92.
In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people could be criminally prosecuted for homosexual behavior, a ruling that energized gay and lesbian activists.
The LGBTQ movement’s evolution and responses to oppression caused Americans to re-imagine what it means to be gay and what gay marriage would mean to society, he says. In the years that followed, there also were significant changes in how the media talked about and portrayed homosexuality.
“Anyone coming of age in 1992 or later saw a totally different portrayal of homosexuality in the media,” Hart-Brinson says. “Being gay became normalized, and the liberals adopted gay rights as part of their political platform.”
After the 2016 presidential election, gay marriage mostly disappeared from the political arena, he says.
“Society has moved on,” Hart-Brinson says. “It’s unlikely now that same-sex marriage is ever going to go away because nobody really cares anymore.”
While his book focuses on gay marriage, it also details how generational change occurs, lessons that are applicable to other societal issues, he says.
“For example, I think the ‘#Me Too’ movement will lead to very long and lasting generational change,” Hart-Brinson says. “Regardless of what happens with the current Supreme Court nominee, young girls, women, boys and men are going to think about these issues in a different way.
“In 20 years, we’re going to be talking about this being a time of a big generational shift with respect to sexual assault and women’s rights in general.”
For more information about his book or research, contact Dr. Peter Hart-Brinson at 715-836-2571 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo caption: A new book by Dr. Peter Hart-Brinson explores the generational shift that helped spur support for gay marriage in the U.S.