The problem for opponents of same sex marriage

As expected, both sides on the same sex marriage issue are treading warily and hopefully after president Obama’s statement that he personally supports it. His supporters are hoping that this statement, although minimal in scope and somewhat belated in timing, will still be sufficient to energize those who have been disillusioned by Obama’s failure to deliver on so many other issues and will lead to full-fledged equality soon.

Opponents of same sex marriage are hoping that this will galvanize those who want to throw Obama out of office and thus halt the further progress on this issue that will undoubtedly occur if Obama is re-elected. They think that the surprisingly large majority by which voters in North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage (and civil unions and domestic partnership agreements) is a sign that this issue can still be a political winner for them.

The catch is that to really gin up opposition, they need the support of two groups: Republican politicians and sympathetic major media figures because those are key elements of the media noise machine. But both of them, although their reflexive instinct is to come out with all guns blazing to condemn anything Obama does, cannot do so now on this particular issue. Even Republican politicians (other than the totally crazy ones) realize that politically this is a losing issue, definitely in the long run and perhaps even in the short run. This secret strategy memo from a leading Republican pollster giving advice to his party’s politicians and consultants reflects the sense of alarm over these developments and the thin line that the party must walk. The pollster says:

  1. Support for same sex marriage has been growing and in the last few years support has grown at an accelerated rate with no sign of slowing down. A review of public polling shows that up to 2009 support for gay marriage increased at a rate of 1% a year. Starting in 2010 the change in the level of support accelerated to 5% a year. The most recent public polling shows supporters of gay marriage outnumber opponents by a margin of roughly 10% (for instance: NBC / WSJ poll in February / March: support 49%, oppose 40%).
  2. The increase in support is taking place among all partisan groups. While more Democrats support gay marriage than Republicans, support levels among Republicans are increasing over time. The same is true of age: younger people support same sex marriage more often than older people, but the trends show that all age groups are rethinking their position.
  3. Polling conducted among Republicans show that majorities of Republicans and Republican leaning voters support extending basic legal protections to gays and lesbians. These include majority Republican support for:
    1. Protecting gays and lesbians against being fired for reasons of sexual orientation
    2. Protections against bullying and harassment
    3. Repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
    4. Right to visit partners in hospitals
    5. Protecting partners against loss of home in case of severe medical emergencies or death.
    6. Legal protection in some form for gay couples whether it be same sex marriage or domestic partnership (only 29% of Republicans oppose legal recognition in any form).

Politicians’ antennae are finely tuned to polls and you can be sure that this is behind the muted response of the Republican leadership to Obama’s statement. Their alienation of the black and Hispanic communities (their natural allies in opposition to same sex marriage) is going to come back and haunt them.

On the major media side, we are now at a stage were everyone knows multiple people in their family, work, and social circles who are gay and accepted as such. This is particularly true in the bigger cities where the media are headquartered and where gays are much more likely to be open. The social outcast in these urbane sophisticated circles is no longer the gay person, it is the person who is seen to be homophobic and opposed to equal rights for them.

So the religious nutters who oppose this will have to do it largely by themselves, without any overt help from their allies on other issues. The harsh treatment that Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and who opposes gay marriage, experienced at the hands of Chris Matthews and Barney Frank is what they can expect in the future when they go on TV or the radio.

It will be interesting to see how Mitt Romney handles this. The Mormon church is awful in its attitudes towards gays, comparable to Catholics, Evangelicals, Muslims, and Orthodox Jews, and he is a Mormon in good standing. Romney is not a brave man and thus will want to appease those groups since they are his base. But he cannot openly say what lies at the root of this opposition: that it is based on religious dogma, and so will have to dance around the issue, in the process tying himself up with equivocations.

On The Daily Show, Jon Stewart points out how far we have come so quickly on this issue.

(This clip appeared on May 10, 2012. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post.)

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