America’s Increasing Tolerance of Homosexuality
What encompasses the life of a homosexual person? In the past, Lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT) people were forced to live in the shadows, lie to friends and family, and hide a defining aspect of their personality. Nowadays, LGBT people live openly in heterosexual-dominated communities, not afraid to show their true nature. The homosexual community has struggled for a long time in seeking the understanding of those around them. There are two main views of homosexuality: 1) social constructionists believe that the way people think of themselves is determined by society and how others perceive them, and 2) essentialists believe that homosexuality is an orientation that has existed since humans have existed, and one’s orientation is essential to his or her nature (Galarza). The correct view on homosexuality is irrelevant here; Americans have become much more accepting of homosexuality due to an increase in exposure to the culture through media and daily lives, individual movements that gained publicity and showed the relevance of the debate, and the generational shift to accompany a new portion of the population that has grown up with the concept of a LGBT culture in their lives. The government has responded to the public’s shifting views, and has, slowly, removed restrictions on discriminatory laws against the LGBT community, a group of people simply hated for having different preferences.
Differing sexual orientations was first documented in the 1600s. Although it existed in the past, and many famous leaders such as Alexander the Great were thought to be homosexual, there was a lack of testimony and understanding of the culture. Since then, people have opposed homosexuality for a variety reasons. Some explanations simply stated “sex that did not produce children was a problem because it did not make economic sense” (Galarza); whereas others came from religious beliefs that marriage should only exist between a man and a woman. Religion is cited as the most common reason for opposition to homosexuality (“Growing Support”). Regardless of the reason, the LGBT community did not begin making any progress towards equality until the 1900s when masses of people moved to cities and many homosexuals who were typically outcasts could find groups of people similar to themselves and congregate (Galarza).
Homosexuals would remain hidden even after forming communities due to the prejudices against them. Many LGBT people would hide their sexuality so that they would not face the overwhelming hate from society, but they would still congregate where others would not discriminate against them. One such place was a bar in New York named Stonewall which catered to the gay community. In 1969, the police raided the bar and tried to arrest any gay persons within the bar. People resisted arrest, and this incident helped spark the movement for gay rights in the United States. Stonewall drew attention to the issue of discrimination against the gay community, and homosexuals began to stop hiding their orientation. Instead, they started the “gay revolution” to replace the “homophile” movement (a fairly quiet movement that sought to protect the homosexual community). The Stonewall Riots continued for six days in the streets, and were the first time the gay community showed real resistance to the oppression they felt from law enforcement. The Stonewall Riots began a movement in the United States that would lead to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a group of organizations that fought for homosexuals to have the same rights as everyone else (S. Wolf). Although interest groups for gay persons previously existed, the raid on Stonewall began the true movement for homosexual equality in America (Galarza).
After Stonewall, the GLF had trouble cooperating between rival groups, and LGBT people struggled to make any change in legislation or public views. By 1972, the GLF lost all power due to its inability to cooperate between groups. The gay community realized that the only true way to change views on homosexuality was to make it appear to be normal – or at least more common than it had previously been portrayed. Television played a big role in bringing attention to a gay culture in America. The first (1971) TV sitcom to mention homosexuality was All in the Family; it simply depicted a gay character that was a friend of one of the main characters. Soon after, more shows began to show gay characters; in 1983, All My Children featured “the first gay story line on daytime television” (Sparta). Unfortunately for the cause of proponents of gay rights, shows would not always depict homosexuality in a positive light. Nearly all of the shows that portrayed a homosexual character showed them to either have AIDS or a partner that did. Television stations continued to struggle to depict any recurring homosexual characters for years. In 1984, the Showtime series Brothers attempted to be the first show to reach cable viewers with a gay major character. The show began by having a main character reveal to his brothers that he was gay. ABC and NBC rejected the series like many other stations did with shows containing recurring homosexual characters (Sparta).
It was not until the 1990s that the concept of homosexuality frequently found its place on cable television. In 1994, Northern Exposure devoted an entire episode to showing how lesbian pioneers founded Cicely, Alaska. Two years later, MTV showed a gay man, Pedro Zamora, living with AIDS in The Real World. The show followed the sad story of how Pedro exchanged rings with his partner Sean Sasser, but would die a month later. The show connected the idea that gay people must go through the same hardships that straight people do. PBS aired a mini-series, Tales of the City, which featured “non-judgmental portrayals of gay and lesbian relationships” (Sparta). This was the first television show that repeatedly showed homosexual relationships in a way that did not make them seem unclean and wrong. In 1996, years after preventing a show with a major gay character on it, NBC allowed Friends to show a lesbian couple be married. Friends was a prime-time series that averaged over 20 million viewers per episode (Sparta). The watershed event on television for the gay rights movement came in 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres came out as lesbian in her show and in real life. Not everyone supported Ellen coming out on national television. Chrysler decided to not buy commercial time for Ellen’s coming out. Robert Eaton, chairman of the Chrysler Corporation, claimed “we’re not on a crusade to change morals in this country as a company. As individuals we may well be, but as a company that’s just not our role” (Sylvester). Unlike Chrysler, many sponsor companies willingly paid more than $300,000 for a 30-second advertising timeslot. Seven years before Ellen came out, thirtysomething – a show that followed young adults from the “baby boomers” era –lost $1 million in advertising revenue for depicting two gay men in bed (Sylvester). Views on homosexuality in America were changing, and television was just one factor in the shift.
Television’s role in raising awareness regarding homosexuality in America cannot be understated, but individual movements to fight discrimination have made an incredible impact on public acceptance of homosexuality. In November of 1990, Craig R. Dean and his lover Patrick Gill were denied a marriage license in Washington D.C. on the grounds that they were gay. To respond to this injustice, Dean wrote an article for the New York Times that ended up receiving about one-third of a page. Not only did that amount of space draw attention to his story, but it provided Dean with plenty of room to argue why gay couples should be allowed to legally marry. He argues that same-sex marriage is comparable to interracial marriage (legalized in the S.C. case Loving v. Virginia) and its illegality is an unjust form of discrimination (Dean 19). Although every state in the United States had legal interracial marriage by 1967, a majority of the American population did not approve of same-sex marriage until 2011 (Xkcd), and same-sex marriage was not legalized in over half of the states until 2014 (“Gay Marriage”). Discriminating against homosexuals is equivalent to discriminating against any other minority; same-sex marriage should have been legalized along with interracial marriage. Dean argues that the Human Rights Act, enacted in 1977, protects a gay person’s right to marry. The act states that “every individual shall have an equal opportunity to participate in the economic, cultural and intellectual life of the District and to have an equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of life” (Dean 19). Any interpretation of this law would agree that homosexuals fall under the category of “any individual” and marriage is an aspect of life that cannot be denied to them. Dean’s denial of his right to marry whomever he pleased drove him to ensure that millions of NYT readers would see the discrimination that he faced. Individual efforts such as Dean’s drove the issue of discrimination based on sexual orientation into the mainstream media, and made the issue one that required attention (Dean 19).
Individuals can help to increase peoples’ tolerance of homosexuality, but so can education. Between 1991 and 2001, enrollment in colleges and universities increased by 11%. The United States saw an even larger increase in enrollment of 32% between 2001 and 2011, reaching 21 million students (“Enrollment”). A survey conducted at Midwestern University showed that “juniors and seniors had statistically significant more positive attitudes towards gays and lesbians than did freshmen and sophomores” (Lambert et al.). Multi-variate analysis on the survey shows that students who receive a higher education tend to have a higher acceptance of diversity in others than students with less education showing that education has the effect of reducing intolerance in college students (Lambert et al.). With a large proportion of more students attending college now than in 1991, the effect that higher education has on students will affect society even more heavily.
As exposure to the gay community grew in the 1990s and early 2000s, the public opinion on homosexuality also began to change (McCormack). Until the 1990s, there was virtually no change in the overwhelming opposition to gay marriage. Once the 1990s hit and openly gay performers and characters became more common in the media, opinions on homosexuality began to quickly change. Young kids who were exposed to the concept of homosexuality since a young age grew up to be much more accepting of homosexuality because it was more of a commonplace in their lives (Thompson). Millennials – people typically born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s – show a much greater support for same-sex marriage than older generations. The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that “nearly seven in ten Americans aged 18 to 33 favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to legally wed,” but only about a third of people older than the age of 68 support same-sex marriage (Moore). Basically, younger generations are much more accepting of the homosexual culture. Mark McCormack conducted a study in three high schools to see how high school students interact with homosexual people. He found that most students nowadays are comfortable with homosexual behavior and do not feel the need to “heterosexualize” – make oneself appear more heterosexual – themselves by acting homophobic. Students are also very tactile with each other in ways that would never have happened 15 years ago. At Standard High, he noted that “Sam sat in Liam’s lap while talking with Martin, who was slowly and tenderly stroking Rob’s leg” (McCormack 80). All of these students were heterosexual, but found nothing wrong with touching that would be deemed homosexual or at the least unusual by most of society. Younger generations that understand homosexuality is a common occurrence and have been exposed to “homosexual” actions throughout their childhood are much more accepting of older generations. As time goes on and homosexuality is more prevalent in society, the coming generations will accept homosexuality even more because of the place it is establishing in American culture (McCormack).
A shift in generational views partially show the change in understanding of the homosexual culture, but a greater acceptance for LGBT people in all aspects of society, including government, is taking place. Between 2003 and 2013, overall support of same-sex marriage jumped 21 percentage points up to 53%. 17 states and the District of Columbia legalized same-sex marriage during this time as well. Robert Jones, CEO of the PRRI, commented that movements rarely see this great of a change in public opinion in just a decade’s time. Since 2013, an additional 15 states have legalized same-sex marriage; only 18 states remain with bans on same-sex marriage (“Gay Marriage”). The national government has also made progress towards equality between sexual preferences. The first action the U.S. Supreme Court took in the direction of equality for the LGBT community came in 1996. They struck down a measure in Colorado that allowed discrimination in housing, employment, and access to public accommodations based on sexual orientation. In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the Supreme Court ruled that it unconstitutional to bar consensual sex between adults due to a violation of the 14th amendment. Anti-sodomy laws would now no longer hold any weight in the United States, and homosexuals could be more open about their sexuality. The decision in this case was crucial for the same-sex marriage movement because it began to show homosexuals as equals (Simpson). In May 2012, President Barack Obama announced his support of gay marriage. He claimed to believe that LGBT people could live in committed relationships to one another and raise children just as well as any heterosexual couple (Obama). Another great change for the homosexual community came from the Supreme Court case United States v. Windsor (2013). The 5-4 decision struck down a part of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and allowed for “people who live in states that allow same-sex marriage to receive the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples” (Schwartz). Like Lawrence v. Texas, this case shows the government recognizing that discrimination against homosexuals is unconstitutional. From Supreme Court decisions to the president being in favor of same-sex marriages, the United States has made immense progress in the path to equality for the LGBT community.
Today, a majority of the public believes that homosexuals deserve the same rights as heterosexuals. 66% of Americans agree that same-sex couples should have the same legal rights to marry as heterosexual couples; only 30% disagree. Among the people who oppose the legalization of gay marriage, 33% believe that same-sex couples should still have the same legal rights as other couples. Why has the public opinion of homosexuality changed so much? Of the people who changed their views, 32% claimed that they know someone who is homosexual and that person does not deserve to be discriminated against. An additional 25% of people whose views changed cited that they used to be ignorant, but their opinions have matured (“Growing Support”). The driving factor in the growth of support for same-sex rights has been exposure to the LGBT community. Whether through the media or personal connections, Americans are finding that homosexuality is more common than they previously thought, and are much more accepting of that culture. They are calling for the government to make a national ruling regarding same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court has already taken cases from five states (Utah, Oklahoma, Virginia, Indiana, and Wisconsin) that have all decided bans on same-sex marriage should be struck down. Appellate and district courts in other states have also made rulings that likely will be taken under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. With some states’ courts deciding that same-sex marriage bans are legal and others declaring the bans illegal, the Supreme Court is expected to make a national ruling in the coming term regarding whether or not same-sex marriage bans are legal (R. Wolf). Based on recent Supreme Court decisions regarding same-sex equality and the immense shift that has been seen nationally concerning same-sex marriage legality in states, it is likely that the United States Supreme Court will rule that same-sex marriages must be accepted in all states.
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