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Why is Obama the first sitting president to declare support for gay marriage?

By Mark McCormack

The progress of gay rights is again subject to political warfare in the United States. Despite his recent proclamation in support of gay marriage, many have been disappointed by the pace in which President Obama has addressed issues of sexuality equality: particularly regarding the length of time it took to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the lack of progress on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. This sentiment is flamed by the passage of homophobic legislation, with 38 states prohibiting marriage equality — the most recent being North Carolina just this week.

Regardless of his motivation, Obama’s recent support of marriage is made possible because attitudes toward homosexuality are improving rapidly in the United States. In 2010, a Gallup Poll found that, for the first time, a majority of American’s (53%) support gay marriage. Significantly, there is evidence that change is occurring among social conservatives too. For example, a 2011 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of Catholics and 44% of young evangelicals aged between 18 and 29 support gay marriage.

A key component of changing attitudes appears to be age (the report shows a 20 percentage point difference between 18-29 year olds and those aged 65 and older). A recent survey of over 200,000 first-time college undergraduates across 270 colleges in the United States found that 71.3% of first-year students support same-sex marriage; a figure that would be even higher if it accounted for those supporting civil partnerships.

In order to understand why homophobia has been such a potent political issue, it is first vital to recognise the cultural components of homophobia. Rather than conceiving it as individual disgust of homosexuality or personal dislike of same-sex relations, social conditions heavily influence levels of homophobia. Indeed, sociologist Eric Anderson highlights that the 1980s were the apex of homophobia precisely because social and political events combined to produce an exceptionally hostile anti-gay climate.

The 1980s were particularly homophobic for three reasons. First, the AIDS crisis meant that an already marginalised group became incredibly stigmatised. AIDS was labelled the ‘gay disease’ and gay and bisexual men were blamed for its spread to the heterosexual community. This, combined with right-wing politicians eager to use homophobia to their electoral advantage, completed the politicisation of homosexuality. Evangelical Christians embraced this social prejudice to argue that a moral decline had occurred in America, ensuring that the bigotry they fostered was channelled into fundraising for their churches.

Yet the social nature of homophobia means that such attitudes can change. Evidence started to emerge in the mid-1990s as more liberal politicians took power and it became possible to voice pro-gay attitudes without being ostracised. Furthermore, the growth of the Internet corresponded with an upswing in gay visibility on television and in the press. As such, media representations have become increasing positive: from Will & Grace in the late 1990s to Modern Family today.

This is not to argue that equality has been achieved in the United States. For instance, recent reports from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) show that many LGBT youth continue to have negative experiences in schools. However, there is cause for optimism with respect to progress in the United States, particularly if we look at what is occurring across the Atlantic.

There has been a sea-change in attitudes toward homosexuality in Britain. Research by gay rights charity Stonewall finds that 87% of British citizens would be comfortable with their MP being gay, and 86% would be comfortable if a close friend was gay. This is supported by the most recent data from the British Social Attitudes Survey, documenting that only 29% of adults think same-sex relationships are wrong, down from 46% in 2000.

Crucially, just like the United States, the most positive attitudes toward homosexuality are found in youth. For example, in The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, I document a radical shift in the attitudes of 16-18 year old boys in three educational settings. Here, not only is homophobic language absent, it is stigmatised by the male students. Accordingly, we need to pay close attention to the attitudes of younger generations in the United States to fully understand trends regarding homosexuality.

Yes, there are still battles to be fought, and it is not necessarily the case that the United States will mirror the developments in Britain. But there is room for optimism. The debates occurring in America have shifted from being a mere part of a homophobic culture to one where the lived experiences of LGBT people are rapidly improving. And yes, one where even the President supports their right to marry.

Mark McCormack is a qualitative sociologist at Brunel University in England. His research focuses on the changing nature of masculinities among British youth. In The Declining Significance of Homophobia: How Teenage Boys are Redefining Masculinity and Heterosexuality, he examines how decreased homophobia has positively influenced the way in which young men bond emotionally and interact in school settings. You can follow him on Twitter @_markmccormack.

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