Personal Stories And Shifting Opinions On Same-Sex Marriage

Guest

Michelle Baunach, professor of sociology, Georgia State University

The Supreme Court will hear arguments on the constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage Tuesday, and will hear a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act Wednesday. The cases come at a time when public opinion about same-sex marriage has shifted remarkably.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. In retrospect, it seems as if public opinion shifted on gay marriage all of a sudden. But as we await the start of Supreme Court arguments tomorrow, we might want to reconsider that idea. Yes, it happened quickly; but minds change one by one by one, and most often because someone they knew - a relative, a friend, a co-worker - came out of the closet and put a human face on what might have been an abstraction.

Ohio Sen. Rob Portman changed his mind recently after learning his son is gay. How did someone you know coming out change your conversation at work or around the dinner table - 800-989-8255; email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, some of the implications of the driverless car and truck but first, changing attitudes on same-sex marriage, Let's start with a caller, and Catherine's(ph) on the line with us from Tucson, Arizona.

CATHERINE: Hi, I am the mother of a beautiful gay woman, and I'm ashamed to admit that for seven years I refused to acknowledge her situation. But I was - I changed over once I met her wife. And I went to their wedding ceremony, and it just moves me to tears. I'm now the grandma of a six-year-old who I never got to know before, and I'm making up for lost time. I'm sorry I'm crying.

CONAN: It's OK. What was it that made you decide to go to the wedding?

CATHERINE: She invited me. She reached out and invited me. And then when I didn't want to come, she uninvited me, and I went anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That sounds like family.

CATHERINE: Yeah, yeah, it was just one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life to reach out to my beautiful, gay daughter-in-law. I love her, I really do.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad it all worked out, Catherine, thank you very much for the call.

CATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: And joining us now is Michelle - excuse me, Michelle Baunach - Baunach, is that correct?

MICHELLE BAUNACH: Baunach is correct.

CONAN: OK, I apologize. I was looking at the paper funny, at your department - professor in the Department of Sociology at Georgia State University. Thanks very much for being with us today.

BAUNACH: I'm happy to be here.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you: That story we just heard, that's fairly typical, isn't it?

BAUNACH: Well, it is typical for people to rethink their views on an issue like this that they probably had never really thought of before until they get to know someone, someone in their family, someone that they work with, someone that they just know personally, that they go to the gym with or something. Once they get to meet someone, they personalize that group. They think more positively about them, and they often change their views towards gay marriage or other issues.

CONAN: And that's not the only reason people have changed their minds on gay marriage, but it's the biggest one.

BAUNACH: Well, to be honest I don't know if it is the biggest, but it is an important one, and I don't think we'd be where we are right now if we didn't have so many gay men and lesbians and bisexuals and everybody else out of the closet who are making themselves known to the people that they've always known, to their family, their friends, their co-workers. And that has been an important part of it.

CONAN: And we've had other conversations on this subject on this program, and have learned that people, of course, don't necessarily come out to their co-workers at the same time they come out to their family, or vice versa. This is a process. And nevertheless, it is also something that's uneven in different parts of the country and among different groups in the country.

BAUNACH: Correct, there is more acceptability, generally, for gay men and lesbians and other sexuality groups in the Northeast and in the West. The Midwest and the South are lagging behind. But it's not just regional. There are also other demographic groups that tend to be more or less supportive of gay men and lesbians and of gay marriage.

CONAN: For example?

BAUNACH: For example the people who live in urban areas, people who have more education, people who are Democrats, people who are not Evangelical Protestants, they tend to be more supportive of gay marriage.

CONAN: And are there racial divisions?

BAUNACH: There are some racial divisions. African-Americans are less supportive of gay marriage, although like most groups their support has grown over time, just not as much as many other groups.

CONAN: And as you look at the charts, and these are provided by the Pew people, the people who survey public opinion, it seems to be right. Yes, opinion is shifting among every single group, it seems, but obviously starting from a lower mark among some of them.

BAUNACH: Exactly. In my research I found that in 1988, approval for gay marriage was localized to certain groups: people who live in urban areas, who were secular, highly educated and lived in the Northeast. The most recent data I've been able to look at is in 2010, because I'm using different data sets. By 2010, disapproval has become localized, where now it's just found among Southerners, Evangelical Protestants, Republicans and African-Americans - predominately.

CONAN: And is this a true tipping point?

BAUNACH: It may be. It seems like it. The trends in attitude change really picked up in 2008. Since 2008 we've seen much faster movement towards approval on this issue.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Call and tell us how the conversation changed when someone came out around your dinner table or at your workplace, 800-989-8255. And let's start with Catherine(ph), Catherine with us from Norman, Oklahoma.

CATHERINE: Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

CATHERINE: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

CATHERINE: My daughter is 15, and she came out when she was 12, and we were quite supportive. She had a lot of heartache, though, at her middle school; and it was not from her students, it was from her teachers. And she silently chose to not say the Pledge of Allegiance, and she got in the car one day and told me: I'm not standing for the pledge until there's liberty and justice for all and until I can marry whomever I want.

And it kind of started from there, but the school was harsh, and she then made some shoes that are beautiful, that they wanted to suspend her from school because she wrote on the shoes equality, love and love, and fag. And that's what started it all for her. It was very harsh, and she had teachers that were very unkind to her throughout her seventh grade year.

CONAN: And was this some time ago?

CATHERINE: Four years ago. She's now in 10th grade. She's a sophomore at her high school. She's class president. Her peers accept everything about her, but the adults - not her family, but the academics in her life - were where it was very hard.

But we live in the South, we live in Oklahoma, and it's hard at school. Some days she feels frightened, because, just as your sociologist was talking about a minute ago, living in Oklahoma some days it is really hard and not accepted, and it's frightening sometimes.

CONAN: And you said the adults in her family were accepting right from the beginning?

CATHERINE: Absolutely. My goodness. We were - as her mother, I was telling your person earlier, I thought well, so what were you waiting for? Because mothers seem to know a lot, we think, anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

CATHERINE: But my daughter has explained to me over and over it's no one's story to tell but that individual, please respect that. And that is something that I have learned through the years. And she's brave, she's smart, she's articulate, and I think the world of her. And I think she has a great future ahead, but sometimes a long future. You know, some people are not very kind at all.

CONAN: Well, Catherine, thank you very much. We wish you and your daughter the best.

CATHERINE: Thank you so much for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure. And Michelle Baunach, as we listen to that story, one of the sharpest divides along public opinion on this question is generational.

BAUNACH: True, it is. The 18- to 29-year-old age group is overwhelmingly approving of gay marriage. However, again, in the research that I conducted, we found that the trend over time, from 1988 to 2010, was due mostly to people changing their minds on the subject, that two-thirds of the overall societal level of change was because individuals had changed their mind - either because they'd gotten to know people, or they're influenced by media, or they'd just gotten to know more about the topic.

But most of the change in this attitude is because individuals have changed their mind. And not simply because that older, supposedly less tolerant individuals, have been replaced by younger, supposedly, more tolerant individuals.

CONAN: We read that changing your mind is difficult to do and more difficult to accomplish.

BAUNACH: But it's happened quite a bit on this topic. It's really quite fascinating, to be honest. This is a topic that I wouldn't have predicted before I went into this that the majority change would have been due to changing their minds. I would have thought, along with a lot of other people, that it would have due to generational changes.

And while that does have an impact, it's that more and more it's because people are getting to know others, or they're just getting to know more about it, and they are changing their minds on the issue. And we see this with all the prominent politicians that have come out recently on this topic. We see this every day that people are saying, well, gee, once I got to know so-and-so, or once I had a gay son or a lesbian daughter or once I just thought more about it I changed my views.

CONAN: And thought more about it. Some people say wait a minute, if I see this as an issue of individual rights, of civil rights, suddenly it looks different.

BAUNACH: It does, and that's part of the success of the gay rights movement is that the gay rights movement has been able to frame this issue in terms of a civil right, and when people start thinking about it that way, when they don't think about it on a moral issue, but they think about it on an equality issue, a civil rights issue, they tend to agree with this topic.

CONAN: And where do you see this going?

BAUNACH: You know, it's hard to predict, but it seems that if the current trends continue that we'll have just greater support overall. We're now, like you mentioned, previously were about 48 percent according to the Pew poll. That'll probably continue to increase. There are some gay rights issues that regularly pull in the high 80 to 90 percent, such as employment discrimination protection.

Those kind of issues or, you know, serving in the military tend to get even wider support. This issue may approach that level of support at some point. I doubt that we'll ever get to 100 percent, we rarely get to 100 percent on any type of attitude. There will always be some people for whom this is a topic they will disapprove or something that they disapprove of.

But if current trends continue, we'll see even wide approval.

CONAN: Our guest is Michelle Baunach, we're talking about what changes when someone comes out of the closet. If you attended or worked at a high school like this, tell us the one change you would want to make, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about how support for gay marriage has shifted as more people see relatives, friends, co-workers come out of the closet. Chief Justice John Roberts' cousin and her partner will be in the audience for the Supreme Court's hearings on California's Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act when those arguments start here in Washington, D.C., tomorrow. No idea what influence, if any, that might have on the chief justice.

We're asking you how did someone you know coming out change the conversation around your dinner table or at your workplace, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guest is Michelle Baunach, professor of sociology at Georgia State University, speaking with us from her office in Atlanta. Let's get another caller in, and this is Kyle(ph) and Kyle on the line with us from St. Louis.

KYLE: Hey, thanks for taking the call.

CONAN: Sure, go ahead.

KYLE: When I was a younger guy, I grew up in the rural South, actually in Georgia. And, you know, it was kind of a community that was a bit homophobic. The homosexual lifestyle was pretty taboo. And, you know, I kind of - I was a bit neutral on the issue at the time. I didn't really know whether I felt good or bad about it.

But when I graduated high school, I took a job at a florist with an older man. At the time, I did know he was homosexual, but he came out to me after a while, after I had been working there for a few months. And he really changed my perspective on the thing, on the issue, and I realized he's just like anyone else, and he's such a nice guy. He was willing to bend over backwards to do whatever he could to help me out if I needed it, such a fantastic person.

And it just kind of - it really changed not just my perspective on the issue but also, you know, really making me regret all those times when I was a younger man not having stood up for someone and not having said at least a little bit more than I did and just kind of sitting silently by as people were teased and made fun of, and, you know, especially rumors ran rampant at that point once I took that job and just to get a small taste of what it's like to live in a town where that is such a taboo and to be associated with a community of people that are just kind of shunned. It was...

CONAN: Just because you were working at a florist shop, everybody assumed you were gay.

KYLE: Well, it actually turned out - I found out a little bit later that he had a bit of a reputation around town as a homosexual. I mean, he was a well-known homosexual. I just, you know, I was blind to the idea.

CONAN: And so as this - did you have a conversation with him, I wonder?

KYLE: Yeah absolutely. He just - you know, I think after a while he felt it was the right thing to do to just let me know, just in case. Maybe he was wondering how I felt about it and didn't know if it would be comfortable to be working with somebody who had a problem with his homosexuality or not.

And, you know, of course I didn't because it just really opened my eyes to this idea. I don't know what I was thinking before, that they were like green-eyed monsters or something, but...

(LAUGHTER)

KYLE: You know, he really let me know that he is just like anyone else, and being a homosexual man makes no difference on the type of person that you are. And, you know, he can be just as great and just as fun to be around as anyone else. So it really opened my eyes to the point now where I have a lesbian roommate. I have many, many gay friends, and it's just - it's really opened my eyes to a community of people that are just a lot of fun to be around.

CONAN: OK, thanks very much Kyle.

KYLE: Thank you, go Dogs.

CONAN: OK. Here's an email that we have from Teresa(ph): I would be a hypocrite if I changed my opinion of gay marriage just because my daughter or son were gay. I love my gay friends, and I show them my love and friendship without changing my core beliefs. And Michelle Baunach, as you look at the numbers, obviously there are any number of people who agree with Teresa and are not going to change their beliefs no matter what.

BAUNACH: True, there are still some people who are going to disapprove of it because it may violate some core belief of theirs. It may be very important to their political identity as a conservative, or it may be very important to them in a religious identity, if they're an evangelical protestant, or if they belong to another group, another religious affiliation that disapproves of gay marriage. They may never approve of it.

CONAN: Let's - here's another email, this is from Catherine(ph): I'm 28 years old and was raised in a very conservative family. My best friend since childhood came out to me when we were in high school, and it fundamentally changed my view of gay and lesbian people.

Since college, I have met several people in the gay community and have come to embrace marriage equality as a crucial part of equal treatment for all people. What surprised me was when I was able to convince my mom that equality is important. I simply told her to think about my friend, whom she's known our whole lives. If my friend, who lives in New Zealand, gets a marriage there, she can never come home because her spouse will not have the same immigration rights. Now my mom supports gay marriage, as well.

Let's go to Gregory(ph), and Gregory's on the line with us from Houston.

GREGORY: Hello, I'm glad to be on.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

GREGORY: I'm African-American, Southern Baptist. I grew up in Mississippi. And gay - the whole gay issue has never been a topic that we really talked about. We didn't really think about it because nobody close to us was gay. But my brother, about two years ago, came out. And it really had an effect on us. He most recently committed suicide, and we don't believe it was necessarily because he was gay.

But since he came out and since his suicide, we've completely done a 360. We actually changed churches because we felt like our pastor was - he demonized the issue a bit too much. And we completely changed our view about gay rights and the whole gay issue altogether.

CONAN: Gregory, did you say suicide?

GREGORY: Yes, yes, but we don't think it was necessarily because of - because he was gay. We think it was because of something entirely different.

CONAN: And then what happened when you changed churches?

GREGORY: We just went to a nondenominational church, a church that doesn't really talk about the whole gay issue, you know.

CONAN: And so they still don't talk about it, but they don't demonize it, either.

GREGORY: Exactly, exactly. It was just too much to handle, you know?

CONAN: I can understand that. I can understand that. Thanks, Gregory, very much for the phone call.

GREGORY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Michelle Baunach, is there any way go gauge how much taboo plays in this discussion?

BAUNACH: I don't think there is. There - excuse me, I'm sorry. There is a lot of taboo, especially among certain groups and especially when they hear it from leaders in their organization like some churches or some political parties. There is a lot of negative feeling towards this.

However, that negative feeling has been dissipating. It has been going away. We can look at other survey data, not specifically on same-sex marriage, but we can look at a question that asks people about what they think the morality of homosexuality is. And people think - seeing homosexuality as being immoral has also gone way down, that more and more people see homosexuality as a gay rights issue, like we talked about previously, but also not as a morality issue. They just see it as maybe a to-each-his-own kind of perspective.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you about precedent. There will be discussion tomorrow when the Supreme Court listens to this case, and of course the day after on the Defense of Marriage Act case, about the precedent of the Loving decision, where there were still a lot of states in the Union that had barred miscegenation, that's cross-race marriage, and of course the Supreme Court, what, 50, 60 years ago struck that down in the Loving case out of Virginia. Is there any polling on how attitudes changed as a result of that, or was your profession in - not taking those kind of polls at that time?

BAUNACH: There were some polls. The ones I looked at recently, because this topic has been coming up a lot lately, went back to 1972. But I know I have read about the history of that case, about the Loving versus Virginia Supreme Court case. There were still national-level polls that were showing majority disapproval of getting rid of those types of laws at the time that the case was decided in the early '60s.

Since then, attitudes have become much more favorable towards interracial marriage. In fact the last data that I could find on this source that we tend to use as sociologists called the General Social Survey, they last asked the question in 2002. They don't even ask it anymore because there is so much general support for interracial marriage or at least disapproval of a law against interracial marriage, that in 2002, less than 10 percent of the people polled thought that there should still be a law against interracial marriage.

CONAN: Well, Michelle Baunach, thank you very much for your time. We know you've got another appointment, and we'll thank you very much and let you go.

BAUNACH: Thank you very much, Neal, this is a lot of fun.

CONAN: Michelle Baunach, a professor at the Department of Sociology at Georgia State University, with us from her office in Atlanta. Here's an email from Autumn(ph): In my case it wasn't a family member, it was a classmate in magazine article writing class at a church-sponsored university. We had been asked to write an article expressing a church doctrine and then we had to pass them around and let other students read them. The one I got was from a young man and his experience learning about his own sexuality. I suppose that ever since then, I have been more open to non-normal social characteristics.

Not sure what normal qualifies in that - qualifies as in that regard, but let's get Bob(ph) on the line, Bob with us from Nashville.

BOB: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BOB: I - my perspective on this issue is that my father came out to my family and caused my parents to get a divorce in 1982, I think. And I lived at the time in the rural Northwest. And I was so - and I grew up and went to a very small school. And I was immediately - my immediate fear was about the response my classmates - at the time, I was in seventh grade.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And then after my parents got divorced, my mom took us to her ancestral home, which was the rural south, and it was the same thing. I was very uncomfortable with the idea of telling even close friends about it for fear of what kind of response it might engender not on those - not from those people, but from other people.

CONAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And it just is sort - that sort of has evolved over time. You know, as time has marched on, it's become less an issue, but it was really quite - I remember being pretty fearful of that time.

CONAN: I could understand that, and I can - also, I wanted to ask, kids can be very angry with the parents that they might hold responsible for breaking up the marriage, and the can play a part too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's true. Yeah, it just - at the time, I mean, the AIDS crisis was, you know, full-blown and then the media everywhere. And there were just lots and lots of ways for people to - and I tended to be picked on anyway, so, you know, [laugh] it's just - it was, at a sense, you know, from whatever self-defense just not to talk about it.

But, you know, over time, I think it's really has more to do with the climate of the country and the general - as it has been described on your program - the general, you know, increase in acceptance of the life of the sexual orientation.

CONAN: And how are...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) in me, but...

CONAN: Yeah. How are things with your dad now?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: My dad and I, we're okay. We - as far as his relationship in this matter concerned, I mean, I'm very respectful and it's - we don't - we actually - he lives abroad, so I don't see him that often. But when I do, it's, you know, that's not an issue at all.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call and we're glad things - obviously, it took some time, but we're glad things worked out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email from Emily. "In 1994, I went around Idaho and campaigned for Prop 1 with my uncle, Kelly Walton. Prop 1 failed, but it would've prevented homosexuals from receiving minority status in Idaho. My mind was changed when I had a co-worker reveal to the company we worked for that she was gay. She has a partner and two children, and I realized the pressure she was always under to be a perfect employee so that she wouldn't get fired for being gay."

"I'm glad my boss didn't fire her. And last year, I volunteered with Add the Words, Idaho to increase protection to my gay friends and neighbors there in the state of Idaho." We're talking about how coming out has changed the conversation about gay marriage and other issues. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Darren is on the line with us from Sacramento.

DARREN: Hello, Neal.

CONAN: Hi, Darren. Go ahead, please.

DARREN: Well, as I talked to your screener, I talked about I'm a local politician and in a very conservative part of California, if you can imagine that, in the foothill areas, more rural areas. And this is a question that's come up to, you know, in my election processes. And what I had to explain to people is that, what do we hope to gain on either side of the issue?

My best friend that I've had since I was 12 years old, and I was the best man at his wedding, when he married a woman, in the Mormon temple the less, in Oakland, came out and is now living with his partner in Los Angeles. He's been out for about 10 years now. My sister, most recently, who is also married in the Mormon temple, came out and is now living with her wife in Albuquerque in Mexico.

So these things have an ability to change one's perspective in terms of not necessarily the morality of issue, but if you could put that aside and just the humanitarian aspect of it, and what is it that our government hopes to accomplish by granting or denying the rights of marriage?

CONAN: And clearly, the community includes any number of Mormons, as the Mormons were seen as one of the big proponents of Prop 8 there in California.

DARREN: Sure, absolutely. And so that's something that also weighs heavily with me. You know, the pressure that I felt, you know, since a young man, to be on the side of the morality aspect of the argument. However, if you're looking at simply from the perspective of a civil rights issue, which you mentioned earlier in the show, there was gentleman that came out a few years ago, in flip side, I believe he works for the Cato Institute or something like that.

And he is the one that helped pushed, at least here in California, the concept of a civil rights issue. And he changed lives and actually open to promote the Marriage Act (unintelligible). Now...

CONAN: The Cato Institute is the think tank of the Libertarian Party.

DARREN: Correct. So at that point, you know, with all these things mounted in my mind, I had to come to my own conclusion on this. And what I came to is that, what is it that the government hopes to accomplish with the issue of marriage license? This is so that we can see, you know, who are legally bound to each other in terms of if there's a divorce proceeding, if there's a death, those types of things.

How the courts are going to handle the disbursement of a state, or those type of things like that. And in that particular instance, I mean, it doesn't really matter. The idea of being married or not married in the eyes of the government is simply a transactional issue that has to deal with financial matters, you know, for the most part, as far as I can tell.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much.

DARREN: You're welcome.

CONAN: And here is an email that we have. This is from Tom. "Listening from the car as my wife drives, I was a pre "don't ask, don't tell" army officer. My army roommate came out after we got out of the army. He was my best friend but couldn't tell me he was gay. I came from a small town, attended a catholic university, my friend's coming out was a life-changing experience. It made me look at any biases I might have and examine my conscience. My friend always had my back but was afraid to tell me who he was. And we'll end with this email from Miriam, a straight and strong supporter of gay marriage. She writes: I'm 68. My change in attitude took place in the 1970s when I was part of a women's group that included several sisters struggling with their sexual preferences. By the time these women realize they were lesbians, we had all become deeply involved in knowing and supporting one another. After one of these women, afraid of who she was in family and societal reaction, attempted to commit suicide. I visited her in the hospital, said nothing and just held her hand as tightly as I could. It felt like I was trying to pull her back from the cliff. After she recovered, she told me felt that I was really there for here and it helped. We have since lost connection but I hope she's married and happy.

Thanks to all of you who wrote and emailed and contacted us. We're sorry we couldn't get to all of your stories. Up next, technology is speeding forward. But one critic says we may need to pump the brakes when it comes to driverless cars. What are some of the unintended consequences of these new futuristic vehicles? Stay with us. I'm NEAL CONAN. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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