Why Anti-Gay Bias Has Sharply Declined In The U.S. For generations, living openly as a gay person in the United States was difficult, and often dangerous. But there's been a dramatic change in public attitudes toward gay people. This week, we explore one of the most striking transformations of public attitude ever recorded. And we consider whether the strategies used by gay rights activists hold lessons for other groups seeking change.
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Radically Normal: How Gay Rights Activists Changed The Minds Of Their Opponents

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Radically Normal: How Gay Rights Activists Changed The Minds Of Their Opponents

Radically Normal: How Gay Rights Activists Changed The Minds Of Their Opponents

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. For generations, gay people were the target of noxious stereotypes in the United States.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Queers and the homosexuals.

SEAN HARRIS: The second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist.

VEDANTAM: Halls of worship and airwaves were full of hateful propaganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

STEVEN ANDERSON: AIDS is the judgment of God. And that's the title of the sermon tonight - "AIDS: The Judgment Of God."

CHARLES WORLEY: Build a great, big, large fence. Put all the lesbians in there.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Gay rights advocates are outraged over a ruling yesterday by a Virginia judge, which denied a mother custody of her son because she's a lesbian. The judge said the relationship is, in his words, illegal and immoral...

Illegal and immoral...

Illegal and immoral...

WORLEY: And have that fence electrified till they can't get out. Feed them, and you know what? In a few years, they'll die out.

VEDANTAM: In classrooms, workplaces and social settings homophobes targeted gay people with violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And Matthew Shepard was beaten last week and tied to a wooden fence by two men who met Shepard in a bar in Laramie, Wyo. Eighteen hours later, a passing bicyclist summoned help after almost mistaking Shepard's bloody body for a scarecrow.

VEDANTAM: There were few places to escape. Homophobia was widespread throughout the Western world. Being accomplished or brilliant was no defense. Alan Turing, the mathematician who helped the Allies win the Second World War by working to crack Hitler's communication codes, was prosecuted by the British government for having a sexual relationship with another man. The state gave him two options - prison or chemical castration. He chose the chemicals. Sixteen days before his 42nd birthday, he killed himself.

The pain of the past is not the focus of our episode today. It is only the backdrop, but it is necessary to see this backdrop clearly to understand something very new and very surprising. Things have changed dramatically in the United States when it comes to attitudes about gay people.

MICHAEL ROSENFELD: This is actually one of the most surprising things in the whole history of public opinion in the United States. What we see in attitudes towards gay rights is a really stunning change over time, sooner than almost anybody thought possible.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN...

MAHZARIN BANAJI: This is huge.

VEDANTAM: ...The psychological strategies behind one of the most dramatic transformations of public attitude ever recorded...

BANAJI: How can it be that an attitude that was as vicious as this one has changed?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Lori Lightfoot becomes the first black woman and the first openly gay person ever elected mayor in Chicago.

LORI LIGHTFOOT: Each of you, one day, can be the mayor of Chicago.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Pete Buttigieg is 37 years old, and he is running for president.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: The most important thing in my life, my marriage to Chasten, is something that exists by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.

EVAN WOLFSON: Love, commitment, family, inclusion.

VEDANTAM: ...And the surprising lessons this story holds for anyone who seeks to bring about change.

WOLFSON: Dignity, respect...

ROSENFELD: Normalcy, normalcy.

WOLFSON: ...Liberation, not assimilation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When William Cox was a child, he noticed something about the world.

WILLIAM COX: So I'm in a family of five, and we're all adopted. I'd observe how my sister, who's very dark-skinned, got treated differently than her twin brother, who's very light-skinned. People would see him as white and treat him completely differently than how they would treat her and - because they perceived her as black or Hispanic.

VEDANTAM: In time, William discovered that, like his, sister he, too, was an outsider.

COX: As I grew up, I came to realize that I was gay and then that in and of itself brought about different treatment.

VEDANTAM: The challenge in William's case wasn't just at school.

COX: My parents are Mormon, and Mormons are not very much in favor of people being gay. And so that created a lot of conflict with us. I came out to them when I was 18 and living at home and still going to college.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COX: It became just a big argument that - I don't know - I was being influenced by society. I remember they blamed - "Will & Grace" was one of the things that came up in the argument.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WILL AND GRACE")

MEGAN MULLALLY: (As Karen Walker) Knock-knock. Anybody homo?

SEAN HAYES: (As Jack McFarland) I am, I am.

COX: And it was just kind of - it was kind of incoherent because it was a big yelling, crying sort of affair.

VEDANTAM: As they argued, he says they kept discovering new things to disagree about. William told his parents that given the church's views on homosexuality, he had no interest in going on the traditional mission trip when he was 18.

COX: And then one day, my dad and I were driving home from somewhere and got in a big fight.

VEDANTAM: It was about religion again.

COX: And my dad said, you just love stabbing us in the heart, don't you? Something like that. And I said to him, don't be so dramatic. And then he pulled over the car, took my backpack out of the back seat and tossed it in the ditch on the side of the road and said, that's dramatic.

VEDANTAM: William got out of the car. He says his father drove off, leaving him clutching his backpack by the side of the road.

How did you get home that day?

COX: I didn't. So that's kind of one of those moments in life where, you know, what he later says is that he had just expected me to walk the rest of the way home. And I just kind of - I guess I went into - I don't know - crisis mode or what. I just kind of shut off a lot of the emotional reaction. I was just like, well, what are the next steps? What do I need to do?

VEDANTAM: He knew he needed a place to stay, and he needed to complete a school assignment.

COX: I had a friend who worked at a hotel downtown, and I went there and use their business center to finish a paper that was due in my English class the next day. And then - I mean, I was homeless for a little while. I slept on friends' couches, things like that, got a job at Wendy's and stayed in school. And here I am now.

VEDANTAM: William became a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies stereotypes. It's been more than 15 years since that incident on the road with his father. I asked him how things turned out with his parents.

COX: My dad - you know, he got very hot that moment, but he's a very loving man, and he loves me and has apologized, and I know he really regrets what happened.

VEDANTAM: Over time, William says his father started to look at gay rights through a new frame. He had been a high school history teacher and had been deeply influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

COX: After this kind of emotional period right after I came out, he started drawing parallels to what LGBT people are going through to the civil rights movement. And I think his overarching principles of fairness really kind of started shining through with relation to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Things have changed so much that William now looks forward to gatherings with his parents. When I first spoke to him, it was in the fall.

COX: And they're coming down to have Thanksgiving at my house with me and my partner in a couple weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: From throwing out your son on the side of a road to sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with your son and his partner...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: ...The arc of William's story mirrors a dramatic change across the United States.

ROSENFELD: This is actually one of the most surprising things in the whole history of public opinion.

VEDANTAM: Michael Rosenfeld is a sociologist at Stanford.

ROSENFELD: There's more and more rapid change in attitudes towards gay rights in the past 30 years in the United States than there ever has been in recorded attitudes in the United States on any issue.

VEDANTAM: Michael cites data from the General Social Survey, one of the most important and reliable ways of tracking over time how Americans think.

ROSENFELD: They have a pretty good history of long time frame of asking the same questions about gay rights over time.

VEDANTAM: Let's take one specific question. Starting in the late 1980s, the General Social Survey periodically asked Americans whether gay people should have the right to marry.

ROSENFELD: In 1988, when the General Social Survey first asked the question about same-sex marriage, only 11.6 percent of respondents said that they thought same-sex couples should have the right to marry. And you have to remember, 11.6 percent is almost as low as you can get. It's hard to get less than 5 percent on any question. So 11.6 percent is really - everyone was against it almost.

VEDANTAM: But by 2018, the number of Americans who said same-sex couples should have the right to marry was 68 percent.

ROSENFELD: That's a really dramatic change. It's rare for public opinion on contested issues to change that much.

VEDANTAM: At first, survey researchers thought that what was happening with gay rights was only generational change. Younger people with more liberal attitudes were giving survey researchers different answers than older people with more conservative attitudes. But when Michael looked at the data, he found lots and lots of people like William's parents, people who, in a matter of years, had fundamentally changed their outlook.

ROSENFELD: Even though it was sort of Democrats and liberals who were more likely to be open to gay rights, it turns out that there were plenty of evangelical Christians, rural people, Republican voters who actually changed their mind on these issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Now, you can argue that public opinion can sometimes change quickly? During wartime, views about an enemy can intensify from negative feelings to outright hatred. But when was the last time you heard of half the country reversing its views on an important issue, tens of millions of people believing one thing and then, like a light switch being flipped, believing exactly the opposite? That almost never happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: William Cox argues that the most surprising change is not the one that unfolded in courts and legislatures. It is in the change in attitudes in workplaces, in families, in schools.

COX: When I was in high school, I didn't know a single person who was out. And by sheer numbers, there should have been about 200 gay men in the school. Now kids very often are coming out in middle school or even before, and so just the visibility of gay people has shifted enormously over the past 10, 15, 20 years.

VEDANTAM: Of course, there are many parts of the world where coming out as gay is still dangerous. And there are many pockets of prejudice throughout the United States. But the tide has turned dramatically.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Psychological tests show that what people are seeing and doing is mirrored by changes in their brains. For roughly two decades, Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has tracked what she calls the implicit or hidden prejudices of millions of Americans. Her tests measure attitudes toward a number of groups. Over the last decade, there has been one dramatic change.

BANAJI: So the most surprising result comes from the sexuality test. What we see there on the implicit attitude - OK? I'm not talking now about what people say. I'm talking about what the automatic response is on the test. We see a 33 percent drop in anti-gay bias. This is huge.

VEDANTAM: If researchers like Michael and Mahzarin sound a little stunned by their data, it's because they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BANAJI: This was not a simple negative attitude. Gay people have been killed. So how can it be that an attitude that was as vicious as this one has changed?

VEDANTAM: In a thought experiment, Mahzarin and her colleagues have extended the trend lines of the data to see how long it would take for bias to be entirely eliminated. To be clear, this isn't a prediction about what is going to happen. It just shows you the speed at which different biases are changing.

BANAJI: The forecasts show that if things go swimmingly well, in nine years, anti-gay attitudes will be all but eliminated - that we will reach neutrality.

VEDANTAM: By contrast, when it comes to race issues, the projections are it will take nearly six decades for Americans to see blacks and whites the same way. Biases about skin tone, preferences for lighter skin over darker skin - that should take 138 years if current trends persist. Biases against the elderly - ageism? Here is Tessa Charlesworth, a researcher working with Mahzarin.

TESSA CHARLESWORTH: Implicit age attitudes will not reach neutrality even within the next 150 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Ageism and prejudice toward people with disabilities and those who are overweight appear to be rampant and stubbornly persistent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: What do you think drove the remarkable change in attitudes toward gay people? Mahzarin says she asks herself that question all the time.

BANAJI: I was in London this summer, watching from my hotel room a Pride parade.

(CHEERING)

BANAJI: And I was mesmerized - happiness everywhere. London police marching - gay police, and straight police in support of gay police. I saw banners of, you know, the largest for-profit corporations in the world marching - Goldman Sachs, PWC, EY - each with their own banners. And I asked myself, what would a Black Lives Matter parade look like? Would the police be marching? Would these corporations have a banner in a parade of that kind? I doubt it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BANAJI: So yes, something has happened. But to us, the question is, why?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: On June 28, 1969, police raided a bar in New York City - the Stonewall Inn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

VEDANTAM: For decades, gay bars like this one had been targeted by police raids. Anti-sodomy laws made it a criminal offense to live openly as a gay person in most places in the United States. But on that steamy summer night, under the glow of a full moon, something changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Witnesses said that as police dragged people out, one woman shouted out to her fellow patrons...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Why don't you guys do something?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Why don't you guys do something?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Why don't you guys do something?

VEDANTAM: ...Why don't you guys do something?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Why don't you guys do something?

(SOUNDBITE OF HEART BEATING)

VEDANTAM: They did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Riots broke out. Within an hour, the surrounding streets were surging with people.

(SOUNDBITE OF RIOTS)

VEDANTAM: Police were outnumbered. They sought shelter inside the very bar they had come to raid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: People threw bricks. They smashed windows. But there was a creative energy. The rioters were building something new - demolishing an old structure to make way for a new one with fewer closets.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Two, four, six, eight - gay is just as good as straight. Two, four, six, eight - gay is just as good as straight. Two, four, six, eight - gay is just as good as straight.

VEDANTAM: Many historians locate the start of the modern gay rights movement to the Stonewall riots. Of course, history doesn't come with a start date. You can go back further and find examples of activism. But Stonewall was a pivotal moment. Gay people were saying, enough. Stop harassing us. But the protest also did something else. Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld says for the first time in the lives of many Americans, gay people were making themselves visible.

ROSENFELD: It's in the period when gay and lesbian people come out of the closet that straight Americans' attitudes about gay rights really start to shift.

VEDANTAM: It turned out that gay people had a singular advantage that many racial minorities do not. Gay people were embedded within the homes and the communities of those who thought gay people were an abomination.

ROSENFELD: Most gay and lesbian people have heterosexual parents. So within the same family, you have relatives who are gay and relatives who are straight, whereas the family system segregates - not completely but almost completely - whites from blacks. And then, it's also true that because gays and lesbians are in the same families as heterosexual people, they have the same socioeconomic background, and they're geographically integrated with them. So there were just a lot of more opportunities for straight people to meet gay people who were similar status to themselves.

VEDANTAM: Parents with gay kids often had to grapple with a form of cognitive dissonance. As psychologist Mahzarin Banaji says, many parents were forced to choose between their love for their children and their pre-existing attitudes about homosexuality.

BANAJI: Many people have changed their attitudes towards the group because a child came out.

VEDANTAM: In any reckoning of why attitudes toward gay people changed so fast, coming out of the closet is a central part of the story. But, of course, this doesn't entirely explain the mystery of why anti-gay attitudes have declined so dramatically.

Think about other groups that face persistent discrimination in our society. Old people are found across all income groups, in black and white families, in all parts of the country. Like many gay people, the elderly have had long associations with others before they became elderly. And yet, as we noted earlier, implicit biases against old people have hardly budged.

CHARLESWORTH: Implicit age attitudes will not reach neutrality even within the next 150 years.

VEDANTAM: Or consider women. They are also embedded in the homes of people who are avowed misogynists. Women's deep connections and daily presence as moms and sisters and wives and daughters and friends and colleagues have not eradicated the persistence of inequality and abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: People around the world are coming forward on social media to share their stories of sexual abuse.

HALEY EPEMA: #MeToo.

TRILLIA NEWBELL: Me, too.

INSKEEP: Women are consistently paid less than men.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Maternal wall, referring to discrimination against hiring or promoting mothers based under the assumption...

MIRANDA YAVER: I never reported it. I concealed my injuries and taught the next morning. Me, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: What explains the very different trajectory in our attitudes toward gay people?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BROKAW: Scientists at the National Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta today released the results of a study, which shows that the lifestyle of some male homosexuals has triggered an epidemic of a rare form of cancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: One answer lies in the response to a crisis that befell the gay community - and especially gay men - in the 1980s.

WOLFSON: AIDS broke the silence about who gay people are.

VEDANTAM: This is gay rights activist Evan Wolfson.

WOLFSON: It led non-gay people to see gay people as members of families, as parts of couples, as people who were grieving, as people who were fighting, working to care for one another, struggling against discrimination, having courage and dignity in the face of awful death.

It prompted gay people to understand our vulnerability in being excluded from institutions in law, such as marriage. It changed our movement from being a movement about wanting to be basically let alone - don't harass us, don't attack us, don't persecute us - into a movement about being let in - we want to be part of, we want to participate, we want to share.

VEDANTAM: The epidemic also galvanized organizing efforts.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDS. Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDS.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) History will recall, Reagan and Bush did nothing at all. History will recall, Reagan and Bush did nothing at all.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) CDC, can't you see? Lesbians get HIV. CDC, can't you see? Lesbians get HIV.

VEDANTAM: Activists carried ashes of dead family members and flung them on the lawn of the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Bringing the dead to your door. We won't take it anymore. Bringing the dead to your door...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) George Bush, you can't hide. We charge you with genocide.

VEDANTAM: Protesters disrupted scientific meetings to demand better medical care.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: We have seized control of the FDA.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: About 20 people sat down, blocking a four-lane street. Blocked drivers became angry.

UNIDENTIFIED DRIVER: You're blocking my road, you bunch of queers and faggots. You bunch of queers and faggots, get out of my road.

VEDANTAM: By the summer of 1992, protests began to translate into recognition on the political stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: We don't have a person to waste. And yet for too long, politicians have told the most of us that are doing all right that what's really wrong with America is the rest of us. Them.

VEDANTAM: At the Democratic National Convention, presidential candidate Bill Clinton talked about gay rights during his speech accepting his party's nomination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Them the poor. Them the homeless. Them the people with disabilities. Them the gays. We've gotten to where we've nearly them-ed (ph) ourselves to death. Them, and them, and them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

VEDANTAM: As president, Bill Clinton was not seen as a beacon for gay rights. Activists today believe he did not do enough. He had campaigned on the idea that all people should be allowed to serve in the military, regardless of sexual orientation. But once in office, he supported Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the military ban on openly gay service members. It went into effect during his first term. A few years later, the Republican-controlled Congress passed, and Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act codifying that marriage should be only between men and women.

But sociologist Michael Rosenfeld argues that, as a presidential candidate for a major party in 1992, Bill Clinton sent an important message - gay rights were civil rights.

ROSENFELD: Prior to 1992, Democrats and Republicans were similarly opposed to gay rights. And after 1992, Democratic voters in United States started to be more approving of gay rights, and Republicans also started to be more approving, but that gap between Democrats and Republicans really started to grow right around 1992. So that - it's another indication that the presidential politics have an influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: This is America. There is no them. There is only us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

VEDANTAM: As more people signed onto the gay rights movement in the 1990s, Hollywood studios and TV networks began to tell more stories about gay people.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ELLEN")

ELLEN DEGENERES: (As Ellen) I'm so afraid to tell people. I mean, I just - Susan, I'm gay.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MURPHY BROWN")

JOE REGALBUTO: (As Frank) I'm not making any value judgments here. I mean, I don't care that Rick is gay. But he is gay.

CANDICE BERGEN: (As Murphy) Based on what? The Frank Fontana gay-o-meter?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROSEANNE")

LAURIE METCALF: (As Jackie) Tell us about the guy.

ROSEANNE BARR: (As Roseanne) Yeah. Come on. Why don't you tell us?

SANDRA BERNHARD: (As Nancy) All right. Her name is Marla. I'm seeing a woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURPRISED LAUGHTER)

VEDANTAM: So as you can see, lots of things built on one another. Activism around AIDS drew headlines and policy changes. Politicians began to respond to these activists. The entertainment industry began telling the stories of gay people. But does this really solve the mystery of the rapid decline in homophobia in the United States? If political activism and attention from Hollywood were enough to combat bias, wouldn't we also see a faster decline in misogyny and white supremacy?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Women and people of color have been fighting for equal rights often on a bigger scale and over a longer time period.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Singing) We shall not be moved.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Women will control our fate.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) No justice, no peace. No justice, no peace...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) My, my, my choice.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Chanting) ...No racist police.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #2: (Unintelligible singing).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: There is one answer to why attitudes toward gay people have changed faster than racist or sexist attitudes. Not all prejudices are the same. Some in fact may have deeper roots, as gay rights activist Evan Wolfson acknowledges.

WOLFSON: The stakes involved in entrenched racism, in the entrenched subordination of women, are really, for most people, much greater than the stakes involved in the sort of casual, almost unthinking subordination of gay people. So in that sense, it was almost easier to crack. Not that it was easy, and not that it's done. But the singularity of racism, and the way in which we're carved up by race and the singularity of the experience of women, and the subordination of women and the stakes and social structure around that may mean that you can't just immediately say, this worked for this so it's exactly the same for the others. They're not the same.

VEDANTAM: They're not the same. And yet the data also suggest that we are missing something important. While the change in attitudes toward gay people has been building for a long time, the pace of change has dramatically accelerated in recent years. Remember we said that pro-gay marriage attitudes stood at 68 percent in 2018? Just two years before that, it was 59 percent.

VEDANTAM: For a long time, such rapid change seemed inconceivable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Gays and lesbians are going to remember 2004. Eleven states passed anti-gay marriage laws. President Bush wants to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage, and California courts invalidated the marriages performed last spring.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Now gay activists are debating how to move forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: If you look at positive attitudes toward gay people, the graph turns upward sharply after 2004.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we come back - what drove the transformation and the painful choices that often confront change-makers?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: In 1983, Evan Wolfson was a law student at Harvard. He was writing a thesis. His catalyst was a book he'd read over winter break.

WOLFSON: The book was called, "Christianity, Social Tolerance And Homosexuality," by a man named John Boswell, a Yale professor. And it was a sweeping history of the first 4,000 years of the West's treatment of homosexuality and gay people, and how different societies and different centuries within this period had treated gay people.

VEDANTAM: Evan learned that gay people had not always been treated as second-class citizens, that there had been many societies in history where there was little distinction made between gay and straight.

WOLFSON: And so the lesson I took from the book was that if things had once been different, they could be different again. We could change things.

VEDANTAM: Evan asked a deceptively simple question in his thesis.

WOLFSON: I thought to myself, the main reason why gay people are discriminated against is because of who we love. Who we love is what is disdained here. And so I thought, OK. Well, how do we change that? How do we change that understanding? What is the central structure? What is the central language in which love is regulated, in which love is understood, in which love is valued? And in our society, as in virtually every other throughout human history, that central structure, that central language, is marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "WEDDING MARCH")

VEDANTAM: Marriage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "WEDDING MARCH")

VEDANTAM: The very first lawsuits arguing that gay people should have a right to marry were filed soon after the Stonewall riots. But marriage equality, as it would come to be known, was a peripheral part of the gay rights movement. Evan started working as a pro bono lawyer for gay rights organizations in the 1980s. He tried to bring what he had written in his law school thesis to his activism.

WOLFSON: I immediately began arguing that we needed to have a strategy for including winning marriage in the mix of things we were working on.

VEDANTAM: The idea seemed far-fetched.

WOLFSON: There were those who were opposed to fighting for the freedom to marry as a matter of ideology and a matter of their own views. And then there were people who, regardless of their own views on whether we should have marriage or fight for marriage, were concerned that strategically it was simply the wrong time. We were dealing with AIDS. We were dealing with Reagan. We just couldn't do it now.

VEDANTAM: But Evan was tenacious. Marriage equality, as far as he was concerned, was not just about marriage. It was a strategy. It was an engine that would pull many other rights behind it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WOLFSON: If we could claim the language of marriage, we would be claiming an engine of transformation, a vocabulary of shared values - love, commitment, family, inclusion, dignity, respect - that would help non-gay people better understand who gay people really are and allow us to share equally not only in marriage but in everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: As the '80s rolled into the '90s and the AIDS crisis crested, Evan continued arguing with his fellow activists.

WOLFSON: And I would press the case and would be shot down again, and again, and again by almost everyone in the room - not always everyone, but almost everyone - for a variety of reasons.

VEDANTAM: Some of the strongest voices felt that marriage wasn't what gay people ought to be fighting for, period. Marriage was a heterosexual institution. Academics who studied gender and sexuality argued that some of the same forces that produced homophobia also propped up the institution of marriage.

WOLFSON: It was patriarchal. It was oppressive. It was discriminatory. So why should we fight to be part of something that is a bad thing to begin with?

VEDANTAM: There was an even deeper conundrum. Marriage equality, for Evan, was a way to telegraph to a straight audience that gay people and straight people were actually very similar. They were attracted to different people, but when it came to the important stuff - love and family and commitment - they had the same values.

To activists who had faced decades of discrimination at the hands of straight people, this argument felt demeaning. Why tell people who have been your tormentors that you are just like them? Some of Evan's fellow activists implied to him that he was being a sellout.

WOLFSON: As gay people, we should be fighting for redefining institutions such as marriage or the family. We shouldn't be fighting to join marriage. We should be fighting to redefine the family. We should be fighting for liberation, not assimilation.

VEDANTAM: Evan told them they were missing the point. His strategy was based on pragmatism - an acknowledgement that if gay people wanted equal rights, they could not seize them on their own. Straight people - at least, some straight people - were needed as allies.

WOLFSON: They were an indispensable part of it. We - you know, the vast majority of judges who are going to rule on the question, the vast majority of legislators who have to take action, the vast majority of voters are, of course, not gay. We can't just write them all off.

VEDANTAM: Here he is in 1996...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: To introduce tonight's speaker - Evan Wolfson, director of the Marriage Project of the Lambda Legal Defense...

VEDANTAM: ...Speaking at the San Francisco Public Library, urging fellow activists to go beyond preaching to the choir.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WOLFSON: My new mantra in life is there is no marriage without engagement. We have to engage non-gay people who are beginning to talk with us. They are listening. They are hearing. And they are, largely, fair-minded and reachable. But if we - gay and non-gay people who care - do not go out and talk to them, how can we expect them to get over their discomfort?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: At the core of this debate was a question that bedevils many movements that seek radical change. Isn't it unfair to ask people who have suffered so much pain to speak the language of their opponents in order to win them over?

Evan said, yes, it is unfair. But there was a goal just as important as fairness - to make things better, to ensure gay kids don't get bullied in schools, to make it easier for gay people to advance in workplaces, to allow gay people to spend time with terminally ill partners in hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The debates between Evan and his fellow activists have played out in many conflicts around the world. If you or your group has suffered grievous harm, you might feel yourself pulled in two directions. The first looks backward, seeks justice and redress, restitution for wrongs. The second approach looks forward. It prioritizes change, reconciliation. It often recommends forgiving those who have harmed you.

These paths are not mutually exclusive, but there is tension between them. India's non-violent leader Mahatma Gandhi frequently disagreed with militant leaders during India's struggle for independence. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela clashed with activists about whether white people had a role to play after apartheid was abolished. Here's a scene from the movie "Invictus," where one of President Mandela's bodyguards objects to allowing white officers to join his security team.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "INVICTUS")

MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Nelson Mandela) You represent me directly. The rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here.

TONY KGOROGE: (As Jason Tshabalala) Reconciliation, sir?

FREEMAN: (As Nelson Mandela) Yes, reconciliation, Jason.

KGOROGE: (As Jason Tshabalala) Comrade President, not long ago, these guys tried to kill us. Maybe even these four guys in my office tried and often succeeded.

FREEMAN: (As Nelson Mandela) Yes, I know. Forgiveness starts here, too.

VEDANTAM: The same debate unfolded right here in the United States during the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALCOLM X: We are not integrationists. And we believe that you're a fool to try and mix with someone who doesn't love you.

VEDANTAM: Malcolm X believed that preaching brotherhood between blacks and whites - as Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was doing - was demeaning. It asked too much of African-Americans, the victims of racism. In one fiery speech in Harlem, he said...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

X: So don't you be fooled by Kennedy. Don't you be fooled by these Uncle Tom negro preachers. When the dog attacks you, you...

VEDANTAM: Malcolm X was calling preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. Uncle Toms. This often happens to advocates who preach forgiveness and reconciliation. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by a fellow Indian who called him a sellout. Or take Avner Gvaryahu and Mohammed Dajani, an Israeli and a Palestinian whom we featured in an earlier episode of HIDDEN BRAIN. Each was branded a traitor for recommending reconciliation with the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: I still have a dream.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Yes.

KING: It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

VEDANTAM: In his language and symbolism, Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that the civil rights movement welcomed allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KING: One day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

(APPLAUSE)

VEDANTAM: Now, I'm oversimplifying some of the nuances here. Martin Luther King Jr. certainly believed in fairness and righting the wrongs of the past. Malcolm X welcomed changes that improved the lives of African-Americans. But the tension between their positions is real. Those who champion justice say, how can we break bread with our tormentors? Those who champion change say, how can we make things better without winning over those who are amenable to persuasion?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Exactly like the civil rights movement brought over whites by emphasizing shared values and shared dreams, Evan Wolfson argued in the 1990s that marriage equality could turn many straight people into allies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: And once the gay rights movement had enough allies, the courts, the legislatures, the politicians - they would all follow.

WOLFSON: In order to really succeed, it was not about just simply asserting our own and talking to ourselves. We had to find a way of bringing the majority of others - who are, of course, the majority - to a better understanding of who we are and a more capacious understanding of freedom. And I believed we could do that and marriage would be an engine for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld says it helped that the gay rights movement had a conciliatory side to it and an angry side. It was like playing good cop, bad cop.

ROSENFELD: Any movement that has a lot of ground to cover needs a sort of more radical arm that is not taking any guff from the other side and sort of shows the possibility of standing up and fighting back. And you know, gay rights movements had that - civil rights movement, certainly. You could think about the sort of Malcolm X/Martin Luther King comparison.

But truth is that you can't make progress - I don't think - without having an arm that wins votes in Congress and convinces strangers to come over to your side. And so you can't - you need them both.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Social psychologist Robb Willer has thought a lot about how movements attract and repel allies. He has studied how moderate tactics and extreme tactics trigger different reactions among onlookers. Aggressive and angry protests certainly draw more media attention, but they run the risk of turning off allies.

ROBB WILLER: I think that the best explanation for this effect has to do with social identification. So one of the most robust predictors of people's likelihood of joining a movement is the extent to which they identify with the members of the movement and the cause. And extreme protest tactics, because they involve significant disruption of the social order and they can involve violence or inciting violence, they tend to lead people to say I don't identify with that group of people. Like, I might have agreed with their cause, but the way they're doing it is not the way I would have done it.

And so I think that's the risk with extreme protest tactics, is they lead people - observers, bystanders - to answer that question - am I like those people? Should I go join them? - in the negative, where they might have said - yeah, I am like them; I'm going to join that movement.

VEDANTAM: While getting straight people to join the marriage equality movement wasn't easy, the truth was, it wasn't really asking a lot of them. In reality, marriage equality cost straight people nothing. Michael Rosenfeld says it made allies feel good to be part of celebrations, inclusion and love.

ROSENFELD: What was really effective about the marriage equality movement was the way it undermined the frame of pathology and created a new frame of love and commitment and normalcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "KRISTIN CHENOWETH FOR HRC'S AMERICANS FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY")

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: Look. The bottom line is that, regardless of how you were made or who you love, you should be able to get married if you want to get married. I truly believe it's that simple.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSENFELD: That frame of committed couples was a frame that really helped straight Americans understand that gay Americans were a lot more similar to straight Americans than straight Americans have thought.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS FOR AMERICANS FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY")

MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: Gay and lesbian couples have the same values, like family and commitment.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "KRISTEN BELL SUPPORTS MARRIAGE EQUALITY")

KRISTEN BELL: And it breaks my heart to know that millions...

VEDANTAM: It wasn't like the marriage equality movement convinced everyone with homophobic views to become an ally. But it did convince the people who were amenable to persuasion. And it turned out there were a surprising number of them. As state after state legalized gay marriage, what had seemed like an impossibility came to be seen as inevitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: An historic victory for gay rights today - the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry, no matter where they are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Gay, straight, black, white - marriage is a civil right. Gay, straight, black, white, marriage is a...

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The 5-4 decision makes same-sex marriage legal...

VEDANTAM: Exactly as Evan had predicted, marriage equality turned out to be much more than just about marriage. Michael Rosenfeld says the data shows...

ROSENFELD: Attitudes towards every kind of gay rights has increased in a similar way - not quite as fast, but in a similar way - to marriage equality. And then, what little data we have on trans rights also suggests that there's been a sharp increase in appreciation for the rights of trans people.

And I think one of the things that has been shown by the marriage equality movement is that if you're gay or lesbian, you have more rights than you used to have. And that's - those rights are important. They have ramifications for everybody, whether they want to marry or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Evan says he consults today with a number of other activist groups. He reminds them that each struggle for change is different and that what works in one case won't always work in another.

WOLFSON: Having said that, there are commonalities, and there are certainly elements of success that I now do try to share with others who come to me from different movements, different causes, in different countries, including struggles over women's empowerment, or racial justice or the rights of immigrants, et cetera. And one of those is the importance of connecting with others, of finding a way to bring the other over to your side, to bring about empathy, understanding and awareness. Not by sacrificing your identity. Not by subordinating or disclaiming your difference. But by finding a way to bridge those differences and to evoke in people the shared values that will enable them to connect with your personal story, your personal reality, and the rightness of treating others the way you would want to be treated, the golden rule.

And it's not easy to do this for anybody. It wasn't easy, and it's not done for gay people, or for marriage or for transgender people, and it's certainly not easy with regard to race. And yet our country teaches us that we have moved, we have changed. We have been able to make progress. Not that we're done, by any means. Not that there isn't still ugliness, and not that there aren't still opponents. But to ignore the progress is also to miss part of the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Change-makers often have a choice - overthrow the old order, perhaps through violence or revolution, or, reform the old order, reconcile and forgive. Which path you choose can be shaped by many factors, including how strong you are and whether you need allies to succeed. Those who wield a sword and those who hold out the olive branch can both be successful. But if you look at the long sweep of history, the evidence suggests one approach has been more effective.

The political scientists Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth have analyzed hundreds of protest movements around the world that occurred over the course of the 20th century. They found that violent movements succeeded about 1/4 of the time. Nonviolent movements succeeded twice as often. The campaign for marriage equality told its opponents, look, we share the same values. Instead of force, it disarmed. Instead of arguing, it co-opted. Instead of shaming, it celebrated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The psychological brilliance of the strategy comes down to this - it's very difficult to fight with people who say they embrace your values.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Parth Shah. It was edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Rhaina Cohen, Laura Kwerel and Thomas Lu. Voice acting from Alexandria Masehdu (ph), Galena Abdelazeez (ph), Maysa Alves da Silva (ph) and Kacey Myers (ph). Special thanks to Keith Woods, Sami Yenigun and Gene Demby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Our unsung hero is Lillian Faderman. She's a scholar who wrote a comprehensive history of the gay rights movement. It was titled "The Gay Revolution." The work of researchers like Lillian was critical as we put together this episode. We're grateful to Lillian and to countless other scholars who've documented this remarkable chapter in American history.

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VEDANTAM: For more resources and history, please visit npr.org/hiddenbrain.

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VEDANTAM: If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend. If they don't know how to subscribe to our podcast, please help them.

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VEDANTAM: I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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