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How a Mind-Blowing Number of Americans Came to Support Marriage Equality in a Short Time

This week the Supreme Court gears up to hear two cases that will decide the fate of same-sex marriage.

Marriage equality supporters in New York on March 24, 2013, take part in a march and rally ahead of US Supreme Court arguments on legalizing same-sex marriage.



When Ted Olson, the conservative super-lawyer who got George W Bush into the White House, went to federal court in 2009 to overturn California's gay marriage ban, the mood among  gay rights groups was one of  universal dread. The country was not ready, they wailed, and a negative ruling could set back the cause of  equality for decades. What did this schmuck know about gay rights anyway?

But oh, how the mood has changed.

On Tuesday, Olson will walk up the steps of the  US supreme court with the support not only of the entire gay establishment, but with a solid majority of the country behind him, too. Ten years ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to legalize gay marriage (leading to  death threats against the state's judges), 55% of Americans told pollsters that two men or two women had no right to marry, while only 37% favored equality. Today, the figures are almost exactly reversed. A full 58% of Americans now believe gays should be allowed to wed – and the trend goes in only one direction.

That figure rises to a breathtaking 81% among adults aged 18 to 29. And quite unlike the case of abortion, this progress cuts across party lines and political identification – even among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, a majority of voters under 50 support marriage equality.

What's led nearly one in five Americans to come around from homophobia to tolerance?

Part of the victory is down to us – to gay men and lesbians who have come out, lived openly, agitated for change, and shown our families and colleagues every day that we deserve the full respect of the law. As another recent poll shows, people are substantially more likely to support marriage equality if they personally know someone who's gay or lesbian. Respondents cited other factors, from moral convictions to media representations, but the No 1 cause for rethinking opposition was a personal relationship with a gay person. Coming out works.

Another part of the massive shift in favor of gay equality derives from the piecemeal, state-by-state character of the marriage movement. It has been exhausting, at times farcical, to have to fight for a basic civil right in 50 different jurisdictions, with every brain-dead state legislator or local newscaster afforded his 15 digital minutes of bigotry. But the state-by-state legalization movement has had one major plus: it's removed the fear of the unknown from gay marriage, and allowed Americans to see – for a decade now! – that affording gays civil equality has no deleterious effect on private or religious life. Quite the opposite.

With public opinion shifting so decisively, and with progress continuing steadily at the state level, it may be tempting to say that a supreme court decision risks short-circuiting this advancement – even though gay marriage turns out to be wholly unlike abortion rights in its support across demographic lines.  So said Rob Portman, the Republican senator from  Ohio, when he announced his somewhat soft support for gay equality this month. But as his much braver son, Will Portman,  argued this week in the Yale Daily News, marriage is not a private privilege, to be extended or denied at will.

It's much more than that: it's one of the "full rights of citizenship", and the right to wed "fits into a larger historical narrative" of public equality that stretches back to the 18th century. As Will Portman understands but his father does not, the fight for same-sex marriage is a fight for equality under the law – and that's what we all have to listen for at oral arguments this week and keep fighting for in the months ahead.

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