We all know the famous Norman Rockwell painting of a typical American family gathered around Grandma as she serves up a huge turkey. If Rockwell were painting today, his portrait of a Thanksgiving feast would have to include gay Uncle Kevin and perhaps a niece who’s brought her girlfriend home from college. (He might also sketch in the new Chinese daughter-in-law, but that’s another story.)
The American family is changing rapidly, and so are attitudes about same-sex marriage. In the last election, three states voted to approve the institution (Maryland, Maine and Washington), and one, Minnesota, rejected a move to ban it. The focus on Barack Obama’s re-election, and the attention paid to the critical Latino vote, obscured this historic milestone.
For the first time, after more than 30 failed tries, gay marriage was approved by statewide vote. (Until now, it took court decisions or legislative action to enact the laws.) That means same-sex unions are now legal in nine states and the District of Columbia, and advocates are planning a half-dozen more campaigns in the next few years.
In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 51 percent supported marriage equality, up sharply from 32 percent just eight years ago. And the trend line is clear. Among young adults, more than six in 10 favor the right of same-sex couples to wed legally.
“The pace of the change in opinions has picked up over the last few years,” pollster Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center told The New York Times, “and as the younger generation becomes a larger share of the electorate, the writing is on the wall.”
The main motive behind this shift is not ideology but experience. More and more Americans have gay friends and neighbors, classmates and colleagues. And more are sharing their holiday tables with gay relatives. Now add the U.S. Senate, where Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin will become the first openly gay member in January. A new congressman from upstate New York, Sean Patrick Maloney, has three children with his male partner of more than 20 years.
Like many Americans, we see this change in our own lives. We gave a party last summer for our old friend Rep. Barney Frank, who deliberately married his partner, Jim Ready, before he retires from Congress next month. Barney wanted to make sure his fellow lawmakers knew a gay married couple.
Cokie recently visited with four of her closest college friends; two have gay children and one a gay sister. A former student of Steve’s saved for years so he and his partner could afford a surrogate mother, and they are now parenting twin sons. We voted enthusiastically for gay marriage in Maryland, partly because another former student lives in a neighboring suburb with her partner and child, and they yearned for the stability and security of a legal union.
GOP strategists have many post-election worries, but here’s one of the most significant: Six in 10 young voters backed Obama. Yes, they might lose some of their liberal instincts as they start families, buy houses and pay taxes. But it’s also true that once voters cast ballots for the same party several elections in a row, they acquire a certain loyalty to that party. The New Deal coalition that backed FDR held together for more than 30 years; the majority forged by Ronald Reagan won five of seven elections from 1980 through 2004.
Gay marriage is only one issue that helped generate Obama’s strong margins among young voters, but it’s an important part of a larger idea. These voters are more tolerant than their elders on many social matters, from abortion and contraception to marijuana. And they are more likely to reject the domineering moralism emanating from the conservative Christian activists who control Republican policy.
Republicans who actually want to win elections — and not just preach sermons — understand this problem. Steve Schmidt, a senior adviser on Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, says the GOP would be signing a “suicide pact” if it continued to oppose gay marriage.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was right on when he analyzed his party’s defeat in Politico: “If I hear anybody say it was because Romney wasn’t conservative enough, I’m going to go nuts. We’re not losing 95 percent of African-Americans and two-thirds of Hispanics and voters under 30 because we’re not being hard-ass enough.”
So give thanks this holiday season for the new American family, including your gay uncle. And that lovely Chinese daughter-in-law.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at email@example.com.