What Has Made Gay Rights Move So Fast? Familiarity.


Anyone who's been paying attention understands how rapidly the LGBT rights movement has progressed over the past decade or so.

As the Los Angeles Times reports, Gallup last week reported that "half or more [of the nation] now agree that being gay is morally acceptable, that gay relations ought to be legal and that gay or lesbian couples should have the right to legally marry," while in 1996, 68% of Americans said they disagreed with marriage equality.

Though many activists are wary of comparing the African-American civil rights movement and gay rights, and he admits the comparison is skewed, journalist Mark Z. Barabak notes that equality movement has found success in a much shorter amount of time.

Gay affluence and its political benefits may have something to do with it, sure, but the movement is perhaps most positively impacted by familiarity.

…Experts and advocates agree on one explanation above all others: Familiarity.

"People came to understand we existed," [legendary activist Cleve] Jones said. "They worked with us. They knew us. They had [gay] family members. That demystified it and made it harder for them to hate us in an abstract way."

That was an avenue obviously unavailable to African Americans. "It isn't as if white people suddenly come to discover they have African American children or relatives," said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor at Hunter College in New York and a longtime gay activist.

Gays and lesbians "are born into straight families and live in straight neighborhoods and go to straight schools and work in straight businesses," Sherrill said. "There's a kind of familiarity that's exceedingly difficult to achieve in the case of race."

And, yes, popular culture has played a role. Vice President Joe Biden did, after all, mention Will & Grace when endorsing marriage on Meet the Press.


  1. Disgusted American says

    well just a point – but when “Inter-Racial” marriage RIGHTS were passed by SCOTUS over 70% of America was AGAINST it……..
    ..and I worry about WHEN We’ll have EQUAL RIGHTS Nationwide – since Ted Olson mentioned/hinted too last week – that IF Marriage were to be decided state by state – it would probabaly take 40-50yrs before Gays & lesbians could get married Nationwide…? I was Like WTF????

  2. says

    Yes it’s “the fimiliarity.” But that wasn’t as easily won as the article suggests. Back at Stonewall, and the beginning of the modern gay rights movement being ‘out and proud” was rare. Only marginal LGBT people on the social fringes were “out” because they had no other way to live. Climbing the social scale closet doors were far more frequent and locked shut. When Ifirst ment Edmund White he was still in the closet. And so were zillions of others. Our greats power was the power of breing “out and proud,” but it took awhile discovering that.

    And we didn’t discover that because of “Will & Grace.”

  3. says

    It has been said that “familiarity breeds contempt” but it often also brings a sense of comfort. Study after study has proven that those who actually know gay people are more likely to be our allies. That’s why as many of us as possible must come out.

  4. UFFDA says

    DAVID EH – you always post well and thoughtfully and of course Will and Grace can be over-credited, but by god what a show that was and it did, I believe, make a big difference. Hilarious and hugely hip it truly compelled people to both pay attention and enjoy themselves, the only sit-com I have ever regularly watched in my life.

  5. BZ says

    Couple of problems with this article.

    First, we aren’t there yet, in case anyone was wondering about that point. My personal best guess is that we’ve got another 10 years to go before marriage equality is a reality across the US, plus or minus 7.

    Second, the article engages in laundry list thinking. You can pin social change like this down to just a few factors.

    Third, gay people have been coming out for years; but word-of-mouth used to be a slow process, dependent on opportunities for the right kind of face-to-face interactions. What has significantly sped familiarity is the internet, of course – which this article doesn’t even mention. When the history of our movement is written, TV and shows like Will and Grace will have their place; so did shows like Julia and I Spy back in the 1960s. Who remembers them now, apart from historians? Gay people are a powerful presence on the internet, and always have been. There are a lot of gay computer nerds around and we were among the first to utilize the Usenet, a forerunner to the web; the soc.motss group (members of the same sex) dates back to 1981 or so.

    Fourth, unlike many other civil rights movements, the gay rights movement is global. Same-sex marriage was first legalized in the Netherlands, and it got a big boost in the US when Canada legalized it. That is the point the religious right in this country can’t seem to grasp, that there’s no way to turn us back because we are making progress everywhere. Advances in one industralized country help spur advances in others – but unfortunately those very advances are also triggering more fear and backlash in some developing countries.

  6. Pete N SFO says

    The heroes of the Civil Rights movement can take credit for making concepts like, “Separate is not Equal” an everyday concept, grasped by everyone; not simply educated folks or legal scholars. It’s a fundamental core belief of our larger society in the US (regardless of how well we implement it).

    Because of that fact, people can short-hand the bullshiz surrounding denial of rights to gay people.

    It is amazingly fast, or simultaneously too slow. We’ve all known for decades & yet look how long it’s still taking.

  7. Jay says

    For those of us who have been fighting for gay rights for a long time, this has not come quickly. In fact, it is nonsense for much of the country. Try to hold your partner’s hand in Mississippi or Alabama or Oklahoma. At the rate we are going, barring a sweeping Supreme Court ruling, which does not seem likely, it will be another 30 years before same-sex marriage is legal in every state. If Romney is elected, he will certainly roll back many of the legal gains we have achieved. For me, this progress have been TOO DAMN SLOW.

  8. Tim NC says

    The source article states that in 1958 94% of the country disapproved of inter-racial marriage. But, still just 9 years later, in 1967 the Supreme Court made inter-racial marriage legal throughout the entire country.

    The source article goes on to state that in 1996 64% of the country disapproved of same-sex marriage.

    So, if the LGBT community were progressing even just at the same speed the Supreme Court would have ruled for marriage equality in 2005, 7 years ago.

    We may be moving faster in public opinion polls, but we are moving markedly slower legally.

    The courts didn’t wait for public opinion in order to rule correctly on inter-racial marriage. And, when civil rights laws were enacted based on race, gender, religion etc they were not popular among the people.

    It’s the speed of the laws and the actual RIGHTS that matters more than the speed of public opinion. It doesn’t really matter if people are now comfortable with us if they continue to refuse to give us the rights we were born with.

  9. says

    It’s been TOO DAMN SLOW in any number of ways. And certainly LGBTs who din’t live in the major cities have tons more to contend with. But the rate of change has still been striking. Back in the day same-sex marriage was rarely if ever discussed — and then only as a pipe dream. Now its talked of as central to full equality. Never thought I’d live to see THAT. Back in the day all we wanted was right NOT to be arrested for “Breathing While Gay.”

  10. BABH says

    Elephant in the room: the AIDS crisis. The deaths of 300,000 gay men were a powerful reason for:

    (1) increased visibility in the culture. Millions of Americans found out the hard way that they had a gay relative. Hundreds of thousands more LGBT folks learned the power of coming out.

    And (2) increased political activity from the LGBT community. We learned that the powers-that-be didn’t care whether we lived or died, and that we had to *make* them care.

  11. FunMe says

    Today it’s no longer a problem for a straights, women and MEN, to be at a gay bar.

    It will be even more progress when gays and lesbians can get at a straight club, kiss, and no one have a problem with it.

  12. FunMe says

    One more thing, once ENDA (Employment Non Discrimination Act) that will be a milestone, and prove that we really have progressed.

    ENDA is so badly needed, and in my opinion, more important than getting rid of DOMA and DADT, as ENDA will benefit the majority of GLBT Americans.

  13. John Seaton says

    I agree w/ UFFDA. We are a cool group. Towleroad is excellent new source. Thank you Andy.
    ENDA (Employment Non Discrimination Act) does need to pass ,and yes it will prove that we really have progressed.

  14. Derek Washington says

    I get so mad when I here that our movement is not the same as the Civil Rights movement.

    Yes. It. Is.

    I am Black and I will damn well stand up to anyone who says we don’t have the right to use the imagery and lessons of the Civil Rights movement. When we planned the National Equality March I strongly suggested we use, “We Shall Overcome” as our anthem. The White majority of our organizers were petrified to use it fearing a backlash. I completely understood where they were coming from but to this day I think we should have and should still use it.

    I am so proud of Civil Rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis and think we really should start sharing their stories (and WAY more of Women in the movement like Ann Northrup) instead of constantly talking about Harvey (I am NOT denigrating his role, what a hero!)and Stonewall over and over again. I think we’ll get more people involved from communities of color if they see people like them in the movement.

    We SHALL Overcome!
    Derek Washington
    Chairman Stonewall Democrats of Southern Nevada & President Nevada State Stonewall Democrats

  15. Charlie says

    The NAACP was founded in 1909, so there were people fighting for civil rights for many years before what most people thing of the civil rights era. The first gay rights group formed in 1951, so people were fighting for equal rights for half a century before marriage became the topic.

    Both issues have had to fight against having laws in their favor overturned by referenda. There are similarities between the two issues, as well as differences. LGBT and African Americans have had to struggle against discrimination in employment, public accommodation and housing as well as military service. But African American churches and their families have been a bedrock of the community. Gay people are shunned by Christian churches and have frequently been disowned by their families. (Studies show that even today, when people think we are so modern and accepting, 28% of teenagers who come out are cut from their families, for at least a period.) It really is bogus to compare the two struggles.

  16. BZ says

    I agree with Charlie. When comparing any two things, there are always going to be similarities and differences, depending on whether you are looking for similarities or differences. Sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss said that human thought was constrained along an axis: to look for broad patterns (similarities) or to look for detailed information (differences). Take your pick, it’s very difficult to tread the middle path (true complexity and nuance.)

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