One of the more fascinating aspects of the gay rights revolution over the last decade is that Americans appear to be shifting their positions with astonishing speed.
In the last few weeks, conservative Republican Senator Rob Portman endorsed same-sex marriage, and traditional values standard bearer Paul Ryan withdrew his opposition to adoption rights for gay couples.
Polls show that citizens are making the same flip, transitioning from fierce opposition and disgust to grudging acceptance to a kind of ho-hum Who cares? at a pace that makes you blink.
One factor driving this trend is the simple reality that more gays and lesbians are visible, not only on TV and in movies, but in our every-day lives.
America is still a hugely segregated country. It’s possible to live much of your life without having much to do with people of different races or ethnicities.
But getting through life these days without having a gay kid, or a lesbian niece or a co-worker in a committed same-sex relationship? That’s pretty tough even in rural “red” states.
In an interview with reporters in Ohio, Rob Portman described the phenomenon of learning about his son’s homosexuality this way.
“It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have — to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years.”
It turns out familiarity has long been a factor in erasing, or at least easing, the contempt that some people feel toward homosexuals.
In the 1400s, the big debate in the Republic of Venice was not whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.
It was whether they should be burned alive or executed first and then burned later, the latter being considered a far more merciful and Christian punishment.
The trouble was that too many people in the city were gay, or knew gays, so by 1509 there were draconian laws on the books but they were rarely being enforced. Here’s how one critic of homosexuality described the problem.
“The persons responsible for their [homosexuals'] execution were themselves involved in these offenses and had no heart to carry out the punishment, for they feared that the same penalty might fall upon themselves or their own children. or these reasons, the thing was suppressed and the fire which these criminals deserved was quenched and doused with water.”
Quotes like this are worth keeping in mind when people question why gays are so vocal or visible. Why do they campaign for their rights so aggressively and noisily? Why not keep their sexuality to themselves?
Because the alternative is to be isolated, to be the easy target for derision, prejudice and (yes) bigoted violence. It’s harder to hate gays when they’re our kids, or our parents or our coworkers.
The power of ending silence should be obvious by now. This week, pro-basketball player Jason Collins “came out” — the first male professional athlete in a team sport to do so.
To be clear, the longstanding code of secrecy on the part of gays in his industry didn’t put people at risk of execution. But it clearly contributed to a climate of fear and deception and oppression.
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, I’m different,” Collins told Sports Illustrated. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Some critics have questioned whether Collins’ move was heroic, or courageous. Fair enough. What seems clear though is that this kind of honesty and openness changes minds and changes hearts. It’s changing our society.