The Media Zone

How the media make sense and nonsense of the world.

The Battle for Same-Sex Marriage: It's Almost Over

The conversation has come out of the closet and gone national.

Gay and Lesbian marriages
Prediction: It is inevitable.  Same sex marriage will win all the rights and advantages of heterosexual marriage, Perhaps not in one fell swoop.  Maybe gradually, more gradually than many would like but definitely too rapidly for a dwindling plurality of oppositional others.
 

The Boston Marathon bombing exploded into a titanic diversion of this nation’s attention .  But the beat goes on:  You can still feel the momentum of inevitability propelling ever-expanding support of same sex marriage.  And not just civil unions.  Eleven states have passed laws supporting same-sex marriage: including, effectively, the entirety of New England. Civil union or domestic partnerships have been legalized in nine others.

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The U.S. Supreme court is still deliberating on a case challenging the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) which prohibits federal benefits for and recognition of same-sex marriages; and on a challenge to California’s Proposition 8, which put an end to legalized same-sex marriage in that state.

But as this mulling process grinds forward, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 53% of the population is now supportive of same sex marriage, According to the analysis, support and opposition broke largely along partisan lines. Some 73% of Democrats are supportive, 54% percent of independents are in support and 66 percent of Republicans are opposed. Even more extreme party disparities are found in Congress suggesting that collectively representatives are not being truly representative of the country on this issue.

Research shows support for same-sex marriage generally correlates with lack of religious fundamentalism, young age, higher education, and residence in the Northeast and West Coast.  Women are also more likely to be in support than men.  These are growing trends. Increasingly, evolving social demographics are bellweathers of near-future political power shifts. Attitudes are changing.  

Part of this “change” is connected to the intensifying national conversation about the legal rights of gays and lesbians, not just in marriage but in all the constitutionally vouchsafed nooks and crannies in the public domain. 

Viewed politically, the few Republicans who openly support gay marriage share something in common--paternity.  Republican Sen. Rob Portman is now supporting gay marriage and says his reversal on the issue began when he learned one of his sons is Gay.  Former Vice President Dick Cheney also supports gay marriage. Cheney's daughter is a Lesbian whose politics, like her father’s, are hard right.  Her sexual orientation is apparently less important to him than her political orientation.  Party lines did not trump blood lines.

That’s the transformative power of knowing people, not just knowing of people.  Interacting with social minorities on a regular basis often makes it hard to hold on to caricaturish stereotypes attached to their social groups.  It’s not surprising that Portman and Cheney revised their views on Gays and Gay marriage.  It was psychologically too difficult to openly support the stereotypes and to justify arguments in opposition to Gay marriage when to do so would be painting their own children with the same brush of character defamation.  Not impossible, just difficult; it's easier to jettison a stereotype than a child.

A further change sign in the politics of social issues is that a national group of prominent GOP donors is pouring new money into lobbying efforts to get Republican lawmakers to vote to make Gay and Lesbian marriages legal.  Toward this end they have diligently and fiscally worked Minnesota and Rhode Island GOP legislators to support Gay marriage.  Yes, these donors are fearful of the party’s future viability.  But they are also emboldened by the national conversation in the media and the recent changes in attitudes toward and discriminatory laws and policies against Gays and Lesbians in both government and the military and congress (to wit, at least 118 openly Gay and Lesbian candidates won their congressional and state races in the most recent elections).  Attitudes are changing.

The communications media are undeniable forces in this national conversation over changing attitudes, especially in the news and entertainment industries. The media introduce us to people on a TV program or in a film who we may only know through what we picked up via the social stereotypes delivered and reinforced by our social networks.  The song “You’ve got to be taught", sung by Lt. Cable in the musical South Pacific says most eloquently and acidly that we "acquire" our prejudices from our friends and families (take a listen).

Beyond the usual socializing institutions of schools, families, friends and religions, there are also television and film, our “edutainment” institutions.  They are deep, integral parts of a culture’s socialization process.  They inform much that we know, feel and think about social issues and people with whom we have little personal interaction.

Take for example, a recent survey conducted by Ipsos MediaCT.  Over 18% of television viewers aged 13-64 say that TV in general has changed their opinion of same-sex marriage in a positive way. By contrast, just 10% say TV impacted their opinion negatively. A little under half (44%) say they are in favor of same-sex marriage and TV has not changed their opinion, while 28% have not changed their opposition.

Of course there’s this lingering problem of the pull of semantic prurience.  One’s sexual orientation no more defines the entirety of a homosexual person’s life and relations with others than it does the entirety of a heterosexual’s.  Nevertheless, for many heterosexuals, the label homosexual screams most loudly what someone does sexually.  It floods the field.  Everything else they might do or care about dwells in the shadows and in a fog of prejudice, ignorance and uncertainty. Take the issue of same sex marriage adoption…

 Through the media and with enhanced familiarity from weekly series visits with social minority characters, TV programming offers a positively reinforcing repetition of fleshed-out, multi-dimensional images.  In turn, these visits eat away at negative, one-dimensional stereotypes often “inherited” by the viewer.  They are no longer the first images or beliefs called to mind when, off screen, the regular viewer sees or hears about a socially stigmatized group, like homosexuals.

 

That’s precisely what many modern TV series, beyond entertainment, are about.  They are attempting to expose viewers to broader views on living a Gay or Lesbian life.  TV shows like Will and Grace, Modern Family. L-Word, Glee, Smash, Brothers and Sisters, the coming out theme in Necessary Roughness (USA), or the NBC series The New Normal.  Its Gay leads get unofficially “married” and become the nominal “biological fathers” of a baby born to a surrogate mother.  Just like in Modern Family.  Trending.

 You might have noticed that most of these series are comedies.  This is a genre in both TV and film that has been found to enable viewers to watch different and more positive portrayals of stereotyped groups without feeling propagandized and rushing to throw up defenses to preserve stereotyped beliefs.  Dramas? Not so much—yet!  For the moment — whatever works.

 (The recent coming out of active and retired Gay and Lesbian athletes and TV news anchors on CNN and MSNBC doesn’t hurt either in changing stereotypes.  The beat goes everywhere.)

A final point: most research tells us the value for kids of homosexual parents is likely no better but assuredly no worse than for kids of heterosexual marriages.  In the end, it’s brains and hearts that are the vital organs in successful Gay or Lesbian marriages, not penises and vaginas—same as heterosexual marriages.

 

Stuart Fischoff, Ph.D., is Senior Editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, Los Angeles.

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