If you want to know what the future holds, talk to young people. On social issues, young American adults today are far more liberal than their parents (1). The majority support gay marriage (50 percent in favor versus 36 percent against with the remainder undecided,1) and cannot understand why their elders are so hung up on the issue on religious grounds.
In future generations, barring a seismic shift in opinions, it seems inevitable that opposition to gay marriage will age and die out whereas support will mature into a substantial national majority.
From the point of view of establishing a democratic majority that favors gay marriage, the future seems to be a foregone conclusion. So what has happened in this country that has pushed young Americans to the opposite side of the gay marriage see-saw from their parents?
Why young people support gay marriage
There is no single reason why young adults are overwhelmingly in favor of extending full marriage rights to homosexuals but there are many plausible possibilities.
To begin with, anyone who was born in a world of greater racial equality has been educated to view racial discrimination as immoral. This “affirmative action” perspective is transferable to other categories of people who can be harmed by discrimination. Of course, the gay-lesbian-bisexual-trans-gendered lobby has been active in promoting this message, particularly on college campuses.
There is widespread appreciation that a homosexual orientation is not a choice. Indeed, homosexuality is now understood to be biologically predisposed in much the same way that heterosexuality is.
Although scientists continue to work out the details, it is now hard to doubt that homosexuality is predisposed by genes, or prenatal hormonal influences, so that many homosexuals have gender atypical interests in early childhood (2). Of course, the prevalence of homosexual behavior in many different species of birds and mammals points in the same direction (3).
Having been exposed to such scientific information from an early age, young people are generally not persuaded that homosexual conduct is simply a lifestyle choice analogous to choosing volleyball over football. (Why anyone would ever opt for being a member of a discriminated-against minority has always stretched credulity on this issue).
Perhaps we should not forget that sexual behavior has changed greatly over the decades. Almost no one today marries their high school sweetheart and stays married to the same person for life. So the conventional heterosexual ideal that religious conservatives promote as the way to live is more honored in the breach than in the observance.
Bluntly phrased, religious conservatives promote a form of marriage that has not been typical of the majority for decades. Indeed, sexual relationships have become so fluid that marriage is becoming more and more irrelevant whether it is gay or straight.
Most young people no longer require a religious union to sanction their sexual behavior. That is not just because they are more liberal in sexual matters. It is also because they are becoming distinctly more secular (4). So the arguments of gay marriage opponents are falling on deaf young ears.
1. Pew Research Center (2010). Millennials: A portrait of generation next. Confident, connected. Open to change. Accessed at: www.pewresearch.org/millennials on 12/8/2011.
2. LeVay, S. (2010). Gay, straight, and the reason why. New York: Oxford University Press.
4. Barber, N. (2012). Why atheism will replace religion: The triumph of earthly pleasures over pie in the sky. E-book, available at: http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Will-Replace-Religion-ebook/dp/B00886ZSJ6/