Gay Marriage and the Generational Divide

Currently, twenty states allow gay marriage. This represents 123 million people, or 39.2% of the United States population. When states are added in which recognize civil unions, the percentage increases to a little over 44%. With the exception of Utah whose current status is in limbo all the states can be firmly placed in the blue state category. A very important point must be made here. In eight of the 22 states, gay marriage was not accepted by the people or elected representatives. Instead, gay marriage was forced upon those states by judicial decisions. In Connecticut, the state legislature there later codified the court decision and approved gay marriage. In fact, in the most populous state- California- voters actually rejected gay marriage through Proposition 8 whose results were later negated by the courts yet again.

Actual voting by people on the issue seems to somewhat contradict public opinion polling regarding the acceptance of gay marriage. It is certainly true that the number of states approving gay marriage has increased dramatically in the last three years- some of them through the courts and some of them through legislative/voter approval. Polling by both Gallup and ABC News now states that for the first time in history, a majority of Americans approve of gay marriage. It, however, remains a contentious issue among voters, in legislatures, and in the courts.

Gallup has been tracking this issue since 1996. In 1996, they found that only 25% of respondents approved of same sex marriage and 17 short years later the approval figure stands at 53%. Like most other polls, they find that Republicans and conservatives are the least approving of gay marriage while age also is a factor. That is, the older one is the less likely one is approving of it. And all the polls indicate that among demographic groups, blacks are the least approving.

Most importantly as concerns this article is how the different age groups approve of gay marriage. In 1996, 41% of those age 18-29 approved of gay marriage. By 2010, that figure had risen to 52% followed by a 70% approval rate in 2013. So, in 14 years approval in this age group increased 11 points yet in the next three years approval increased 18 points. What caused this huge increase in approval in such a short period of time? In the 30-49 age group, approval was 30% in 1996 and rose to 53% in 2010 and flat lined from there and stands at 53%. In the 50-64 age group, it went from 15% in 1996 to 40% in 2010 and then a minimal gain to 46% in 2013. Finally, in the over 65 age group, the figures go from 14% in 1996 to 28% in 2010 to 43% in 2013. Thus one can conclude that the surge in the approval in 17 years is primarily due to the 18-29 age group while the other groups have shown an increase albeit at a more gradual rate.

Nothing against the 18-29 age group, but they do tend to be least politically informed, the most susceptible to liberal messaging and the most reactionary to trends and mass communication. Gallup did not publish by age group whether respondents thought gay marriage would improve, hurt, or make no difference to society. But, in general terms there is an interesting trend. From 2004 to 2013, the percentage who said gay marriage would make society better rose from 10% to only 19%. Those responding that it would make society worse declined from 48% to 40%. Finally, those who said it makes no difference decreased from 40% to 39%. Thus, respondents believe that gay marriage will make society worse or make no difference among 79% of Americans. Conversely, we can say that 59% of Americans believe gay marriage will make society better or have no effect. This “no effect” group is the key “thought” group when it comes to the debate.

Framing that debate over gay marriage by trying to illustrate that gay marriage is wrong for society in general will likely not sway that debate. Instead, another tactic needs to be used that appeals to the legislative/voter choice versus judicial fiat in enforcing gay marriage upon states. Some conservative commentators like Charles Krauthammer believe that gay marriage is a generational choice thing and that as the older people drop out of the electorate, gay marriage will be more approved even in very conservative states. But, there is something more at work than older people being replaced by younger people in the electorate. In Maine in 2009, 52.7% of voters voted against gay marriage in that state. Three very short years later in 2012, 51.5% of Maine voters approved of gay marriage. The change over three short years cannot be explained as a generational shift in attitudes. Obviously, the messaging and propaganda of the LGBT community in Maine was better and more concerted than the anti-gay marriage opponents.

Instead, it is best to view marriage in general as a licensing issue and just like any other license issued by a state. Obviously, the presence of a license confers some advantages on the holder and some responsibilities. But, a marriage license is a license nevertheless and licensing has traditionally always been left to the individual states. Therefore, that is where the debate rightfully remains. My educated guess is that if the federal courts- indeed all courts- stayed out of the fray, there would be less states under a mandate to allow gay marriages. For example, as recently as 2006, over 57% of Virginia voters disapproved of gay marriage yet today because of a new state attorney general that state has refused to defend the will of their voters in the courts. Worse yet, New Mexico has gay marriage and their citizens- either directly or through their elected representatives- did not even get a say in the matter. As recently as 2004, Utah voters overwhelmingly voted against gay marriage, yet a court thrust it upon the state.

Framing the debate as a state’s rights issue rather than a moral issue (even though it may be) is the better tactic. The federal government can recognize gay marriages performed in states that permit it and even if gay couples move to states that do not permit it for tax and other purposes. Instead of supporting DOMA in the courts, for example, I always advocated for updating and amending DOMA for those purposes. Of course, there is some “discrimination” from state to state, but there are also numerous cases of “discrimination” across state lines when it comes to any license. For example, an attorney in New Jersey cannot just show up in court in Pennsylvania if they are not licensed in Pennsylvania. The same is true of physicians, dentists, beauticians, and barbers.

There may very well come a day when gay marriage will be the de facto law of the land with a handful of state hold outs. But, to assert that this is necessarily a generational thing over-simplifies the debate. The younger generations get their morals, values and political beliefs from the older generations. Sometimes, things do change, especially if the views of the older generations change. But, please do not insult anyone’s intelligence by asserting that residents of Utah- young, old and everything in between- are suddenly approving of gay marriage. At the very least, since gay marriage is a reality in other states, one can study its societal effects and let the evidence and chips fall where they may pro or con. In the interim, there will be extreme statements on both sides. By adhering to the state’s rights views, those against gay marriage can minimize those comments and views. Perhaps,my personal view is a little Utopian, but it is certainly better than un-elected judges imposing gay marriage upon the population. And if it is a generational thing, then no one is any worse the wear for it. Failing once, nothing prevents the gay marriage proponents from trying again in the future as Maine proved.