Marriage Equality: As Go Millennials, So Goes the Nation


Inevitable. Since President Obama announced his personal support for marriage equality last month, reporters and pundits alike have said same-sex marriage is “inevitable.” That it is only a matter of time before gay and lesbian couples will be allowed to legally marry across the United States. And, now just last week a federal appeals court has ruled the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional because it denies equal rights for legally-married same-sex couples. With the personal backing of Vice President Biden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, President Obama, the NAACP, Latino singer Ricki Martin, and even hip hop mogul Jay-Z  it might just be the case that marriage equality is inevitable.

Of course, not everyone agrees with the President’s position. Opponents of same-sex marriage are numerous and vocal, the Defense of Marriage Act is currently still on the books, and 31 states have a constitutional ban preventing same-sex marriage.

So why does marriage equality now look inevitable? The answer may be found with the swiftly growing cultural acceptance of gay and lesbian rights and demographic changes that elevate the potential political power of Millennials.

The change in public attitudes on marriage equality has been rapid. In just eight years, the national polling shows a shift of 16 percentage points in favor of marriage equality1. And, only 16 years after President Clinton signed into law a bill defining marriage as the union between a man and woman, we have President Obama coming out in support of same-sex marriage and a federal appeals court ruling the law unconstitutional. The movement on marriage equality is an example of how quickly change can now occur in our society when propelled by a generation that is technologically savvy and willing to challenge pre-conceived norms of older generations.

Millennials represent an ever increasing share of the electorate. Young people born between 1980 and 1991 comprise 64 million potential voters in 20122.  And they support marriage equality. If you look at any recent poll, the divide between those who support gay rights and specifically marriage equality, and those who oppose it, can be measured in years:  if you’re under 29 you are more likely than any other generation to support the rights of gay and lesbians and to support marriage equality– and politicians and other leaders have clearly taken notice. In recent months, support for marriage equality reached a new high with 74 percent of Millennials supporting legal recognition of marriage between gay and lesbian couples3.  

Despite the popular misconception of rampant homophobia within communities of color, support for gay rights is also strong among young adults of color. Over two-thirds (67 percent) of Millennials of color support some form of legal recognition of gay couples — either legal marriage (48 percent) or civil unions (19 percent). The numbers are similar to those of young adults across the country. In fact, only three in ten youth of color (29 percent) say there should be no legal recognition.  To break these numbers down further, 58% of African-American, 70 percent of Latino, and 76 percent of Asian Pacific-Islander youth agree that same-sex couples should receive legal recognition4.

While previous generations paved the way for change, Millennials are the first generation to see consistently positive images of gay men and women in the media, the first to grow up with Gay/Straight Alliances in their schools, and the first to routinely know families with two mothers or two fathers. They are also the first generation to be completely at ease with social media, using it not just as a means to exchange information but as a pathway for shifting norms, attitudes and beliefs among their peers.

Millennials grew up with gay characters featured prominently in the popular television shows they watched, and not just as guest appearances or in stereotypical roles, but in lead roles. Gay characters – particularly portrayals of gay teens – humanized gay and lesbian stories and became an important part of the collective adolescent psyche.

Millennials are digital natives – they have lived their whole lives with the Internet, social networks, and texting and most are completely fluent with these technologies. Three-quarters have created a social networking profile, eight in ten report texting in the last 24 hours, and a majority (54 percent) believes new technology brings them closer to friends and family5

Today, over six in ten Millennials say that they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian,6 and personally they are more comfortable discussing their own sexual orientation than any prior generation. Social media has fueled this openness. With the ability to state your sexual orientation or relationship status as part of your most basic identifying information, Facebook has transformed the ability for gay and lesbian Millennials to live openly, and for their peers be more aware of the LGBT people in their lives.  

Millennials are not going to sit idle as friends, colleagues, and family members are denied their rights. They are already leading the charge on this issue, redefining conventional wisdom on marriage. Policy makers will continue to be seen as more and more out of touch if they refuse to follow suit. Possibly President Obama knew this to be true when he declared his personal support last month. In fact, one day, we may well divide the debate on same sex marriage by  before  and after Obama’s announcement. If, broadly speaking, marriage equality is now inevitable; Millennials will be the generation to make that future a reality.


Footnotes:

1. Pew Research Center Publications. “More Support for Gun Rights, Gay Marriage than in 2008 or 2004.” April 2012. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2251/social-issues-gun-rights-gay-marriage-abortion-presidential-campaign.

2. Center for American Progress Action Fund. Democratic Change and the Future of the Parties. 2010.

3. Public Religion Research Institute. March PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey. March 2012.

4. Belden Russonello Strategies. May 2012.

5. Pew Research Center. The Millennials: Confident, Connected, and Open to Change. 2010.

6. Public Religion Research Institute. Survey – Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars. 2011.

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