Arguing with numbers

Things change. (Click to embiggen)

Just a couple of weeks ago, a spokesperson for another one of the anti-gay hate groups out there (I don’t remember whether it was the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or National Organization for Marriage, or American Family Association, or Coalition of Conscience, or Focus on the Family, or Public Advocate of the United States, or Abiding Truth Ministries… I just can’t keep up with them all!) was on someone’s program repeating the claim that the vast majority of Americans oppose Marriage Equality. Just as only a few months ago a different guy was on another program insisting that “every time this question has been put to the voters, they have rejected it!” Both of them are apparently in deep denial of the fact that polls in the middle of last year showed that now a clear majority of Americans support extended full legal marriage to same sex couples, and more than two-thirds approve of civil unions or marriage. And they seem to be in deep denial of the four states that did not reject marriage equality when put to a vote of the people in 2012.

Now, only three of those four states approved ballot measures enacting marriage equality, while the fourth state rejected a constitutional ban on such marriage by a good margin. But a healthy majority of votes refusing to ban same sex marriage certainly falls into the category of “not rejecting” marriage equality.

So why do they keep arguing…?

The cynic in me points to the fact that all of those groups I mentioned above are registered as some form of nonprofit, and all of them are constantly sending out money beg emails in which they rant in ever more apocalyptic language about the evils of homosexuality and how us fags are going to destroy civilization. All of those spokespeople make their living from these very organizations, and they have a clear, vested interest in ignoring poll numbers. They will lose their meal ticket if they ever admit that history is clearly going the other way.

There are several of those spokespeople who I believe are sincere. They are not doing this just out of cynicism. I think they really believe that the very existence of a legal marriage certificate with my name and my husband’s name on it poses some threat to their own survival. They live in mortal terror of the death, destruction, and hellfire that will surely be visited upon this world if gay couples and their children (adopted or otherwise) are accepted in society as “real families.” No amount of polling data is going to sway them. No election outcomes will silence them. They are True Believers and will fight this to their dying breath.

The way the numbers seem to be going, in another ten or twenty years they’re going to be like the white supremacist who is trying to buy up an entire town in North Dakota to turn it into a racial haven, or the other group trying to buy up a town in New Mexico, or the various nutjobs arguing that women should no longer be allowed to vote. Sad crazy people living on the fringes of society and longing for a very mythologized version of the past, where people like themselves felt more comfortable because people unlike them all knew to stay in their place.

Just to give one slice of what those numbers are doing: in 2004, when the state of Utah adopted its constitutional ban on same sex marriage, only about 25% of Utah’s citizens supported marriage equality. In 2012 that number had climbed very slowly to 36%. Polls throughout 2013 showed the number had inched up to 38 or possibly 39 percent. But now, polls show that the number has surged to 48%.

There are lots of things that can explain those numbers. The slow shift between 2004 and 2008 matched the average rate that statisticians have noted support moving nationwide for the first ten years that any national polls were asking the question. That slow rate of change can mostly be explained by simple demographics: older people tended to be the most strongly opposed to gay rights, while younger people are more likely to support gay rights (or be shocked to realize it’s a question at all). As older people die, and younger people achieve voting age, the numbers change.

But polls targeted at specific states have often showed these dramatic mini-surges in a short period of time when that state or a neighboring state approves marriage equality (and it seems to happen no matter how marriage equality is enacted) and that can’t be explained by demographics. There are lots of possible reasons for the jump. I think one of the simplest explanations is the human tendency to cling to the familiar, and not to question too closely our own assumptions. In other words, a certain fraction of people oppose same sex marriage because “that’s how it’s always been.” And it’s only when the question stops being an abstract issue, and they find themselves discussing it with neighbors and friends, that they actually think about what legal marriage is, how it differs from any church definition, and under what circumstances should the law treat people differently.

The fact that such surges can happen actually gives hope to the haters. If opinion in Utah can go from 38% approval to 48% in just a few months, then why can’t the numbers go the other direction just as quickly?

In one sense they are correct: there is no law of physics that says people can’t change their minds again. But I think the long-term trend of history is pretty clear. Just as you’re not going to get a majority of people to approve taking away a woman’s right to vote, and you’re not going to get a majority of people to approve the reinstatement of slavery. The genie is out of the bottle. People are finally starting to see that gay and lesbian parents have been raising children for decades without society collapsing. People are living next door to, working alongside, and attending PTA meetings with openly gay and lesbian people and no one is being forced to learn show tunes or cross dress.

And more importantly, kids are growing up in those neighborhoods and are attending school with other kids who have two dads or two moms. For them, this is the new “that’s how it’s always been.”


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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I used to publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live near Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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