In 1994, 66 percent of Americans told Time/CNN pollsters that they did not have a close friend or family member who was gay.
Little did they know.
At the time, the closet was still a pretty crowded place. President Bill Clinton had just signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, instructing the Pentagon not to pursue gay military members as long as they kept their sexual orientation secret. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres was still three years from her “big reveal” on prime-time TV, and people in less-accepting communities and industries had far more to fear than she did. Matthew Shepard was still four years away from dying a brutal beating death in Wyoming, martyred for the sin of being gay. And just 10 years earlier, Rock Hudson had been dragged, sick and dying, from the closet by AIDS.
(For all of its horrors, and strange as it may sound, the AIDS epidemic played a crucial role in forcing society to acknowledge at least the existence of the gay community, and in encouraging many gay Americans to tell the truth about themselves. In hindsight, that proved to be an important silver lining to a very dark cloud.)
Today, in a new Time/CNN poll, only 42 percent of Americans told pollsters that they do not have a close friend or relative who is gay, a 24-point decline in less than 20 years. That number too is much too high. In another decade, that number will probably drop by half again … that is, if pollsters still find the question relevant to ask.
The closet is a terrible place in which to try to live a life, and those who have been brave enough to break that confinement — Martina Navratilova was one of the earliest and bravest — have done the rest of us a great favor. They have forced society as a whole to confront not just the existence of gay brothers and sisters and parents and children and friends and co-workers, but their fundamental normality as well.
What was hidden could be and was assumed to be monstrous. It turns out that what is open and commonplace becomes more difficult to fear.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments regarding the right of gay Americans to have equal access to the institution of marriage, which in historical terms is a remarkable event. In a TV appearance last weekend, Karl Rove said he could envision a GOP presidential nominee as soon as 2016 who would be supportive of gay marriage. While that strikes me as quite unlikely, it is even more unlikely that gay marriage will ever again be a hotly divisive political issue at the national level.
According to the latest Pew poll, 48 percent of Americans support gay marriage, while 43 percent still oppose it. Opposition is strongest (33 percent supportive; 55 percent opposed) among those 65 and older; among Republicans (25-67 percent); among black Americans (40-48 percent); and here in the South (39-51 percent).
That last number is telling. Less than 10 years ago, an overwhelming 76 percent of Georgia voters approved a constitutional ban on gay marriage that Republicans had placed on the ballot as a means of energizing conservative voters. Today that measure would still pass, I suspect, but by a much smaller number, and it would probably not be put on the ballot in the first place.
In fact, within a generation if not sooner, that language will be stripped from Georgia law as an embarrassment, much as states have stripped their legal codes of the inoperable remnants of Jim Crow. And while a few will condemn that move as another step toward perdition, most others will recognize it as a welcome acknowledgement that those days are over.
The closet door is being lifted from its hinges forever.
– Jay Bookman