Nov 30, 2022 - Politics & Policy

America's sudden change of heart on same-sex marriage

Share of Americans who say the law should recognize same-sex marriages as valid
Data: Gallup;  Note: Poll was taken twice in 2013 and 2015, in May and July of both years.  Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

Compared to the decades and decades it took to dismantle Jim Crow laws or secure women's right to vote, America's about-face on same-sex marriage happened in the blink of an eye.

The big picture: Just 27% of Americans supported same-sex marriage in 1996, the year President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which denied federal recognition to same-sex marriages.

  • That's flipped on its head: 71% now tell Gallup that same-sex and opposite-sex marriages should have the same legal recognition.

Driving the news: The Senate voted 61-36 on Tuesday to codify the rights to same-sex marriage and interracial marriage into federal law. The House is expected to quickly follow.

  • Twelve Senate Republicans voted for the bill. All 36 no votes came from Republicans.

What they're saying: "This is a great example of politicians following public opinion rather than leading it," Sasha Issenberg, author of "The Engagement: America's Quarter-Century Struggle over Same-Sex Marriage," tells Axios.

  • "That has changed the partisan dynamics around the issue: in the 1990s and 2000s, Republicans liked pressing for votes on marriage-related questions — not just DOMA but state and federal constitutional bans — because they unified their own coalition and divided Democrats," he said.
  • "Now it’s Republicans who are torn between placating some of their loudest activists and taking a position that aligns with where general-election voters are."

Between the lines: Democrats decided to do this because there's a real concern that, as popular as same-sex marriage has become, it could be in jeopardy before the 6-3 Supreme Court.

  • The legal reasoning behind the court's decision to strike down the right to an abortion does seem to implicate other rights that the court has protected in the same way — including same-sex marriage.
  • The Supreme Court can overturn popular things, and it can strike down laws that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. But this kind of overwhelming consensus still matters.
  • The justices could only reconsider same-sex marriage if conservatives bring that fight to their doorstep. The number of conservatives who want to pick that fight is not zero, but it is small — and at least among the rank and file, it seems to be shrinking.
  • Even a majority of Republicans now say the law should recognize same-sex marriage, according to Gallup.

Yes, but: Many Republicans have targeted transgender people, especially youth, through a variety of restrictions, from preventing access to school sports to bans on gender-affirming care.

  • Issenberg said that's no coincidence. "Public opinion on trans questions is still broadly in conservatives’ favor, and state and federal laws largely unformed, allowing them to go on the offensive as protectors of the status quo," he said.

As more people know someone who is openly trans, opinion may shift again, just as it did with marriage, Issenberg said.

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