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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

WASHINGTON — The rapid evolution of attitudes toward gay marriage is a wonder to behold. On few issues has public opinion moved as quickly or decisively. Many who are against the formal recognition of homosexual unions are now resigned to the reality they will eventually become commonplace.

The main drivers of this transformation are obvious. Most Americans now know that people they care about are gay or lesbian, and empathy can do wonderful things. Partly because of this, younger Americans overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage. They will dominate the electorates of the future.

But another factor deserves more notice: Steadily increasing numbers of Americans have come to believe that gays and lesbians are not social revolutionaries looking to alter the nature of marriage. Rather, they are seen as simply wanting to be part of an institution that is already open to their straight fellow citizens. This shift in perspective has been essential in normalizing the idea of gay unions.

That finding comes our way courtesy of a series of surveys that have been conducted by Third Way, a policy organization close to moderate Democrats, and the Human Rights Campaign, one of the country’s leading gay rights groups. Overall, their latest poll found that 53 percent of Americans now favor “allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally,” while 40 percent are opposed.

The two organizations have been tracking this question: “Do you think gay couples who want to get married are trying to change the institution of marriage or join it?” In 2009, Americans were closely divided on this: 50 percent said gay couples wanted to join marriage, while 41 percent said these couples wanted to change it.

In the latest survey that the groups will release this week as part of their aptly named “Commitment Campaign,” 58 percent said gays and lesbians wanted to join marriage and only 27 percent said they were looking to change it. This suggests that an increasing number of Americans reject the culture-war frame when it comes to gay marriage, and that fewer and fewer see it as threatening their own values.

The survey was also striking in showing that Americans make careful distinctions around the religious freedom questions raised by granting gays and lesbians access to marriage.