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The Gathering Storm Over Gay Rights

This is a moment of woe and wonder for supporters of gay rights. The Episcopalians elected their first openly gay bishop, braving a last-minute sex scandal and the threat of schism. The Massachusetts Supreme Court is about to rule on legalizing gay unions. The first LGBT high school is set to open in New York City. And Jay Leno got a makeover from the boys of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

But there are also signs of a serious backlash. On Wednesday, the president vowed to codify "one way or the other" the "sanctity of marriage" between a man and a woman. On Thursday, the Vatican launched a crusade against same-sex unions, equating gay parenting with doing violence to children. On Friday, a group of Latino ministers led by Ruben Diaz, the city's most homophobic politician, pledged to cut off public funding for the Harvey Milk School. And on Tuesday, Episcopalian dissidents denounced the election as a "cancer on the body of Christ." They are hoping higher Anglican authorities will reverse it, under a 1998 resolution declaring that "homosexual relations are incompatable with the church."

The most ominous news of all was last week's Gallup poll, commissioned by CNN and USA Today. Its numbers were so stunning that the surveyors ran a second poll, but the results were similar. For the first time in nearly a decade, support for key items on the gay rights agenda has declined.

Illustration by Jonathan Barkat
Illustration by Jonathan Barkat

In May, 60 percent of Gallup respondents thought gay sex should be legal, but by last week that number had shrunk to 48 percent. For the first time since 1997, a majority think being gay is not an "acceptable alternative lifestyle." And when it comes to civil unions, the trend towardacceptance has been reversed. Fifty-seven percent think gay couples should not have the same rights as married people, the highest number since Gallup first posed the question in 2000.

Nor is this opposition limited to the right. The biggest negative shift has occurred among moderates and even liberals. In May, 80 percent of liberals favored gay civil unions, if not full-blown marriage; in July, that number was down by 23 percent. Support for same-sex marriage rights has always been shaky among African Americans, but they have never thought sodomy should be a crime—until now. In the new Gallup poll, only 36 percent of blacks think gay sex should be legal, compared with 58 percent who thought so in May.

Do these new numbers signal a major shift? Leading gay activists think not. "What counts is the movie, not the snapshot," says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. "If you look at poll after poll over the past few years, it's clear that the long-term trend is toward acceptance of marriage equality." That's also what Human Rights Campaign, the national gay lobby, surmises from its own poll and another by the prestigious Pew Forum. But both these surveys were conducted weeks before Gallup's. Wolfson cites favorable polls in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California. Support for gay marriage is strongest on the coasts, but it's another story in the South and Midwest, where large majorities oppose allowing people of the same sex to wed.

The good news is that a majority of young people still support this cause. The bad news is that the elderly, the poor, the rural, and the religious do not. This broad opposition will be significant if state legislatures are asked to ratify the Federal Marriage Amendment. The president has yet to endorse it, but the measure already has 70 Republican (and six Democratic) sponsors in the House, and last week the Senate Republican Policy Committee urged its passage. There are other moves the GOP could make, such as stiffening the Defense of Marriage Act or voting to withhold federal funds from states that allow same-sex weddings.

Ethel Klein, president of EDK Associates, which analyzes polling data, thinks that whatever the White House is planning could happen soon. "There's always something about homosexuality a year before an election, so they can give something to their base," Klein says. "Then they move away from it as the election gets closer." Activists are girding for a swift reaction if the Massachusetts court rules for same-sex marriage. They are less worried about white Catholics, who are generally supportive of gay rights despite the pope's injunctions, than about Latinos and African Americans. Fundamentalists have been organizing in these communities. The public face of the marriage amendment campaign is Walter Fauntroy, a leading black politician, and its board of advisers includes at least six black ministers.

To Klein, the Gallup poll reflects the conflict many Americans feel between fairness and morality. It has surfaced now, with the sudden surge in gay rights. "People may be supportive in the abstract, but once things get shaken up, those who are weak in their approval begin to waver," Klein says. In 1992, she notes, there was growing acceptance of lesbians and gays serving in the military, but when Clinton made it look real, the polls showed a change. The same thing occurred in 1977, when Miami passed a gay rights ordinance, and Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to repeal it. But a new law was passed in 1998, and last year another repeal campaign failed. More than a decade after "Don't ask, don't tell," a former general and possible presidential candidate, Wesley Clark, favors ending the ban. Once people absorb change, they relax—or so activists with a sense of history believe. But Klein warns, "You'd have to be an idiot to ignore these numbers."

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