Why Some Americans Changed Their Minds On Gay Marriage

First-hand accounts

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Why Some Americans Changed Their Minds On Gay Marriage

I’m fascinated by the question of why people change their minds on hot-button political issues. And there’s probably no hot-button political issue where there has been a bigger change in public opinion in a shorter period of time than gay marriage. Since the turn of the millenium, according to the Pew Research Center, liberal support for gay marriage has jumped about 30 percentage points, while conservative support for it has jumped about 20:

Early in April, I posted a few tweets like this one, soliciting stories from people whose minds on this subject had changed:

I’m going to devote the rest of today’s newsletters to a handful of these stories — I couldn’t include all of them, but thank you to everyone who wrote in. Before continuing, though, I should note that I also got an email from Carroll Doherty, Director of Political Research at Pew, who pointed me to some polling her organization had done on exactly this question: As of 2013, she explained, about 28% of gay-marriage supporters were ‘converts,’ and the most common reason they listed was simply knowing someone who is gay:

3-20-13 #3

This jibes with my general understanding of the relevant political and social psychology here. Overall, I think people are much more swayed by emotional, gut-level factors having to do with family and identity and values than by rational arguments. Maybe that’s part of the reason irrational arguments can survive for so long — they’re fueled by other stuff. (To be clear, I still think we need rational arguments for a variety of reasons.)

Originally I was going to try to provide some sort of analysis or commentary or whatever pertaining to the below stories, but on the other hand: meh. I think they’re interesting in a standalone kind of way. If they stir any strong feelings in you, shoot me an email at singalminded@gmail.com and maybe I’ll follow up in a future newsletter — I’m overdue for a mailbag, anyway.

Enjoy, and thanks again to my correspondents, including the ones whose emails I wasn’t able to include.

Elliot:

I was raised (and still am) a personally conservative Latter-day Saint. (Mormon, but we're trying to move away from the term.)

After my mission I went to the University of Missouri and started thinking about the secular world again after being absent from it for two years. I became more concerned with making sure that those who share my faith can continue to worship unmolested into the future in a world where mainstream values are trending away from our own. I had previously been voting against gaymarriage because I saw it as a government attempt to meddle in a private matter. I came to realize that if I wanted full liberty for me and my brothers and sisters to do as we please I had to accord it to others also. Eventually I realized that it was government meddling (and discrimination) to prevent people from being able to proclaim their relationship to be a formal marriage.

So my mind-change started out from concern for my faith's preservation (call it a persecution complex if you will, I probably just overthought things back then). I later became libertarian and now I'm politically voluntaryist so it's past simply preserving my faith and more about what's ethically correct, but that wasn't how it started.

Josh:

When I was younger, I believed gays should be able to get civil unions, but not be allowed to adopt. I began reversing my opinions in my late teens.

I was born into a Catholic family, and while the church I attended never taught or expressed any homophobia, there seemed to be a tacit understanding that gays were *icky*. This was confirmed by ‘flamboyant’ and ‘lewd’ behavior of highly visible gays in movies, news, etc.

Through HS and college, I began meeting and becoming friends with more gay people and realized my bias about gays being icky and lewd was the result of horrible miscalibration. Took me a day of self-reflection to realize, actually, I was the idiot. I support gay rights depite the fact most of my politics still remain fairly right-of-center

Andrew:

I can answer your question if my first name only will suffice. While I hate labels, my voting record would suggest I am reliably left of center. I have never voted for a Republican candidate for president and, while I am always looking for worthy local and state Republicans to vote for, have ended up voting for only a few.

I wanted gay and lesbian couples to have all legal rights conferred by marriage, including whatever next-of-kin rights apply in healthcare situations. But I didn't see what was so important about calling it “marriage.” Didn't the non-gay-marriage-advocating rest of the world kind of get there first? What would be so terrible with letting them retain the meaning they invented and have used for a very long time as one man, one woman? Insisting that it be marriage seemed unnecessarily in-your-face when they could have all of the rights accorded to married couples through some sort of civil union structure.

My mind changed abruptly when I saw a television news report of many gay couples getting married in a state that had just legalized the practice. They were skipping and hugging and literally crying with joy.

At that moment I just thought, “Oh. Well, fine, then.” Seeing how much it meant to them was enough for me to unreservedly support gay marriage ever since.

MS:

I’m a liberal who has always supported gay rights, but I was living in SF in late nineties, and was wary of gay marriage for two reasons:

  1. Political - felt like domestic partnership was fine, and that gay marriage was a political can of worms that didn't need to be opened. I now feel this was wrong, but back then some gay people also felt this way - “we’re doing ok, don't need to go there, it will cause problems.”

  2. Personal - I felt that understanding who you are is hard enough in the world, and that there are “norms”, and there are “outside the norms”, and that it's ok to be/be seen as outside the norm as long as you're not getting discriminated against for it. “Norms” are necessary for humans to understand and define themselves, especially because for some people, having norms to define themselves against is important. I had teenagers in my mind as I thought of this - hard enough to figure out who you are without normalizing more options and thus making life seem even more confusing. (I’m an indecisive introvert myself, overthink things a bit sometimes, you may be able to see.)

Although the 2004 election seemed to confirm my political fears, by 2006 or so, I started to know that my stance just didn't make sense, that what I was supporting was “separate but equal” marriage, which of course cannot stand. But the moment when I shifted whole-heartedly was the viral video of the San Diego mayor at the time (Sanders) holding a press conference to state his own change of heart. I needed that visceral human experience (via video!)  to relate to - at that point I completely shifted to 100% support for gay marriage.

Abigail:

I was living in Southern California in 8th grade when Prop 22 was passed. At 13, I was on the cusp: still holding on to many beliefs that had been spoon fed to me by my parents, many of which was wrapped up in Christian traditionalism. I acutely remember standing in a circle with my friends in the school courtyard before the first bell, discussing the passing of 22 and what it meant. I was one of the girls who said, Of course marriage should be between a man and woman. But a couple of my friends weren't so certain. One of them asked, why shouldn't they get married? What's the harm?

Despite how I'd been raised, I had already begun to cultivate a sincere respect for rationality. I couldn't answer that question without resorting to some unreasoned dictate I'd heard as a child from my mother and her church. Within the week my beliefs about gay marriage crumbled, and I’ve been a supporter ever since. [...]

Kevin:

Here is my (boring) answer to your question to people who changed their mind about gay marriage...

I don't exactly know why/when I changed my mind about gay marriage. All I recall is that my view changed from “why should gay people be allowed to get married?” in the late-90’s to “why shouldn't gay people be allowed to get married?” by the mid-00's. I don't recall there being anything specific that changed my mind. It just kinda happened.

Of course, because I was already fairly progressive when it came to gay rights by the 90’s, accepting gay marriage wasn't a huge step for me. I had no religious reasons to be against it. Mainly, I think it just seemed to be unnecessary.

Assuming you will be writing an article about this, I look forward to seeing how similar/different my story is to the stories from others...especially from folks in my “Gen X” age group who grew up in a time when gay slurs were thrown around a lot more than they are now.

Jesse:

My name is also Jesse, so I feel an unjustified connection.

On the subject of gay marriage, I was raised a conservative Christian, and the heavy indoctrination that came with that was hard to overcome, at first. I was unable to reconcile this perspective with the overwhelming outpouring of emotions from gay friends and family members, so there was a great degree of friction and cognitive dissonance to work through.

Once I left Christianity, these ideas were much easier to work through in an honest way, and I more or less instantly disavowed all of my past justifications for disagreeing with gay marriage.

One particularly powerful argument that I still remember was when a gay friend asked me, “When did you decide you were straight?” Realizing I had never made an active decision helped me grasp the concept of gay people having been born that way.

Rob:

I started out vaguely anti same sex marriage. For context I graduated HS in 2000 and grew up in a Catholic family in the midwest. I wasn't something I had thought about, I just picked it up via the culture at the time.

As I got a little older and started thinking for myself I was pro gay rights but still anti gay marriage for what seemed like good reasons at the time. Around that time civil unions came out which extended most legal rights of married couples which I thought was a good compromise. I thought the marriage thing was an attempt to force businesses like insurance companies to provide services they didn't want to.

At some point, and I don't remember exactly when or why my mind changed but it was before the Supreme Court told everyone to STFU and let same sex marriages happen, I realized pretty much all the business activity I was worried about (particularly insurance) is related to regulation anyway so there really isn't any civil liberties case against it so it had to be supported.

On a somewhat related note I'm still very pro right of refusal. But just because someone has the right to refuse doesn't mean it's moral or ethical. I just don't understand why you would force those people to interact with you. Why try to force the bigot to make the cake? Or the church teaching hate to marry you? Don't support them or give them money. Take your support elsewhere and help someone more deserving survive.

Peter:

Since you asked on Twitter, I thought I'd respond: I changed my mind on gay marriage. Here's how that looked.

I grew up in a fairly conservative Christian home. Not “getting beaten with a switch if I didn't say my prayers enough” conservative, but then again, I think that's mostly caricature. My parents are both scientists and were very involved in the church. I was rebellious in general, but maintained a very good relationship with my family as I grew up and left home.

So it wasn't very surprising that I had similar beliefs as them on topics like gay marriage. That it should not be legal was never something I really considered, nor was it a particularly hot topic when I was young. (I'm 44 now, for reference.) The basis for that belief was that homosexual acts were wrong, and that the government was under no compulsion to change a millennia-old definition of marriage to support those acts. In my mind, the person that felt he was homosexual was not any more or less sinful than others who felt attraction to sinful acts, but he was called to a life of celibacy in response to those feelings. I went years without even questioning this belief since, again, I wasn't really being challenged to question it.

About eight years ago, I was sitting in a bar with a Christian friend of mine, and we were waiting for the third in our party to arrive. We started talking through many topics about the intersection of Christianity and modern life. We touched on the idea of gay marriage, and I was surprised to hear that my Christian friend was in favor of legalizing it. We talked for a while, and despite the fact that my mind wasn't changed (and I still think he is wrong, as he's gone full bore into the identitarian movement), it started me thinking.

Over the following couple of years, I talked to a number of other close Christian friends, including my dad. He was becoming more and more alienated by the conservative movement, and was sick of the political skirmishes over nonsense. Ultimately, he and I came to a similar conclusion around the same time, and it's roughly the same place I am today: gays should be able to enter into legally-recognized civil unions that carry all of the same legal weight as marriage.

(There was some grumbling in the news back then about the idea of “civil unions” for gays being a second-class alternative to what heterosexuals get in “marriage”. Some of that is semantics, but since words do mean things, I’ve come to the conclusion that the government should ONLY deal in civil unions—gay, straight, or otherwise—and leave “marriage” to religious bodies.)

I still hold the same religious beliefs, but my political beliefs—i.e., how my religious beliefs play out in the public sector—have definitely changed. And it was entirely through small (usually one-on-one), intimate conversations with trusted friends and family members that I eventually changed my mind.

I don’t know if that helps, but I thought I’d offer it up. I'm available for any follow-up questions you might want to ask me.

David:

Probably late, but I thought I'd chime in. Like many people, my original views were shaped by my religious upbringing. In my case, it was as a Mormon kid. I'd accepted most of the standard religious arguments that it was against God’s will, look at Sodom, etc., so growing up I held your pretty standard conservative outlook that gay marriage was immoral, and pointless since they couldn't have any kids.

What changed was, as a young barely-18-year-old living in California, I watched the church organize and really push to ban gay marriage in the state, in the form of Prop 8. Quick history by my understanding - california performed some gay marriages for a while, it was banned with Prop 22 a while ago, before being declared unconstitutional by the state constitution in 2008. Then Prop 8 was rushed out in response, which would put the same language from Prop 22 that banned gay marriage into the state constitution rather than just the law.

It really didn’t sit well with me, because while I wasn’t some kind of pro-gay mormon rebel, I understood the concept of separation of church and state, and it felt like the church was pushing its values onto others. If I recall correctly, the church itself and mormon families in california were supposed to have contributed something like half the funding towards Prop 8 efforts, despite making up like 1% of the state. There's a documentary about the Mormon Church's involvement in Prop 8. I haven't seen it, but I'm sure it cites more exact figures.

Anyways, Prop 8 did end up narrowly passing, in the same voting cycle that we elected Obama and I believe started funding that now-failed high speed train project. For myself, I was already questioning the church, and watching the whole thing unfold was what pushed me over the edge and finally drove me to leave.

After I left, since I didn't buy the religious arguments anymore, I started examining the issue from a more secular perspective, and I couldn’t find any solid arguments not to allow them. Sure, they couldn't have kids, but we didn't ban infertile people from marrying and wouldn't dream of doing so. Same with older couples, etc. Without religious influence, and especially with what led to that lack of influence, the right position seemed obvious.

Thinking back through the years and writing it up was fun. Thanks for your time if you do end up reading it.


Questions? Comments? Arguments for the outlawing of straight marriage? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com, or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The lead image, of demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court, is from Wikimedia Commons.

I May Have Gotten Slightly Burned This Week

A cautionary tale

Earlier this week I sent out a newsletter headlined “Journalists Are Reporting Their Colleagues To HR For Expressing Political Opinions That Make Them Feel Unsafe.” In it, I briefly told two stories, of, well, journalists reporting their colleagues to HR for expressing political opinions that made them unsafe. Here’s how the meat of what I called “Story 2” went:

At another publication, ‘Ted,’ a staffer, took ‘Rachel,’ an intern, out to lunch to be friendly, see if she was in need of any career advice, and so on. At the lunch, the subject of Baltimore’s high murder rate came up. Rachel said that she thought the most important underlying factors causing the violence in Baltimore were white supremacy and the legacy of slavery. Ted disagreed — he said that some of the blame lay with Baltimore’s heavily Democratic local government.

He believed that blaming a social pathology as complicated as murder on white supremacy and slavery was an oversimplification. Rachel responded, in Ted’s recounting, by yelling at him across the table. (Neither Ted nor Rachel is white, for what that’s worth.) Rachel subsequently complained about Ted to HR. Ted was forced to have a phone call with an HR staffer in which he was told that Rachel was “shaken up” (Ted’s summary) by the lunchtime conversation. Ted told the HR staffer that he’d like to try to reconcile with Rachel and the HR person said they’d try to facilitate that. But Ted never heard another word about the event after that. And at the time of the lunch, he’d already planned to move on to another job, which he did.

After the post went live, I heard from an editor at the publication in question who I’ll call ‘Shaun.’ He claimed that Ted had not portrayed this story entirely accurately and provided various details supporting that view. I soon got Rachel herself on the phone — she’s actually a fellow, not an intern — and she confirmed what Shaun had told me. Echoing the gist of Shaun’s account, she said the conversation with Ted at lunch had gotten pointedly personal and that Ted had made statements she found unnecessarily hostile about her own family history, her education, her level of exposure to minority communities, and so on. She also believed some of what he said crossed the line from disagreement into “outright racism,” as she put it in a followup email.

Rachel left the lunch in tears and told her editors what had happened, and they suggested that she report Ted to human resources. It was not, she claimed, about political disagreement — it was about how Ted had comported himself at lunch. And she only reported Ted after her editors suggested she do so.

I then went back to Ted. He acknowledged certain aspects of Rachel’s version but denied others. I’ve gone back and forth with both of them and everything has quickly devolved into a tangled he-said, she-said, with the two parties disagreeing about basic aspects of what did and didn’t happen. Ted, for example, claimed that Rachel specifically requested they have lunch so she could ask him about his belief that America is not, at present, white supremacist, and then complained about them having exactly the conversation she requested. Rachel flatly denied this. Ted claimed she must be misremembering.

And so on. At this point, I have no idea exactly what happened, or how I, or anyone else, would react if we all magically had access to a video of the lunch. But here’s what it comes down to: I didn’t exhibit enough due diligence in my reporting and shouldn’t have included Ted’s account in the post in the manner I did, and so I’ve removed it. The post will live on with a note at the top explaining that it has been edited heavily, with links to an archive of the original story and to this explanation. There will be no mystery about what happened — I’m not trying to sweep my mistake under the rug.

This was an unforced error, and it is driving me crazy that it happened. So, a brief Q&A for those seeking the full details is below. This is probably more information than most people want, so if you close your tab here, your key takeaway being simply that I screwed up due to a bit of sloppiness, that’s fine with me and I can’t really argue with your conclusion.

If you do want more details:

What happened?

Because I had known Ted for a long time, albeit casually, and trusted him to tell the story accurately and completely, I didn’t do the usual legwork a journalist should when presenting an anonymous source’s account. In some instances, this can be complicated. But the basic rule is that it’s important to take certain precautions, because when you present such an account, you’re allowing someone to make a claim without putting their name and therefore reputation behind it. I messed up by not reaching out to Ted’s former colleagues to get their side of the story.

At the time I justified my decision to take Ted mostly at his word as follows: I didn’t want to stir up further drama between him and his former employer, given that he had been, in his account, unfairly targeted by a colleague. Plus, I wasn’t naming the publication or the intern, in which case there would have been no wriggle room whatsoever — you have to reach out for comment in those cases.

If I could get a do-over, I would have told Ted I wanted to use his story in my newsletter, but that I had to run everything by his former colleagues first (explaining to them that I wasn’t going to use anyone’s name). Either he wouldn’t have given me permission to do so, in which case I would have skipped the whole thing, or he would have granted me permission, things would have devolved into the messy he-said, she-said, and I… would have skipped the whole thing. The same outcome, either way — a better one.

Instead of doing what I should have done, I ran the language I planned on using by Ted in a few Twitter DMs, asked him some followup questions, and, once he approved everything as accurate, left things at that. This isn’t the normal way I work with anonymous sources — see, for example, my cautions and caveats and showing-my-work when I published anonymous and pseudonymous emails by people embroiled in the young-adult-fiction culture wars in this newsletter.

But because I knew Ted and, again, didn’t want to exacerbate things between him and his former employer, I took a lot of what he said at face value in a way I shouldn’t have. Which is how you risk getting burned. This doesn’t mean Ted was intentionally dishonest, as two people can experience the same lunch quite differently, but I do think that the language he approved in our DMs left out context and nuance that is clearly relevant to the situation and that he should have mentioned. At the end of the day, though, it wasn’t his job to fact-check in this manner — it was mine.

If Story 2 Was Misleading, Why Should Anyone Believe Story 1?

Story 1 was confirmed to me by multiple people at the publication in question who know what happened, including the target of the HR campaign. It’s also a bit of an open secret in some journalistic circles. For example, when Shaun, the editor at the publication in Story 2, reached out to me to contest Ted’s account, he added, “The [Bob] thing meanwhile is bonkers,” using the subject of Story 1’s real name, meaning he had heard the story independently and knew exactly who it was referring to. Plus, in that case there’s no he-said, she-said interpersonal conflict entailing interpretive fuzziness. It’s about real HR complaints that actually happened. In the aforementioned fantasy universe, finding out Story 2 was shaky wouldn’t have prevented me from simply doing a whole post on Story 1 — I’d been meaning to find a way to write about it for a long time, anyway.

Anyway, this is another reason to be careful when you’re doing journalism: Not being careful opens up the door for people to say “Well, why should we believe the other story happened? Why should we believe other stuff you write?” That’s part of the reason I’m frustrated at myself.

Has This Happened To You Before?

It has not. Or at least not in this manner. I’ve been a journalist about 13 years and believe I have a good track record. I can’t recall any other situation in which I reported something someone told me as though it were true and then discovered reason to believe what I had reported was misleading. Aside from the occasional minor correction (including in this newsletter), here are the most serious errors I am aware of in my previous published work:

-I (alongside many others) misread a study on gender dysphoria and presented it as providing weaker evidence for desistance — in this context, usually defined as someone’s dysphoria going away over time without them transitioning — than it really did. I updated the original story for New York Magazine and wrote up a lengthy explanation of what went wrong on Medium.

-One time when I was at NY Mag my initial post on an article about the mindset-theory controversy was sufficiently, well, off, that I decided to more or less rewrite it shortly after it posted, while linking to an image of the original for transparency’s sake.

On a few occasions when I misunderstood or misremembered something, I’ve also accidentally said false stuff on Twitter — when that has happened I’ve always corrected the record explicitly, while deleting the original tweet but including a screenshot of it in the correction to be transparent. I have an obligation to get stuff right and to make corrections when I fail to do so, and that obligation holds whether the medium is a published article, Twitter, or this newsletter.

Were you more credulous about Ted’s story than you should have been because of confirmation bias — that is, because it fit your theory that certain worrying trends are creeping into journalism?

Probably, yes. I had been thinking a lot about Story 1 ever since I heard about it — the idea of staffers engaging in a coordinated HR campaign against a colleague over pure political disagreement struck me as, to use what is in this case an irresistible cliché, a serious canary-in-a-coalmine moment. So there’s a chance that when I heard Ted’s story, the dumb-primate part of my brain grunted “THING B SOUNDS LIKE THING A SO THING B PROBABLY TRUE,” triggering some confirmation bias.

But when you hear a story that tickles your preexisting notions, it should make you try harder to seek out countervailing evidence before accepting it as true. I should know this better than most: I am writing a book about how one of the reasons shoddy science spreads is by telling us stuff we “already know” about the world and society, causing people to respond more credulously than they would have otherwise. And that’s part of what happened here.

Anything else?

This was really dumb, and what makes it dumb was how easily I could have prevented it from happening. I apologize to my readers and to Ted and Rachel and their publication.


The lead image, of me (?), is by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash.

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