Attitudes are changingâand fast. Fifty years ago homosexuality itself was still a crime throughout most of the world. Britain decriminalised it only in 1967 and it was not until 2003 that Americaâs Supreme Court struck down the remaining sodomy laws in 14 states. Now, across most of the West, polls show a majority of public opinion in favour of equality for gays, including allowing them to marry and adopt children. Ten years ago two-thirds of Americans were opposed to gay marriage; now more than half, including most Catholics, are in favour. Similar trends can be seen in other Western countries.
As attitudes have shifted, laws have changed. When Denmark became the first country to allow âregistered partnershipsâ for gays, in 1989, it was seen as revolutionary. Now most Western countries allow some kind of âcivil unionâ giving homosexuals most of, if not all, the same rights as married straight couples or else full-blown marriage, with the former usually preceding the latter.
Why this rapid shift, which has taken even many activists by surprise? It is partly generational. Younger people, brought up in a more tolerant age, simply cannot understand what all the fuss is about. But it is also a result of changing behaviour among gays themselves. As homophobic laws have fallen, so more homosexuals have come out. And as their straight neighbours see them leading normal happy family livesâincluding bringing up childrenâwithout the world falling apart, they become more widely accepted.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists have also changed their tactics, getting better organised, raising funds, and going out to educate people. In this monthâs elections in America the gay-rights movement spent $33m promoting gay marriage in the four states where it was on the ballotâthree times the amount their opponents were able to drum up, and a complete reversal of the situation in the 2008 elections.
At the same time, the churches, most of which regard gay sex as a sin, are losing some of their influence. A recent survey of Americansâ religious beliefs by the Pew Research Centre showed one in five adults saying they had no religious affiliationâdouble the proportion 20 years ago. Three-quarters of these so-called âNonesâ support gay marriage. In another study, 42% of Britons described themselves as atheists or agnosticsâthree times as many as in the early 1960s. In France only 7% of Catholics continue to attend mass at least once a week; 58%, including three-quarters of those aged under 35, never go.
In America, where Barack Obama recently became the first president to endorse gay marriage, Gene Robinson, the Anglican Churchâs first openly gay bishop, talks of a âsea changeâ taking place. The 1996 federal Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA), restricting marriage to the union between a man and woman, has increasingly been coming under legal challenge, with two federal appeals courts holding it to be unconstitutional. On November 30th the Supreme Court may take up one of several gay-marriage cases before it. If, as activists hope, it decides in their favour, the ruling could prove as much of a watershed for gay-rights as the courtâs landmark sodomy decision in 2003.
(source: The Economist)