Yes, it matters
New polling data out today shows yet another bump in support for same-sex marriage after Obama’s announcement that he supports it. More importantly, there’s an all-time low in opposition, down to 39%. This polling data was taken two weeks after Obama’s announcement, so it’s reasonable to suggest that what we hoped would happen—that the President coming out to support gay marriage would help normalize it and push more people into the “yes” column—is already coming to pass. Since most people change their minds pretty slowly on this stuff, we can probably see even more dramatic effects down the road.
One very important thing to note from this survey is that contrary to the stereotypes that are constantly brandished about black voters and gay marriage, support for same-sex marriage amongst African-Americans polled is higher than it is amongst the population at large.
The poll also finds that 59 percent of African Americans say they support same-sex marriage, up from an average of 41 percent in polls leading up to Obama’s announcement of his new position on the matter. Though statistically significant, it is a tentative result because of the relatively small sample of black voters in the poll.
It may be tentative, but I think the shift represents something a lot of us have been saying for a long time, which is that opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t as hard and fast as the activist homophobes would have you believe. A lot of the negative reaction you get from polling is due to straight up cognitive dissonance; people tend to think of marriage as a heterosexual institution, and the idea of two men or two women marrying each other causes a negative reaction based more on unexamined prejudices than on open bigotry. Which means that all it will take to get those folks to move on the subject is getting used to the idea, and having the President support gay marriage openly is a huge step in that process. One of the most unfortunate tendencies of our species is that we’re oriented towards going with the flow over all other things, and if we imagine the flow is against gay marriage, a lot of us will be against it for no other reason than that. But that also means that all we need to do to fix the problem is change the direction of the flow.
That’s why visibility is so important. There was a knee-jerk Eeyore reaction to Obama’s comments about supporting gay marriage from many liberals, which is to immediately minimize and say it doesn’t matter, because blah blah policy is the only thing that matters. (Of course, as some prominent gay journalists pointed out, Obama’s policies were way ahead of his public statements in the pro-gay direction.) This polling data strongly suggests against that claim, as does piles of research on why people believe the things they do. Perception is important. Leadership is important. I made a couple of silly jokes about the rapper-a-day rate of celebrities coming out after Obama and saying they support gay marriage, but that sort of thing matters. Bringing the privilege of being straight men who are famous and well-liked to the table matters. In an ideal world where rationality was the only factor, it shouldn’t, but people being the pack animals we are, celebrity endorsements for legal gay marriage from the likes of Jay-Z and Ice Cube matter. This is only the beginning; I really do think Obama’s announcement will look like a major tipping point when this is all history.