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Will New York's media, cultural influence prove a boon for gay rights?

By Ali Elkin, CNN
Signs for and against New York's same-sex marriage law were displayed Sunday at the Gay Pride parade.
Signs for and against New York's same-sex marriage law were displayed Sunday at the Gay Pride parade.
  • LGBT activists say New York could cause other states to reconsider their laws
  • Opponents: New law may affect media coverage, but New York influence overstated
  • Scholar: Pop culture, exposure already affecting the way people view gay rights
  • Rhode Island passes civil union law; observers believe marriage could follow

(CNN) -- Gay rights groups say the Empire State has the potential to influence public opinion the way Hollywood already has, but critics of the Marriage Equality Act said their definition of a "modern family" is impervious to pop culture.

Opponents say the law may affect how the issue is portrayed in the news, but they're not buying that New York -- neither because of its influence or population -- can change personal definitions of marriage.

Focus on the Family spokeswoman Carrie Gordon Earll said she already sees the media "adopting the language of gay activists" and likening advocates of traditional marriage to racists or "bigots."

"For instance, my position is defined as anti-gay or anti-equality," she said. "That facilitates almost a hate fest against people of faith who support marriage. So if you have that coming out of New York, that's a major influence over other media in the nation and those who consume that media."

With the new law, the number of people living in states that permit same-sex marriage will more than double, from almost 16 million to about 35 million.

This statistic alone is a boon for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights groups, said Rea Carey, executive director of the National Lesbian and Gay Task Force.

"It's as if you went to the coffee shop every day and got a coffee and that morning you showed up and they gave you triple shot of espresso," Carey said. "It really gives renewed hope that progress continues to happen."

Sheer numbers aside, it also helps that the legislation was passed in New York, a state perpetually in the media spotlight because its largest city is such a cultural, media and commercial hub for the country, said same-sex marriage activists.

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"By just being a trendsetter, a center for the economy and a center for media, that's going to make a difference and help move public opinion in this issue across the country," said Sean Eldridge, political director of Freedom to Marry.

Brian Powell, author of "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and American's Definitions of Family," elaborated, saying that by expediting and increasing exposure to same-sex couples -- both in life and in media -- New York could also help boost the nation's acceptance toward the LGBT community.

It was already happening before the law's passage, and attitudes are changing more rapidly than he thought possible, said Powell, who is also a sociology professor at Indiana University.

In fact, Powell thought one of his own studies -- a 2010 survey showing more Americans in favor of same-sex marriage than opposed to it -- was somehow flawed until the following year when a Gallup poll corroborated the findings: 53 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage.

Powell said he believes exposure to the gay community via television programs, both news and entertainment, "is both reflecting the change that's going on and playing an important role in the change that's going on."

In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres' coming out drew tremendous interest and attracted some controversy, Powell said. The revelation not only consumed media coverage of the now-talk show host, but it also was a major plotline in her show, "Ellen."

Today, people just being gay cannot serve as fodder for an entire sitcom. The gay couple portrayed on the Emmy-winning sitcom "Modern Family" is depicted as a typical set of new parents. Their storylines are derived from the minor crises of everyday parenthood, such as a child with a biting problem or a juice box disaster during a play date.

That the characters are gay takes a backseat to the fact that they're a family, Powell said.

"They have arguments, just like the other people in the show," he said. "They have mishaps just like the others. These are the issues all families deal with. When television provides the idea of couples living as families, the more comfortable we are with those couples."

Surveys show comfort leads to evolving attitudes, Powell said. When you know someone -- whether it's a relative, friend or neighbor -- or even feel like you know someone, such as through "parasocial interactions" with gay people on television, your acceptance of their lifestyle is bound to change, he said.

Powell said he once interviewed a socially conservative woman who felt she was adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage until seeing the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, a Republican, talk about her gay daughter. The woman felt connected to Lynne Cheney through their political ideologies, and the interview made her question her own sentiments, Powell said.

"She didn't move her view, but it was making her think about it," he said. "It's hard for people to change their opinion. You have a view. To change that view involves a lot of steps."

The religious right and other conservatives are among those who don't appear swayed by New York's media influence or its new law, and they have a different impression of the nation's pulse.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, flatly stated she didn't believe media exposure could change people's personal values.

The other side can only win through corrupt legislatures or out-of-control courts.
--Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage

"Portrayal on television can sometimes give legitimacy to a lifestyle that otherwise doesn't have legitimacy," she said, but "what parents laugh at in television is not necessarily what they would tolerate in their children or encourage in their children."

Critics of New York's law also point to ballot measures in various states that ban same-sex marriage or constitutionally define marriage as solely between a man and a woman.

"Marriage has already won as the union between a man and a woman in the overwhelming majority of the country through constitutional amendments," said Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage. "The other side can only win through corrupt legislatures or out-of-control courts."

Some states, however, could be reconsidering same-sex marriage, and LGBT rights groups have their sights set on Rhode Island, Maryland, Maine, Oregon and Washington as states that could soon be taking up the discussion, said Eldridge of Freedom to Marry.

On Wednesday night, less than a week after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed New York's bill, Rhode Island's legislature passed its own civil union law, a step shy of same-sex marriage. The governor is expected to sign it.

Powell, who was interviewed prior to the Rhode Island development, suggested that while New York's law could eventually help change national attitudes, it may, in the shorter term, affect its neighbors. Even with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie promising he won't sign any same-sex marriage legislation, Powell said he wouldn't rule out New Jersey tackling legislation again in the wake of New York's decision.

"New York can be a leader in terms of just that region. I would not be surprised to see Maryland revisit this issue in the next few years," Powell said. "On a regional basis, New York has really powerful implications."