Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

How gay rights went mainstream

By John Avlon, CNN Contributor
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed March 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon says the success of the gay rights movement is historic
  • Avlon: Whatever court decides, same-sex marriage has been endorsed by majority in U.S.
  • Supporters of gay rights skillfully positioned the movement as bipartisan and centrist, he says
  • Avlon: Progress on gay rights is a model for reaching consensus on other issues

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is the author of "Independent Nation" and "Wingnuts" as well as the co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns." He won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.

(CNN) -- Some days start out historic. The gay civil rights movement has reached the Supreme Court -- a milestone by any measure. We won't know what the justices will decide until June, but it is not too early to reflect on how we got here.

The sea change in public opinion on gay rights in general and same-sex marriage in particular has been unprecedented. A decade ago, just 27% of Americans backed same-sex marriage; today it is a clear majority.

In recent weeks, politicians like Hillary Clinton and Republicans Jon Huntsman and Rob Portman have declared their support for marriage equality. And while far more elected Democrats than Republicans support same-sex marriage, polls show that this is increasingly more of a generational divide than a partisan divide. In fact, a majority of Republicans under age 50 now support the freedom to marry -- including more than 60% of evangelicals under 30.

John Avlon
John Avlon

How did this happen? First, give the activists their due. Thought leaders like Evan Wolfson and Andrew Sullivan deserve a lot of credit for taking early stands in favor of the freedom to marry. Former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom also brought recognition to the issue by officiating over same-sex marriage ceremonies at City Hall.

CNN Poll: "Rob Portman effect" fuels support for same-sex marriage

The movement to encourage gays and lesbians to publicly come out has also broken down barriers, forcing friends and family members to confront reality, leading to greater compassion and recognition of the moral imperative of civil rights, rooted in the golden rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated.

But the mainstreaming of marriage equality reflects a strategic shift as well as a cultural shift. Instead of activists bringing attention to the cause with street theater tactics that often alienate more people than they attract, there has been a relatively recent move to build bridges beyond the base. This means outreach to Republicans as well as making counter-intuitively conservative arguments for same-sex marriage.

Embodying this strategic shift is Ted Olson, the former Bush administration solicitor general who teamed up with David Boies, his opponent in the Bush v Gore Supreme Court case, to argue that California's Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. I interviewed them in 2010 and their comments reflected many of the arguments Olson made at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



"We as conservatives should support the right of decent taxpaying citizens and individuals who want a stable relationship that forms a building block of our neighborhoods and our economy and our society," Olson said. "These are people that want to participate in life as citizens the way the rest of us do. We should be supportive as conservatives and as liberals. It's not exclusive to either party or either part of the political spectrum."

"This is not and should not be viewed as a conservative or liberal or Republican or Democratic issue," Boies added. "This is a civil-rights issue and a human-rights issue."

Opinion: Will gay rights infringe on religious liberty?

This is an essentially centrist strategy: Define the common ground that exists on any given issue and then build on it, proceeding from broad principle rather than partisan politics and positional bargaining.

U.S. attitudes to same-sex marriage

Olson and Boies, a Republican and a Democrat, are proud members of their parties. But their powerful partnership represents an understanding of the vital center as a dynamic way of solving problems, creating new coalitions that can help overturn decades of stubborn stereotypes about the split-the-difference impulse of the "mushy middle."

Look at the ads that have been run in favor of marriage equality, especially this effort by the Respect for Marriage coalition (which, full disclosure, my wife and fellow CNN contributor, Margaret Hoover, participated in) that included public testimonies in favor of marriage equality by Colin Powell, Dick Cheney and President Obama, highlighting unexpected common ground.

Notice the images of apple pie Americana that begin the ad, making the visual case that marriage is an essentially conservative institution that leads to societal stability and reduced dependence on the government.

Likewise, look at the 131 Republicans who signed on to the amicus brief in support of the freedom to marry, including prominent members of the Bush administration and the Romney campaign, both of which had pledged to pursue a federal marriage amendment.

It is a heartening sign of centrists and libertarians breaking the social conservative stranglehold on the GOP. It is a reminder that the essence of evangelism is winning converts.

Language also matters. To some ears, "Gay marriage" is more polarizing than "freedom to marry" (the preferred term for conservatives) and "marriage equality" (a phraseology that unites liberals). The emphasis on individual freedom and civil rights helps humanize the issue.

Opinion: The real 'modern family' in America

All this is a form of triangulation: trying to achieve progress on policy by depolarizing an issue, creating new coalitions. It is effective. And it is built on a sturdy foundation because it reminds us of deeper truths, namely that there is more that unites us than divides us as Americans. Perhaps not coincidentally, it also is the type of argument that might sway swing votes on the Supreme Court -- as well as swing voters -- to support this extension of individual civil rights.

The shift in public opinion overturns centuries of established thought about marriage influenced by culture and religion. The fact that it has been comparatively rapid is a reflection of the durability and flexibility of our democracy. We can adapt as part of our never-ending effort to form a more perfect union.

Whatever the Supreme Court ultimately decides about the constitutionality of Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, the movement of same-sex marriage from the margins to the mainstream has been achieved.

Opinion: California wants a do-over on same-sex marriage vote

The centrist model by which it moved forward can be replicated as we try to call a ceasefire in the culture wars and actually start to solve problems through the process of addition rather than division.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT