The Troubling Contradiction Among Supporters of Gay Rights

February 18th 2015

Aron Macarow

A decade ago, most Americans did not support equal rights for their LGBTQ neighbors, let alone want to extend marriage to gay and lesbian couples. An abundance of polls last year, however, touted a changing tide across the country.

An April 2014 poll from The Washington Post placed support for marriage equality at 59 percent. Then in May 2014, Gallup reported that more than half of Americans supported marriage for same-sex couples. The Post followed up on their previous poll to suggest that 50 percent of Americans believed that marriage might even be a constitutional right. (Compare this to a 2008 GLAAD-commissioned Harris study that found more than two in every 10 people felt gay and lesbian couples should have no legal recognition at all.)

The Supreme Court’s decision to not delay the issuance of marriage licenses to Alabama's LGBTQ couples makes Alabama the 37th state to extend marriage to gays and lesbians. The decision speaks volumes. As many note, it strongly indicates that the Supreme Court is likely to rule in favor of marriage equality in a case to be heard later this year, establishing marriage as a constitutional right nationwide. And it would seem based on all this prior polling that America is ready.

Not so fast.

No Service to Gay People?

A new poll released Feb. 5 by The Associated Press-GfK shows that a majority of Americans (57 percent) believe that wedding-related businesses should be able to deny services to gay and lesbian couples if it violates their religious beliefs. More surprising, especially for a nation that at least statistically supports marriage equality, is that about half the country also thinks that religious objections are okay reasons for public officials to deny basic services, like issuing marriage licenses.

So most Americans are fine with denying services to one group of people in business and government settings based solely on another person’s religious objection to who they are?

Stated another way: The new study suggests that most Americans don’t have a problem with separate but equal treatment - at least when it concerns their LGBTQ co-workers, friends and family. (Well don’t I feel the love.)

The May 2014 case of Colorado bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop would suggest that’s true, at least for some Americans. Although bakeshop owner Jack Phillips lost the court battle, he freely admitted to turning away other queer couples “as a matter of policy,” saying that he would “not be willing to make a pedophile cake” either because of his religious beliefs. Arizona also came remarkably close to passing legislation (SB 1062) that would have given broad license for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people in a similar manner. The so-called “religious freedom” bill actually made it all the way to Ariz. Gov. Jan Brewer’s desk, but was surprisingly vetoed by the Republican official.

The conversation hasn’t died down with similar religious liberty laws cropping up in at least 11 states. (None have passed.) Concerns about balancing religious objections to LGBTQ lives have also been front and center barely a month into the new year, with doublespeak from the Mormon church two weeks ago indicating support for queer and trans people but with huge caveats.

Past Lessons Can Help Us Choose Our Future

As the national conversation around religious exemptions to LGBTQ equality ramps up, where will we draw the boundaries? Luckily, this conversation isn’t entirely new. 

A different manifestation of separate but equal was the law of the land until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Up until that point, discrimination against people by race was legally acceptable so long as ‘equivalent’ accommodations were provided to people of color. Very similar arguments have been made recently under the banner of religious liberty against LGBTQ people; Mormon elder Jeffrey Holland said at the LDS news conference Jan. 27: “[A Mormon] physician who objects to [...] artificial insemination for a lesbian couple should not be forced against his or her conscience to do so, especially when others are readily available to perform that function.” In other words, why not allow discrimination so long as equivalent options are available elsewhere?

It should be no surprise who sees through these semantics: Black Americans. While a 2014 Pew study showed that only 4 in ten black Americans supported marriage equality, over 61 percent of the same group said that wedding-related businesses “should be required to serve same-sex couples” regardless of beliefs. (Meanwhile only 45 percent of white individuals felt similarly despite more “support” for marriage equality among whites.) As researchers themselves pointed out, this at least partly “reflect[s] empathy among African Americans for the perceived discrimination that gays and lesbians face in American society.”

 Race and same-sex marriage

Since the vast majority of Millennials believe that everyone should be treated equally regardless of race, how will we answer the same call when the LGBTQ community’s equal treatment is in question?

There is some evidence that we’re already repeating mistakes of older generations. White Americans across age groups are generally more capable of turning a blind eye to the discrimination faced by LGBTQ people than are communities of color, and it should worry us that similar trends exist in polling on race among Millennials. If close to half of white Millennials can say that the government “pays to much attention to the problems of racial minority groups” while well more than half of “minorities say that whites have more opportunities,” we have a problem on our hands. So much for the “post-racial” generation.

How about less color-blindness and less denial of difference - and more open discussion of bias and the variances (as well as similarities) that shape our world. After all, religion has been used as a reason to justify Jim Crow. Let's not use it as a reason to justify inequality again.