There’s a new graph making the rounds on social media right now (yes, that’s right, we live in the world where statistical illustrations have the power to go viral). It shows several years of Pew polling on marriage equality across several age groups. And no surprise: support’s been climbing quickly for the last few years.
But why? What happened to hasten the growth in support? It’s a phenomenon that’s observable across multiple age demographics: Whether you were born in the 1920s or 1990s, you’re more likely to support marriage equality than you were at the start of the millennium.
There’s a small climb in support around 2004, and a bigger push around 2009. That provides a few clues to what happened. Our theory is that there were three social phenomena that pushed support:
First, there was a change in social visibility. In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize the freedom to marry. George Bush called for a constitutional ban on marriage, and Gavin Newsom responded by issuing licenses in San Francisco. That meant a surge in public awareness of gay and lesbian couples. The same thing happened in 2009, when we saw a ton of media coverage post-Prop. 8, and when Iowa legalized marriage, and several New England states.
Next, there was a change in social attitudes, driven in part by the social policy. As we’ve consistently seen, people are more likely to support equality when they see the people affected. And when they see that marriage equality doesn’t mean the end of the world, their resistance starts to melt away. Over the last decade, Americans have grown increasingly accustomed to seeing loving stable LGBT couples around them in real life and in the media. We’re just part of the landscape now.
And third, there was social media. (We presented a panel on this topic at SXSW.) Friendster was just getting off and running around 2004, and by 2008 social media was embedding in everyone’s life. Technology that allows us to forge interpersonal relationships helped advance the equality movement in two ways: first, it meant that straight people were seeing more of the gay people in their lives. Suddenly, we didn’t seem so alien. And second, LGBT people were seeing more of each other, which meant that we had a greater awareness of our own community. No longer were we stuck in whatever gay ghetto we happened to inhabit: suddenly, it was a lot easier to see gays of different ethnicities, faiths, ages, and occupations. And that made it easier for us to work together towards a common cause.