A majority of Republicans say they’d be just fine voting for a gay or lesbian candidate, according to a new poll from McClatchy and Marist College. They’re less comfortable, however, when the issue strikes closer to home: Six in 10 Republicans say they’d be upset if their son or daughter were gay. Just over 20 percent say they’d be “very upset.”
Ironically — or fittingly enough — having a gay kid is the best medicine for conservative parents scared of raising a sissy or a tomboy. The strongest predictor of attitudes about homosexuality is knowing someone who is gay or lesbian. Whether it’s fair or not, gay kids born into conservative families end up having to reeducate their parents.
The scenario is a familiar one: When I first came out, my own parents would have fallen into the category of Republicans uncomfortable with having a gay kid. And because being a conservative makes you no less likely to have one, since then it’s been a perverse pleasure to see many right-wingers end up with a gay son or daughter. I’m a nonbeliever, but it’s hard not to think it’s divine retribution when a gun-toting, kick-’em-in-the-ass Republican dad has a son who likes a different kind of drag-racing.
But in nearly every case, being a parent wins out over being a conservative. That’s not to say there isn’t a learning curve. After the initial shock wears off and it’s clear this isn’t a phase, right-wing parents typically enter the “don’t ask, don’t tell” period. If you ask them, they might tell you they’re fine with it — or have at least come to terms with the fact it’s not changing — but they’ll never bring it up, and go quiet if anyone broaches the topic. “It’s your private business” is a typical refrain during this phase; unlike heterosexuality, which is considered PG enough to be in everyone’s face most of the time — think baby carriages on the street, romantic comedies — talking about being gay is like talking about autoerotic asphyxiation (in other words, not appropriate dinner conversation).
It’s only once you bring your partner home that it stops being an abstraction, and conservative parents truly have to come to terms with it. This is usually when things come to a head. You can choose to welcome your gay children and their partners into your home. Or you start to see them less and less — over time, as their lives progress, you become the estranged family back home. Faced with this choice, even the most hardened conservatives open their minds — hell, even Dick Cheney did — and with familiarity comes acceptance. The more interaction conservative parents have with their gay kids, their partners and families, the harder it is to see it as a weird fetish. It starts to look like ordinary life.
You could say American conservatives as a whole are in the “don’t ask, don’t tell” phase when it comes to gay rights. While a majority now say it would make no difference if a candidate were gay or lesbian, most still oppose same-sex marriage.
But they’re not willing to address the issue head on: About 60 percent of Republicans surveyed in the McClatchy/Marist poll said they preferred the states decide the issue. As Paul Waldman at the American Prospect points out, that’s a side-step, an uncomfortable dinner discussion put off for later. This passive stance, however, is effectively what has allowed same-sex marriage to move forward. Conservatives realize that gay marriage is only going to move forward, and if they want to avoid being branded as intolerant jerks, they can’t be too loud about their opposition.
If you want to be uncharitable, your takeaway from the latest survey of attitudes about gay rights could be that most conservatives are indeed hateful bigots. But given the progress gay rights have made in the last decade — and how “inevitable” having same-sex marriage nationwide now seems — I think gay-rights supporters can afford to step back and try to see where they’re coming from.
Only recently could gay people get married, have kids and expect to lead lives in which their sexuality didn’t hold them back professionally. By no means is that the case everywhere or for everyone, but for a long time being gay was synonymous with social exclusion, loneliness and, of course, AIDS. Given that grim picture, it’s hard not to see how some parents might be upset if their son or daughter were gay.
My parents worried that being gay would make my life more difficult, and that I’d never be able to have a family. They worried that people would want to hurt me because of my sexuality. This isn’t to say they weren’t prejudiced. Like most conservatives — and until recently, most Americans — they had passively absorbed society’s negative attitudes about gays and lesbians. And it took them a good 10 years to get with the program. As they came to know my partner and other gay people, their attitudes changed dramatically. To my chagrin, they still vote Republican, but they now firmly support gay rights.
In 1999, only 39 percent of Americans said they had a friend, family member or colleague who was gay. Today, that number has jumped to over 70 percent. Once you know a gay person, support for gay rights becomes a foregone conclusion: 12 percent of the McClatchy/Marist poll’s respondents also say they’ve switched from opposing gay marriage to supporting it.
Conservatives, and conservative parents, might be slower on the uptake, but as gays and lesbians become more visible — as friends, colleagues, sons and daughters come out — they will be forced to come to terms with gays in the same way the rest of Americans already have. They might not do so happily, but unless they want to get left behind, they’ll come around.