This week EuroPride is being celebrated in Madrid, and even FON is involved having created ChuecaWiFi, a project to FON enable the entire Madrid neigbhorhood of Chueca. This morning on the news (on Spain’s state-owned TV1), the news anchor was reporting on the wonderful level of tolerance in Madrid’s gay community. Likewise, last night I also saw a similar report on TeleMadrid about how happy Chueca’s elderly residents were with their gay neighbors. This got me to thinking about whether a U.S. news channel would also air similar views and reports, or whether the U.S. media is simply too puritanical to portray homosexuality as being integrated into mainstream society.
Out and proud parents
June 28th 2007
As tolerance spreads, gay life is becoming more suburban, contented and even dull
A FEW years ago, a Gay Pride parade passed The Simpsons’ house in Springfield. “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” chanted the marchers. Little Lisa Simpson replied: “You do this every year. We are used to it.” As usual, the cartoon was a few steps ahead of real life. But only a few. The New York Observer recently published an article about gays who think Gay Pride marches are pointless, since the big battles for gay rights have already been won. (The title: “Goodbye, Mr Chaps”.) One non-marcher remarked: “I live in New York, and it’s sort of like every day is Gay Pride Parade. I don’t need this special day where I’m out of the closet.”
Perhaps it is no surprise that gays find a hip city like New York hospitable. But two sets of data suggest that America as a whole is becoming steadily more tolerant. First, opinion polls show that homophobia has receded almost as far as Homer Simpson’s hairline. As recently as 1982, only 34% of Americans thought homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Now, 57% do. Since young Americans are far more relaxed about homosexuality than their elders—three-quarters of 18-34-year-olds think it is OK to be gay, whereas half of those over 55 think it is not—this trend is likely to continue. This year was also the first since Gallup started asking the question that a majority of Americans have not said that homosexual relations are morally wrong. And a hefty 89% think that gays should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities. If that strikes you as no big deal, recall that a total ban on gays working for the federal government was repealed only in 1975.
Second, and more subtly, one can look at demography. Gary Gates, a Californian academic, has been mining census data to determine where gays live in America. He observes several trends. First, the number of openly gay households is growing five times faster than the population as a whole. The last full census, in 2000, counted nearly 600,000 same-sex couples. Five years later, the American Community Survey (in which the Census Bureau quizzes a statistically representative sample of 1.4m households) estimated that that number had increased by 30%, to 777,000. Mr Gates reckons the bulk of the increase is because as tolerance spreads, more gay couples are willing to be counted.
The increase was most pronounced in the Midwest, with Wisconsin showing an 81% jump in the number of same-sex couples and Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana also among the ten fastest-growing states in this respect. What this means, perhaps, is that gay America is becoming more like Middle America. “Much of the stereotype around gays is a stereotype of urban white gay men,” says Mr Gates. “The gay community is becoming less like that, and more like the population in general.” Gay couples are still more likely than straight ones to live in cities, but the gap is smaller than popularly believed, and closing. In 1990, 92% of gay couples but only 77% of American households were in what the Census Bureau calls “urban clusters”. By 2000, the gay figure had fallen to 84% while the proportion for households in general had risen to 80%, a striking convergence.
San Francisco is great if you are young, single and looking for a party. But if you want to settle down with a partner, the suburbs and the heartland beckon. Gays who have children—and a quarter of gay couples do—gravitate towards them for the same reasons that straight parents do: better schools, bigger gardens, peace and quiet. Mark Strasser, for example, lives with his male partner and their two children in Columbus, Ohio. He says they encounter no hostility eating out as a gay couple or picking up the children from their private school. He has to rack his memory for the last time anyone called him anything nasty for being gay. “That would have been in the late 1980s, I think,” he says. His employer, a private university, offers the same health insurance to employees’ gay partners as to spouses (as did most Fortune 500 companies, for the first time, last year).
Mr Strasser has worries, of course. Ohio is one of 26 states with a recent constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. Mr Strasser wonders whether a public school would recognise that his children have two fathers, or if a hospital would allow both of them to visit if one of their children fell ill. This is a serious matter. Only Massachusetts allows same-sex marriage, although six other states have allowed civil unions that are marriages in all but name, and a law allowing full marriage rights passed through the lower house of New York’s state legislature on June 19th. Most Americans are still uncomfortable about letting gays tie the knot, but support for the idea has risen from 27% in 1996 to 46% this year.
Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution argues that the campaign for same-sex marriage was spurred in part by AIDS. For gay Americans, the epidemic put a damper on exuberant promiscuity and highlighted the benefits of loving partnership. Although the last state anti-sodomy laws were struck down only in 2003, sexual liberation is now taken for granted, argues Paul Varnell, a writer. “Far from being radicals of any sort, most of us are just plain ol’ bourgeois,” writes Mr Varnell. “How much more bourgeois can you be than wanting to marry the person you love and wanting to serve in the military?”
The kind of gay activists who think you can’t be authentically gay unless you are permanently in opposition to the mainstream find the prospect of gay assimilation appalling. So does the religious right. A black preacher named Wellington Boone, for example, has circulated a pamphlet entitled “The Rape of the Civil Rights Movement: How Sodomites Are Using Civil Rights Rhetoric to Advance Their Preference for Sexual Perversion”. But he is howling at the incoming tide.