Blake Wilkinson was puzzled when he saw the young 20-something mixed among a group of graying anti-gay marriage protesters.
“It struck me — it just seemed she was out of place,” says Wilkinson, a 22-year-old junior at DePaul University, who was standing on the opposite side of a downtown Chicago street to demand marriage licenses for same-sex couples from the county clerk.
As a young gay man, Wilkinson is well aware that the majority of Americans are against giving same-sex couples the right to marry. “But generally, they’re, well ...” he says pausing, “older.”
Polls show there’s some truth to Wilkinson’s impression.
While the majority of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage, people younger than 30 have consistently been more supportive of it than their elders.
For instance, a poll taken last month for the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania showed that just over half of people ages 18 to 29 would oppose a law in their states that would allow lesbians and gay men to marry a same-sex partner. That compares with 61 percent of 30- to 44-year-olds; two-thirds of 45- to 64-year-olds; and 81 percent of those 65 and older.
The poll also found that fewer than half of those younger than 30 supported a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Different notion of ‘normal’
Experts say the difference in attitudes can largely be tracked to young people’s exposure to homosexuality in everyday life.
They grew up with gay activists protesting to get AIDS patients access to the latest drugs — and as government officials debated the issue of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military. Celebrities such as Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres came out, and many TV shows have incorporated gay characters and themes.
“Young people have a different idea of what is normal,” says Frank Furstenberg, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist and senior research scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families.
It’s a notion that concerns conservatives, some of whom are working to counter what they see as society’s drift toward “normalizing” homosexuality. Meanwhile, the trend fascinates Furstenberg and other academics. They wonder what the world will be like for lesbian and gay couples a couple of decades from now.
“These young people will one day become policy-makers, CEOs, religious leaders, parents and teachers,” says Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker at San Francisco State University who studies gay, lesbian and bisexual youth and their families.
For now, the younger generation is clearly split.
Matt Haltzman, a high school freshman in Barrington, R.I., says he doesn’t think gay activists “need to be creating laws or creating a big ordeal.” He says he firmly believes what he’s learned in his Jewish religion classes: “Marriage is between a man and a woman.”
But other young people say that knowing someone who is gay or lesbian has caused them to rethink their views. “We should be promoting love, while it lasts — and preventing hate,” says Tara Laskowski, a 26-year-old graduate student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
Others wish politicians would turn their focus elsewhere.
“First, I want to feel that when I graduate next year, I will be able to find a decent, good-paying job,” says Gabe LeDonne, a junior at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He’s been discussing such issues in a nonpartisan, campaign 2004 focus group and says same-sex marriage was among the easiest matters to agree upon.
“The group didn’t see much difference between this and the discrimination of blacks through the 1960s in the name of ‘separate but equal,”’ the 22-year-old says.
Those against same-sex marriage, however, think such young people are making a mistake.
“They are buying into it at higher rates than older generations, many of whom are married and understand from experience why it’s important to have a mother and a father,” says 25-year-old Scott Davis, youth director for Exodus International, a Florida-based group that promotes “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.”
Michele Ammons, spokeswoman for the Christian Coalition, finds hope in the fact that some younger generations, particularly teens, are showing an interest in more conservative religious values. She points to the fact that many are flocking to see the Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of the Christ.”
“I think this is a very smart generation that is going back to traditional values because so many of them haven’t had that,” she says.
Yet Anne Ledford, a student at Centre College in Danville, Ky., says it was her “very conservative” church upbringing that prompted her to accept the idea of marriage for same-sex couples.
“It’s ironic now because my family does not, in any way, condone gays or gay marriage,” the 22-year-old senior says. “Yet it was my parents and their church that taught me to love people different than me.”