That gays are more widely accepted in American society is readily apparent in everything from television sitcoms to corporate anti-discrimination policies to recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions.
Less apparent is why and how the shift in attitude occurred. Although some religious and social leaders believe the new visibility of gays points to a national moral decline, the evolution of attitudes about gays is a complex brew of factors, according to historians, social psychologists and others who have studied the phenomenon.
The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., has compiled 30 years' worth of major public opinion poll results on Americans' attitudes toward homosexuals. While the surveys consistently show that about two- thirds of Americans oppose gay marriage, an issue that has now reached the California Supreme Court, they also demonstrate remarkable shifts on numerous other fronts. For example:
* Public acceptance of gays in the military grew from 51% in a 1977 Gallup Poll to 80% in 2003.
* Approval of gays as elementary school teachers grew from 27% in 1977 to 61% over the same period.
* A 1999 Gallup survey showed that 59% would vote for a well-qualified presidential candidate who was homosexual, up from 26% in 1978.
"There's been an enormous increase in tolerance -- that's the bottom line," said Karlyn Bowman, who compiled the poll results for the institute.
Some of the factors fueling the changes have been related to gays' own efforts, some have not. Some factors have opposed one another, some have been mutually reinforcing. The black civil rights movement, changes in state and local laws, the AIDS epidemic and even the Sept. 11 catastrophe have been part of the mix.
Two powerful societal forces associated with the 1960s -- the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement -- are credited with driving the change in attitude.
The emergence of widespread contraception and a new insistence on sexual privacy were key elements in Americans' evolving view of sexuality, according to Gregory Herek, a UC Davis psychology professor and an authority on sexual orientation and prejudice. That a person's sexual behavior was his or her affair, and not society's, became an accepted precept.
That philosophy eventually led last year to the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which abolished anti-sodomy laws. Just 17 years earlier, in Bowers vs. Hardwick, the high court had upheld Georgia's anti-sodomy law, essentially agreeing that homosexuality was a crime.
"In the Bowers case, the court's opinion essentially trivialized the lives of gay people," said Herek, who helped prepare abolitionist briefs in both high court cases. "In the Lawrence opinion, the court recognized the important role sex plays in people's lives, and recognized gay people as human beings. The tone was so different. It was a tremendous change."
Civil Rights' Influence
Whether that change was viewed as good or bad, it occurred in part because the black civil rights movement -- well organized, passionately led and highly visible -- served as a model for subsequent movements.
"It became imaginable to talk about the harassment of gay workers really only after people had talked about the harassment of African American workers, Latino workers and women workers," said University of Chicago historian George Chauncey, who has chronicled the evolution of gay culture.
Moreover, according to Cornell University psychology professor Daryl Bem, "each of these civil rights movements has moved faster than the one before."
Most historians mark the so-called Stonewall riots of 1969 as the first flaring of gay militancy. When gay men took to the streets after police raided the Stonewall Inn bar in New York's Greenwich Village, they showed other gays that they need not be invisible or silent.
In response to pressure from newly vocal gay groups, the American Psychiatric Assn. in 1973 removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In Herek's view, that toppled one of three pillars on which prejudice against gays traditionally rested. "Up to that point, homosexuality could be a sin, a crime and a sickness, and that took one of those away," he said.
The 1970s also saw early attempts to include gays in local anti-discrimination laws. Acceptance began to surge after large numbers of gays began to come out of the closet.
"The act of coming out has probably been the single most important determinant in the change in public opinion polls," said Brad Sears, who directs the Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law at UCLA Law School. "People learn that this isn't some kind of abstract, foreign, exotic creature. This is somebody who lives down the street."