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Hidden Brain: America's Changing Attitudes Toward Gay People


We have a deeper look this morning at one of the most profound shifts in public attitudes ever recorded - it's the public view of people who are gay and lesbian.

For much of this nation's history, of course, the vast majority of people disapproved of homosexuality so strongly that anyone who came out was guaranteed to face difficulty and even risked danger. NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explores how that has changed so quickly.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: In 2003, when William Cox was 18, he came out to his parents as gay. They weren't happy about it.

WILLIAM COX: It became just a big argument. It was kind of incoherent because it was a big yelling, crying sort of affair.

VEDANTAM: One day, Cox and his dad were in the car.

COX: And my dad said, you just love stabbing us in the heart, don't you? - something like that. And I said to him, don't be so dramatic. And then he pulled over the car, took my backpack out of the backseat and tossed it in the ditch on the side of the road and said, that's dramatic.

VEDANTAM: Cox got out of the car. He says his father drove off, leaving him clutching his backpack by the side of the road. He didn't go home. In the weeks and months that followed, he slept on friends' couches, stayed in school, made a life for himself. Today, he's a social psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It's been more than 15 years since that incident. Cox says both he and his dad have moved forward.

COX: After this kind of emotional period right after I came out, he started drawing parallels to what LGBT people are going through to the Civil Rights Movement. And I think his overarching principles of fairness really kind of started shining through with relation to this.


VEDANTAM: The arc of Cox's personal story mirrors a dramatic change across the United States.

MICHAEL ROSENFELD: There's more and more rapid change in attitudes towards gay rights in the past 30 years in the United States than there ever has been in recorded attitudes in the United States on any issue.

VEDANTAM: Stanford sociologist Michael Rosenfeld measures changes in public opinions using data from a long-running survey of American attitudes.

ROSENFELD: In 1988, when the General Social Survey first asked the question about same-sex marriage, only 11.6 percent of respondents said that they thought same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

VEDANTAM: But by 2018, the number of Americans who said same-sex couples should have the right to marry? Sixty-eight percent.

ROSENFELD: That's a really dramatic change. It's rare for public opinion on contested issues to change that much.

VEDANTAM: Harvard psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has tracked decades of data about people's implicit or hidden biases. She has seen similar results.

MAHZARIN BANAJI: So the most surprising result comes from the sexuality test. We see a 33 percent drop in anti-gay bias. This is huge.

VEDANTAM: What caused this shift? Rosenfeld says one factor is that gay people are far more visible today than they were before.

ROSENFELD: It's in the period when gay and lesbian people come out of the closet that straight Americans' attitudes about gay rights really start to shift.


VEDANTAM: A surge of people came out during the '80s and '90s in response to a health crisis that was claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans.

EVAN WOLFSON: AIDS broke the silence about who gay people are.

VEDANTAM: This is gay rights activist Evan Wolfson.

WOLFSON: It changed our movement from being a movement about wanting to be, basically, let alone - don't harass us, don't attack us, don't persecute us - into a movement about being let in. We want to be part of. We want to participate. We want to share.

VEDANTAM: The epidemic also galvanized organizing efforts.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDs. Act up. Fight back. Fight AIDs.

(Chanting) History will recall Reagan and Bush did nothing at all. History will recall Reagan and Bush did nothing at all.

VEDANTAM: By the 1990s, protests began to translate into more visibility in pop culture.


ELLEN DEGENERES: I'm so afraid to tell people. I mean, I just - Susan, I'm gay.


LAURIE METCALF: (As Jackie) Tell us about the guy.

ROSEANNE BARR: (As Roseanne) Yeah. Come on, why don't you tell us?

METCALF: (As Jackie) What's his name?

SANDRA BERNHARD: (As Nancy) All right. Her name is Marla. I'm seeing a woman.


VEDANTAM: Stories are powerful in changing people's attitudes. Evan Wolfson took this idea and ran with it. His strategy was to sell the story of equality through marriage.

WOLFSON: If we could claim the language of marriage, a vocabulary of shared values - love, commitment, family, inclusion, dignity, respect - that would help non-gay people better understand who gay people really are and allow us to share equally not only in marriage, but in everything.

VEDANTAM: Wolfson thought marriage equality could win over straight people who were needed as allies.

WOLFSON: The vast majority of judges who are going to rule on the question, the vast majority of legislators who have to take action, the vast majority of voters are, of course, not gay. We can't just write them all off.

VEDANTAM: Sociologist Michael Rosenfeld says that strategy has translated into victories beyond marriage.

ROSENFELD: Attitudes towards every kind of gay rights has increased in a similar way - not quite as fast, but in a similar way to marriage equality. And then, what little data we have on trans rights also suggests that there's been a sharp increase in appreciation for the rights of trans people.

And I think one of the things that has been shown by the Marriage Equality Movement is that if you're a gay or lesbian, you have more rights than you used to have. And that's - those rights are important. They have ramifications for everybody, whether they want to marry or not.

VEDANTAM: Wolfson says the work is not done for gay rights and for other movements for change.


VEDANTAM: He says sometimes it's easy to feel like your efforts aren't making any difference.

WOLFSON: Imagine this, you know, temple or fortress resting on these pillars. And you go in there, and you're shaking the pillars. And you're shaking and shaking and shaking, but you're - you haven't yet brought it down. And so it feels like nothing's happening.

And then you finally are able to engage one and maybe two and maybe three of these pillars. And you shake them, and you bring it down. And the whole edifice collapses. Suddenly, it's - the whole thing you've been banging your head against, struggling with, now is gone.

VEDANTAM: Sometimes, progress can come in fits and starts. And your efforts may be more powerful than you think. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

INSKEEP: Shankar hosts Hidden Brain, which is a podcast and radio show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.