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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Why the change of public opinion on same-sex marriage?

Published: Sunday, April 13 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Euell Santistevan of Denver holds a rainbow flag during a protest outside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Denver on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

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Last week, Utahns witnessed an unprecedented event: local plaintiffs and defendants — with their respective counsel — gathered in Denver to argue whether Utah's prohibition of same-sex marriage is constitutional. It is interesting that the Utah case may be the impetus for the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down or uphold the traditional definition of marriage. The politics of this issue have changed dramatically in the last decade. We offer our perspectives:

In the last several years, the country has flipped on same-sex marriage — as have a lot of politicians. In 2003, 60 percent of Americans believed that marriage should be defined as a union between a man and a woman. The same percentage now supports legal marriage for same-sex couples. How did this remarkable change occur so fast?

Pignanelli: "Well, I think maybe we've been out-marketed, sometimes. We've been caricatured as being anti-gay." — Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan

Although a Democratic lawmaker representing a blue legislative district, I supported the 1995 legislation prohibiting same-sex marriage and defended my position while running for mayor of liberal Salt Lake City. Thus, I understand the difficulty of messaging this issue — balancing a discussion of society imperatives without attacking personal lifestyles.

However, right-wing political militants adopted a clueless strategy that backfired. They attempted to scare Americans with the "gay agenda." Conversely, leftist activists coaxed gays and lesbians out of the closet knowing Americans would become comfortable with friends possessing a different sexual orientation. The louder the extremists screamed, the more citizens rejected the rhetoric as not jibing with reality.

Many initiatives prohibiting same-sex marriages included basic domestic partnership arrangements. Over time this offended the basic fairness of Americans. Further, political and religious leaders who cheated on their spouses were criticized but not demonized, as were gays and lesbians for their sexual activities. This is a hypocrisy that percolates. Polls demonstrate antagonism toward same-sex marriage nose-dived during the Great Recession. Americans were more concerned about their 401(k)s and jobs than the hitching of the gay couple next door.

Same-sex marriage advocates were armed with Hollywood and liberal media outlets. But traditionalists played into their hands by appealing to the darker fears of Americans. A Ronald Reagan optimistic approach that respected American common sense and high ideals would have delivered a different result.

Webb: Big social movements often percolate below the surface before emerging as mainstream opinion. In this case, as more and more gay people stopped hiding their sexual orientation, people discovered they’re pretty regular folks, and the walls came down. Young people, in particular, don’t know what the fuss is about.

Most fair-minded people came to understand that having same-sex attraction isn’t a perversion or character flaw and that most gay people can’t just quit “being that way.” The societal change certainly took the political world by surprise. Remember, only a very short time ago liberal luminaries like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed same-sex marriage.

As I've written previously, I have wonderful friends, neighbors and fellow church members who are gay. I've had many heartfelt discussions with them and I have great empathy for their feelings and challenges. We should all fight discrimination in housing and employment, and civil unions should be recognized.

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