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Election Marked Major Gains For Gay Rights Activists

Victories for same-sex marriage activists in four states last week mark a turnaround for them at the ballot box, following losses in 2004 and 2008. The wins come at a time when gay people seem to be enjoying broader acceptance in the U.S. Audie Cornish talks with New Yorker writer Alex Ross. Ross wrote a recent essay about the evolution of the gay rights movement in America.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last week's elections were historic for many reasons. Among them, they brought a remarkable turnaround on the issue of gay marriage. In 2004, same-sex marriage bans made it onto general election ballots in 11 states and passed resoundingly in all of them. This cycle, however, voters in Maine, Maryland and Washington State approved gay marriage. And in Minnesota, they refused to amend their state constitution to define marriage as between a man and woman exclusively.

In a new essay in the New Yorker, Alex Ross writes that this big shift in public opinion on gay issues makes gay people of a certain age feel as though they've stepped out of lavender time machine.

ALEX ROSS: It's a feeling that's been catching up to me as a gay person aged 44, especially in recent years, the sense that the landscape has really drastically changed. And there have been a series of amazing forward leaps, and I think the latest election results on Tuesday marked what may be the most astonishing to date. And it's just been amazing to witness these events that make me feel like someone from another century, from another period just in terms of what I lived through in the 1980s.

CORNISH: A lot has been made about how the gay image in Hollywood has changed over the years and people sort of point to that at times as a reason for this shift. But it sounds like you think that actually Hollywood's behind the curve.

ROSS: Yeah, I'm little skeptical of this notion which, you know, when I was sort of chatting to people about this article, as I was working on it. I said, you know, I'm writing about the history of gay rights in this remarkable progress. And people would very often say: Oh, yes, "Ellen," "Will and Grace," you know, sort of name various pop culture phenomenon that they felt really change things.

And, you know, I remember a time when Hollywood was giving us some very negative portrayals of gay people; this whole slew of movies where gays and lesbians were serial killers, you know, homicidal maniacs, pathetic sissies. And, you know, that persisted, you know, up until the late '80s, early 1990s.

I think there was a deeper social shift that happened first. It's a cumulative the fact of so many people, year after year, generation after generation coming out, telling their family, telling their friends. This really adds up and I think this has propelled the great shift that we have seen. Something else that I would mention as being really important is AIDS activism in the 1980s. If you look at the...

CORNISH: And you talk about this in terms of public perception of gay rights and specifically the touring of the AIDS quilt.

ROSS: Yes. Well, if you just look at polls, the Gallup polls for the question, you know: Should homosexual relations be illegal? At the end of the 1980s, there was a very rapid drop below the 50 percent mark. And I think that really had to do with AIDS. And, of course, at first, AIDS made everyone fear gay people more and sort of made them out to be even more of a threat.

But then the spectacle of people protesting, mourning through the AIDS quilt, this great upwelling of raw emotion that took place at that time, really had the effect of humanizing the gay population. And suddenly this weird group of people who are often seen as soulless, as narcissist and so on, they were just, you know, real people grieving for each other, suffering and dying. And I think perhaps that more than anything else made the political difference at that moment.

CORNISH: The gains for gay rights activists this year come after several years of rejection from voters in many states. And I'm curious to hear in your research what you found made the difference, what this shift was now.

ROSS: Yeah. Well, of course, I should make clear I'm not a licensed political pundit. But, you know, I have been following this stuff pretty closely for a long time. And, you know, yes, everyone remembers what happened in 2004; this sweeping series of anti-gay marriage measures being passed. It really felt like a big defeat. So I think this time around people were also steeling themselves for potential disappointments.

But, you know, as it happened this time around, I don't know how many people out there could have predicted how sweeping these victories would be. I think this is another example of this accelerating pace of change, and the sense that sort of more and more of really the mainstream society, the center of society just isn't hung up on these questions anymore; wants to see basic rights extended to gay people. You know, at least in a lot of states in this country, certainly not in every state.

And to see even sort of no longer a sort of Democratic versus Republican question when you have Dick Cheney - you know, not the very definition of a moderate Republican - endorsing gay marriage. So it's just, you know, ceasing to be a controversy and this is just amazing to witness.

CORNISH: Alex Ross, writer for The New Yorker, thank you so much for talking with us.

ROSS: Sure, thank you.

CORNISH: Alex Ross talking about his essay in the latest edition of The New Yorker. It was called "Love on the March."

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