January 15, 2016

Gay Marriage, Gun Control and Social Change

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Back in 2004, I was teaching an Introduction to Sociology class when I heard that the mayor of New Paltz was planning to perform same-sex marriages. At the time, the momentum in support of gay marriage had been building nationally and although New Paltz is a relatively small village (population 7,000), I knew the actions of the mayor would reverberate well beyond the town line.

Sensing the potential significance, I took a short walk to village hall to witness this event. I also encouraged the students in the Introduction to Sociology class to join me. I remember trying to convey to the class the historical meaning of the mayor's actions by saying, "30-40 years from now, when gay marriage is legal in the United States, you can tell your grandkids that you witnessed some of the first same-sex wedding ceremonies in the nation. " Little did I know that I would be offering such a pessimistic prediction. It didn't take 30-40 years for gay marriage to become legal; instead, it took only about 10 years. Most of the students in that class probably don't even have kids yet, much less grand kids.

So why was my prediction so off? How did the social, cultural, and political meaning of marriage transform so radically in such a short period of time? The main impetus for this change was the decades of actions by gay-rights activists who organized a national grassroots movement for equality. The legalization of gay marriage, as well as other important victories for the gay-rights movement, would never have occurred without the persistent efforts of multiple generations of individuals who were willing to fight for social change.

But there is another very important and related ingredient to this rapid transformation. As gay-rights initiatives became more widespread and gay-rights activists and their allies became more conspicuous, an increasing number of individuals were interacting with out and openly gay people. In a little over a decade between the gay marriages in New Paltz and the Supreme Court decision to legalize gay marriage in June 2015, the idea that heterosexuality was the only legitimate norm (what sociologists call heternormativity) was in decline.

The most obvious reason for this sea change is that over time, and especially in the past ten years, it has become increasingly likely that most people in the United States know and respect at least one person who does not identify as heterosexual. Whether it's among friends, relatives, co-workers, or even pubic figures—including real ones like Ellen DeGeneres or fictionalized ones such as Cam and Mitch on Modern Familygender non-conforming individuals are part of all of our lives. And public opinion polls confirm that knowing someone who is gay is strongly linked to supporting gay marriage.

The strength of this correlation should not be too surprising. If you are friendly with someone and have love and respect for them, you probably don't want them to be treated unfairly. You probably want them to have the same rights and opportunities that you have. And if they are in a loving and committed relationship, you probably want them to be able to celebrate, honor, and legalize their union, just like you could. This process is a variation of what is often referred to as the familiarity principle or the mere-exposure effect. It suggests that the more we come in contact with someone or something the greater likelihood we will feel favorable towards them.

So how is all of this connected to gun control? It's no secret that there is a deep divide in this country over gun control and gun rights. It's also no secret that no other industrialized country experiences more deaths from firearms than the United States. Since 2001, over 400,000 individuals in the United States have lost their lives to gun violence (compared to a little over 3,000 who lost their lives to terrorism in that same period). And more "than 32,000 persons die and over 67,000 persons are injured by firearms each year."

Gun control advocates are trying to use these statistics to make their case that we need stricter gun control laws in this country. With nearly 100,000 deaths and injuries each year from firearms, gun control advocates are hoping to persuade the American public that all of us are potentially being affected by this scourge. One of the leading advocacy groups in the country, Everytown For Gun Safety, even invokes this argument in their name and their mission statement by stating that, "gun violence touches every town in America."

The strategy of these gun control activists seems to be mirroring that of the gay rights activists of the past ten years. By emphasizing the number of people who suffer firearm injuries or death, and by bringing pubic figures into the mix—such as NBA stars (Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Carmello Anthony) and Hollywood celebrities—groups like Everytown are shifting their tactics. Instead of trying to embarrass politicians who support (or are supported by) the National Rifle Association, the new plan is to emphasize the experiences of victims of gun violence, point out that we could all be victims, and focus on steps to end gun violence.

By advocating for the rights of victims of gun violence, just like gay-marriage activists focused on extending the rights of heterosexuals to all individuals, one might expect that the tide will soon turn and we will experience a new era of gun control legislation. Such optimism might even be justified given that the overwhelming majority of Americans support measures such as expanded background checks, a ban on gun sales to the mentally ill, and the establishment of a federal database to track gun sales.

But anyone who follows gun control in this country knows that this is far from the truth. As President Obama said recently, we will certainly not see any federal gun control legislation in the foreseeable future.

Gay marriage and gun control are obviously two distinct issues with their own set of histories, ideological foundations, and relevant actors. Although we can draw parallels between the two and argue, for instance, that they both focus on the rights of people who are being victimized, the way in which this theme is understood and acted upon may result in two dissimilar directions. It is both interesting from an analytical perspective and significant from a policy perspective to understand how and why these two issues end up on divergent tracks.

When sociologists study social movements and social change, there are many factors that could potentially contribute to the success or failure of a movement. Although a set of strategies may work for one issue that same combination of tactics will not necessarily work for another issue. Such indeterminacy is the norm and it's what makes sociological predictions so difficult. As for gay marriage and gun violence, the only prediction I would be willing to make at this point is that for better or worse (respectively), both will continue.


Sir, don't you go to the church or haven't you read the Bible at all? Or you don't understand simple truths like sky is above and earth is below and truth is good and lies are bad? Man and Woman were created to mate with each other and not man with man or woman with woman. This is the age of lunacy. Sane people are sometimes sidelined. I am sorry to see so many people mouthing words of the devil without wanting to. I am sure you are one of them. The time of truth will come when you won't have to pretend that gay marriage is a good thing.

Thanks for sharing

Man and Woman were created to mate with each other and not man with man or woman with woman. This is the age of lunacy. Sane people are sometimes sidelined. I am sorry to see so many people mouthing words of the devil without wanting to.

Thanks so much for sharing this, I'll teach it to my classes today, down in rural MS!

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