The fastest cultural attitude shift is over LGBT rights

Sep 10, 2013

There’s something fascinating about the period in which two cultures or technologies clash. Usually, it is clear after a few months or years which side is going to win. But there are always holdouts. Sometimes these struggles are intense, short and complete, as when the VHS format for videotapes defeated the Betamax technology back in the early 1980s. It took somewhat longer for DVDs to beat out videotapes, but it was again clear which would win.

Sometimes the old technology hangs on, at least with a small minority or a set of hobbyists. People still ride horses, and there is somewhat of a retro boomlet in vinyl records. Print is clearly giving way to online, but I suspect some dead tree publications will remain.

Interestingly, much the same sort of thing happens in terms of culture. There is little doubt that marijuana for recreational use will eventually be completely tolerated, if not legalized.

Those of us over 60 can remember when it was scandalous for a young couple to live together before marriage. Today, it’s widely seen as normal, outside some conservative religious circles.

But I don’t think I have ever seen a faster sea change in terms of cultural attitudes than in issues involving human sexuality.  Nearly one-fifth of all Michiganders now live in communities with ordinances protecting LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) citizens from housing or employment discrimination. Nearly all have done this in the last few years, and more are certain to follow before this year is out, according to a report in the Gongwer News Service yesterday.  

To be sure, recognizing a right is one thing, and there’s a real question as to how militantly laws against discrimination are going to be enforced. Michigan still has a constitutional prohibition against gay marriage, though that soon could be scrapped, either by a U.S. Supreme Court decision or a statewide vote to repeal it.

There are also intensive efforts under way to convince the legislature to expand Michigan’s hallowed Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to extend statewide protection against discrimination to sexual orientation. Given the sway cultural conservatives hold over the GOP, I have a hard time thinking that this set of lawmakers is likely to do this.

Nor should we forget that the state’s Republican National Committeeman, Dave Agema, posted a hate-filled rant against gays on Facebook this year, and was neither removed from his post nor even censured. But such views are no longer mainstream.

Within in the past decade, there’s been steadily growing recognition that sexual orientation is something you are born with, and that LGBT people are essential parts of their communities. Again, this is not a view some religious denominations accept. 

But it may be worth noting that the Roman Catholic Church still officially opposes artificial contraception. Yet surveys show the vast majority of Catholics use it these days, and the church essentially looks the other way.

Half a century ago there was absolutely no acknowledgment that gays had any rights at all. That we have come so far gives us reason to hope that in some ways Michigan’s future just might be better than the past, after all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.