- Jul 2013
Yes indeed, it would be great if people were more honest with themselves. That said, I would argue that we know rather well what changes minds and what prompts acceptance versus persecution. Groups are accepted when the majority feels that the minority group in question is sufficiently similar to the majority in all the ways that are deemed to be important that the noticeable differences that remain are judged to be relatively trivial.It would be great if more people were honest with themselves and others about how their thinking evolved over time, because it would provide us with insights for promoting future evolution towards social justice. But, people get so embarrassed about having been pro-Nazi, pro-segregation, anti-Gay, etc., that they lie to themselves and others, and deprive society of hints about what finally reached them. Then again, maybe for most of them it's as simple as a fundamental social impulse of wanting to be part of the crowd -- when the crowd was anti-gay-marriage, so were they, and once they perceived the crowd had shifted, they did, too. That would explain why it can be so painfully slow to reach a point where the majority favors something, but then so rapid to move from there to the point where few will admit to ever having opposed it.
Anyway, in my own case, I was an anti-gay bigot as a kid -- up through most of high school, really. That was in the late 1980s. I think it was partly just insecurity about my own sexuality. I was not exactly an accomplished lady's man, and I had a geekiness that didn't play well in the tough towns I was living in. Even my dad (a right-wing Vietnam Vet and career military officer) commented on my "fruity" friends, and probably had grave concerns I might swing that way. So, there was probably some worry on my own part that I might not be as manly as I should be, and displays of homophobia were a way of assuring myself and others that I wasn't one of the "homos." I even remember getting violently angry at a guy I thought had hit on me. Then I had a couple serious girlfriends, got laid, etc., and I stopped being insecure. I also had several openly gay friends, and knew from experience that I had no attraction towards them. At that point, I no longer gave a crap if anyone else might mistake me for gay. If a guy had hit on me, I'd just have been vaguely flattered. I think it was that self-knowledge and that familiarity which "fixed" my attitudes.
In the case of Gays and Lesbians, this transition – from dangerous, predatory deviants to the nice couple next door – took place over about 50 years, yes? Surely this change was driven primarily by rather dramatic changes that occurred over that span in our society’s views regarding the role of sex in romantic partnerships, the need for rigidly-defined gender roles between long-term couples, the need for and purpose of long-term romantic partnerships, and the meaning and purpose of “marriage” in society. These were cultural changes driven mainly by technological and related demographic and political changes, no? Circumstances changes, and then people’s attitudes regarding what was right and wrong, necessary and unnecessary changed as well. By and large at the most basic level it wasn’t a conscious, deliberate process.
A lot of these changes in attitudes toward same-sex relationships that were already underway were catalyzed by the AIDS epidemic in that the illness forcibly “outed” many LGB individuals, including not incidentally several very famous individuals who were well known and well liked, and inescapably provided many graphic and tragic illustrations of real human suffering. Of course it also politicized a generation of gay men and women who might have otherwise lived their lives in relative complacency. All of that created a scenario in which most of the old reasons for demonizing LGB folks had largely faded away and society as a whole were being challenged to provide sound and just reasons for continued non-acceptance. Eventually, most folks could no longer provide those reasons, particularly when Gays and Lesbians became something more in most people’s minds than the weird inhabitants of far away ghettos in New York and San Francisco.
So yes, for most people the change in their personal attitudes or opinions amounts to going along with the crowd. Society changes, culture changes, and eventually things reach a tipping point and then attitudes can change very quickly.
Now, that’s not to say that logical arguments in favor of fairness and equality aren’t important. They are. But they’re important not so much for being correct (although obviously they need to be sound to be persuasive), but for providing folks whose minds are already open to change with convincing justifications to support that change. Gays and Lesbians made essentially the same logical arguments in favor of their rights for more than a hundred years before they started to get much traction. Their arguments didn’t suddenly become much more persuasive around the middle of the last century, social standards and cultural mores had shifted to the point where a sufficient number of people were open to the logic that had been there all along.
And that’s the story of just about every civil rights movement, isn’t it? Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t necessarily more compelling that Fredrick Douglass, but the times were different. History is rife with examples of individuals who “spoke truth to power” years before most folks were ready to listen to them. Sometimes they helped to drive change, sometimes they were simply voices in the wilderness who weren’t appreciated until long after they fell silent. Hard to know who’s who at the time…
Anyway, I agree with you that being secure in one’s own thoughts and feelings generally allows one to regard those who are different with a greater degree of equanimity. Not every homophobe is a closet case, certainly. But those who exhibit greater degrees of raw emotion and an acute need to prove their virtue to themselves and others in the presence of sexual variation are often those who are dealing with unacknowledged or repressed feelings. Or some kind of trauma that hasn’t been fully processed… Or they’re individuals who feel an acute need to whip up a good pogrom for social or political reasons. Or some combination of the above...
As for me, I certainly grew up in a time and place in which Gays and Lesbians were exotic inhabitants of far away ghettos. I didn’t know any “out” gay people until I went away to college, and even then I thought of them as weird and brave and foolhardy. But around that time I decided that my own personal feelings of disgust – or not – regarding other people’s sexual proclivities really ought not to carry any particular ethical weight. And lo and behold, I found that over time those reflexive feelings really did more or less fade to relative insignificance when it came to shaping my impressions of others. It took a long time, though.
How universal that experience might be I couldn’t say. I never felt threatened by gay people and I never reacted to any advances with anger or hostility. I did once upon a time believe they were miserable sinners who needed to repent and change, but I believed that about most people. It’s how I was raised; I grew out of it.