Generational Shift: UWEC professor’s research found that changes in thinking helped normalize gay marriage

Judy Berthiaume, UW-Eau Claire

When Barack Obama was first elected president 10 years ago, just one state in the country – Massachusetts – allowed gay marriage. By the end of Obama’s second term, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states and it was rarely mentioned during the 2016 presidential election.

Kudos to a Democratic president for advancing a cause long championed by liberals? Not so fast, says Dr. Peter Hart-Brinson, an associate professor of sociology at UW-Eau Claire and the author of a new book that explores the nation’s shift in thinking about gay marriage. Credit for making gay marriage a reality throughout the U.S. goes to a generation of young people – conservatives and liberals alike – who see and talk about homosexuality in a way that differs from their parents’ generation, he says.

“The older generation, even older liberals who supported gay marriage, talked about homosexuality as a lifestyle or a choice,” Hart-Brinson says of his research findings. “They saw it as a way of life that gays and lesbians choose to pursue. However, the younger generation talked about homosexuality as part of someone’s identity, much like their race.

“That fundamental shift in our thinking and talking about homosexuality sparked a generational change, which led to the unprecedented rise in support of gay marriage.”

In Hart-Brinson’s newly published book, The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture, he shares his historical analysis of gay marriage, as well as stories gleaned from nearly 100 interviews with two generations of Americans about their views on gay marriage.

The idea for his project came to him 12 years ago when he was teaching a sociology class at UW-Madison. At the time, a debate was raging in the state about a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in Wisconsin.

“My students, regardless of their political or religious beliefs, were all pro-gay marriage,” Hart-Brinson says. “They couldn’t imagine why anyone would be against it. I wanted to keep the discussions balanced but it was hard to pull anything out of them about why someone might support the gay marriage ban.”

When the campus’ conservative newspaper then came out strongly opposed to the gay marriage ban, he decided to study the generational shift around gay marriage that he was witnessing.

“I was curious why there was such a difference in the older and younger generations around this issue,” Hart-Brinson says. “The young conservatives saw it so differently than the older generation of conservatives.”

During the next few years, he interviewed students at two colleges in Illinois, one a traditional campus and one a community college. He also interviewed a parent of each of those students, providing him more than 95 voices representing different generations and a variety of backgrounds.

“The young people I interviewed came of age at a different time than their parents,” Hart-Brinson says. “The comparisons between their experiences are really at the heart of the book. The way people talked about gay marriage depended on their age and their ideology, meaning their political and religious beliefs.”

While his book focuses on gay marriage, it also details how generational change occurs, lessons that are applicable to other societal issues, he says.

“For example, I think the ‘#Me Too’ movement will lead to very long and lasting generational change,” Hart-Brinson says. “In 20 years, we’re going to be talking about this being a time of a big generational shift with respect to sexual assault and women’s rights in general.”

The Gay Marriage Generation was published in October by NYU Press. It is available at The Local Store, 205 N. Dewey St., and online at nyupress.org.

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