The biggest social issue of the Generation X lifespan sparked high emotions, protests, propositions, legal decisions and political backpedaling.
Rights for gay and lesbian Americans — to marry, to serve in the military, to live and raise families in the open — came faster than any of the civil rights successes of the prior generation, in large part because Gen Xers and the Millennials behind them had no zeal for laws against the LGBT community.
The rapid success, or just the success in general, “is generational,” said Art Levine, an attorney and professor of ethics and legal studies at Cal State Long Beach who worked in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in the mid-1960s during the height of the Civil Rights movement.
For people in Gen X and younger, “it’s a non-issue,” Levine said. “People are growing up now without the same biases their parents might have had. It’s no big deal to them for people of the same sex to get married.”
Carl Kemp, who has worked in politics for 20 years, cut to the chase: “Bigotry and prejudice end because gradually, it just becomes stupid. That’s when the fear dies.”
A survey of attitudes about same-sex marriage shows the wide gulf between generations. According to a 2015 survey from Pew Research Center:
• 70 percent of Millennials (born 1981 and later) favor same-sex marriage
• 59 percent of Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) are in favor
• 45 percent of Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) are in favor
• 39 percent of the Silent Generation (born 1928 to 1945) are in favor
As Gen X and Millennials gain prominence and power at the polls and in governance, support for gay marriage has jumped 23 percent since Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2003.
OTHER RIGHTS CAME SLOW
Compared to the civil rights movements of African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s and the women’s rights movement of the 1970s, the fight for gay rights has moved with stunning speed. When Gen X’s Baby Boomer parents were young, in the late 1950s, more than 90 percent of the country was against marriage between blacks and whites. Same-sex marriage wasn’t even on the radar as an issue to poll about.
While some 40 years passed before a majority of Gallup survey respondents were OK with mixed-race marriages, the swing from a majority being opposed to same-sex marriage to the majority finding it acceptable was a mere decade.
While there was a severe backlash to same-sex marriage after Massachusetts made it legal 12 years ago — in 2004, a dozen states passed constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage, eventually totaling 30, including California with its hotly fought Proposition 8 — marriage between gay or lesbian couples became legal nationwide on June 26, 2015, just as the vanguard of Gen X was turning 50.
‘THESE RIGHTS CAUGHT UP TO US’
The LGBT community itself went from hiding in the closet to marching in gay pride parades and having leading characters in mainstream TV shows (“Dynasty,” “Days of Our Lives” and “Will and Grace”) and popular films (“The Birdcage,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Kids Are All Right”).
Ellen DeGeneres even appeared on the cover of Time when she came out as lesbian and went on to host a highly rated daytime talk show.
James Gilliam, 45, the deputy executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, who is openly gay, never dreamed these days would happen, he said.
“During the 1980s and 1990s, there wasn’t much to celebrate for gay people on the federal level,” he said. “That’s when ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ (the military’s attempt to let gays and lesbians serve in the military as long as they didn’t reveal their sexual orientation) and the Defense of Marriage Act (which outlawed same-sex marriage) were passed.
“I didn’t grow up imagining a gay wedding. This is all new to me. I didn’t have these dreams,” said Gilliam, who grew up in Tennessee. “I didn’t grow up imagining a world where I could freely express my sexual orientation or realize the dream of becoming a parent. These rights caught up to us.”
Jennifer Reed, 51, an associate professor in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Cal State Long Beach, was shocked by the progress.
“Shame was such a part of the identity in the 1970s and 1980s. I came out in 1984 when I was 20. I thought I had a cancer diagnosis. It was horrible,” said Reed, who grew up in Westminster.
“Now we have role models and an openness about it,” Reed said. “Younger people come out with less trouble. It’s not true everywhere; we still have a lot of shame around sexuality, but some of the shame is lifted.”
Kemp, a Gen Xer who grew up in South Los Angeles, said as a young man he was “homophobic and ignorant” when he enrolled at Cal State Long Beach. But college was a game-changer, he said.
“Being in the Associated Students with all these other people of different races and beliefs, I had an awakening,” he said. “I actively wanted to be a better person and have a better understanding of people. I try to transfer that same desire, along with my wife, to my daughters.”
Kemp, who is black, says the struggle for gay rights mirrors the 1960s Civil Rights movement, “which most people associate with blacks, but it really was about all people. That movement was seeking change for all people, and the women’s movement and the gay movement is continuing that.”
Levine disagrees a bit: “It’s a long road between the Civil Rights movement and the gay rights movement. The Civil Rights movement was very much about blacks. The short answer, I think, if you’re asking what the Civil Rights, women’s and gay movements had in common, it’s that collectively they’ve all made the 14th Amendment, equal rights under the law, more fully realized.”
MORE WORK TO BE DONE
Jon Higgins, 30, the assistant director of multicultural affairs at CSULB, argues the mission isn’t fully accomplished and the movement needs some new faces.
“Who are the faces of the LGBTQ movement? The faces have been white men for a long time,” Higgins said. “Equality had been equated to getting married, but the issues people of color are facing are more than marriage. … What about my rights as a black, queer man? Where are people who look like me? How are we enriching the lives of queer people of color outside of marriage?
“We need to challenge what equality means and what equity means,” he said.