The Gay Rights Letdown Is Here

A new GLAAD poll shows that many Americans thought marriage equality was the pinnacle of LGBT rights.

David Silverman/Getty Images

The honeymoon is over.

Same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide last year in a landmark Supreme Court ruling but, as we enter 2016, new data from GLAAD shows that many Americans believe Obergefell v. Hodges was the finish line for LGBT equality.

Half of all non-LGBT Americans believe that gay people currently have the same rights as everyone else, according to a Harris Poll survey of over 2,000 adults commissioned by GLAAD for its second annual Accelerating Acceptance report.

The findings only get more disheartening from there. Nearly 30 percent of non-LGBT respondents said they feel uncomfortable when they see a same-sex couple holding hands or learn that their child’s teacher is LGBT. A quarter of them believe that high rates of depression and suicide among LGBT people are “not serious” and 27 percent said the same about violence against transgender people.

These numbers are an improvement from last year but not by much. Many fell by only a few percentage points and some—like discomfort with LGBT history lessons being taught in schools or at seeing an LGBT co-worker’s wedding photo—were virtually unchanged. In 2016, it may be legal for a lesbian to get married but she will still likely pause before planting a picture of her spouse on her desk.

Over a third of non-LGBT respondents to the Harris Poll survey—36 percent—said that social acceptance of LGBT people wasn’t a serious problem, even though many of their own survey responses ironically prove that it still is.

“Complacency is the enemy of social progress,” said GLAAD CEO & President Sarah Kate Ellis in a statement accompanying the report. “2015 was a monumental year for the LGBT community, but marriage equality is a benchmark—not a finish line. The hard work of legislative change must go hand in hand with that which cannot be decided in a courtroom: changing hearts and minds.”

The facts about the current state of LGBT acceptance are easy enough to consult: Over half of all states have no statewide employment non-discrimination law covering sexual orientation or gender identity. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids, and a quarter of transgender youth have made an attempt. Twenty-one transgender people, primarily young transgender women of color, were murdered in the U.S. last year—the highest recorded number in history. Those numbers don’t lie, and there are plenty of other sobering statistics where they came from.

But the bitter truth is that we saw this apathy coming.

When same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court last June, leaders of major LGBT organizations in the U.S. told The Daily Beast that their fight was far from over, citing a wide range of remaining issues including employment discrimination, anti-transgender violence, school bullying, detention of LGBT immigrants, bisexual acceptance, and LGBT youth homelessness.

“I have been doing this work long enough that I can predict the future,” Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart said at the time. “The victories will be sweet and some people will declare the movement over—but they will be wrong.”

What’s concerning now is just how many people think it’s over, and just how wrong they are. Somewhere between 20 and 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT but 37 percent of non-LGBT respondents to the Harris Poll survey said the problem wasn’t “serious.” That includes 10 percent who said it was “not at all serious.”

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Almost a quarter said they don’t think HIV in the LGBT community is a serious issue and yet the rate of new infections has “remained relatively stable” over the last decade per CDC data, disproportionately affecting gay and bisexual black and Latino men.

Our LGBT neighbors to the north also warned The Daily Beast last July that marriage could lull the U.S. into a false sense of security.Canada’s largest and oldest LGBT national LGBT organization, Egale, nearly folded in the years after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide in 2005, said Executive Director Helen Kennedy. Egale has since thrived but Kennedy noted that she runs up against “a certain amount of apathy and exhaustion” in her current work.“These are issues that are pressing, they’re very concerning, and they need attention,” she said of Egale’s current work. “But everyone says, ‘You have marriage.’”

The Coming Gay Rights Letdown,” as The Daily Beast labeled it at the time, is here.

In 2012, same-sex marriage was a critical social issue at the heart of the U.S. presidential election. In 2016, LGBT issues have largely been absent from even the Democratic primary debates. Marriage was definitely not the most important issue facing LGBT Americans, but it was certainly the most discussed. The current silence is telling.

“GLAAD’s findings point to a culture of complacency, wherein the non-LGBT public is under the false and potentially dangerous impression that the work for LGBT equality is done,” the report notes.

Even non-LGBT people who described feeling “very or somewhat comfortable” in various situations involving LGBT people—having an LGBT family member, going to church with LGBT people, etc.—had some striking apathy issues. Thirty-seven percent of this subset neither agreed nor disagreed with the following statement: “It is best for a child to be raised by a mother and a father as opposed to two fathers or two mothers.” Once again, this misperception only takes a few clicks to debunk: Columbia Law School’s “What We Know” Project found that 73 of 77 scholarly studies on this subject concluded that children of gay and lesbian parents “fare no worse than other children.”

GLAAD believes that the furor around the legalization of same-sex marriage may have even stalled public knowledge of LGBT issues, at least temporarily. Their report on the Harris Poll data speculates that people may believe gay people have more rights than they do “[p]erhaps because marriage equality was so widely covered by the media in 2015.” If the media treats marriage as a synonym for civil rights, then why wouldn’t public perception follow suit?

In a related finding, respondents who were more uncomfortable with LGBT people were much more likely to say that they “receive more attention today than other minority communities,” suggesting that some bristle at the continuing coverage of these issues post-Obergefell.

But however much media attention LGBT people receive, it’s apparently not enough to convince Americans that their problems are real. Fifty-one percent of this “uncomfortable” subset said that LGBT social acceptance was not a serious problem. Surprise, surprise.

There is still hope, however distant, at the end of the rainbow: Younger Americans are much more likely to be accepting of LGBT people.

GLAAD’s report divided non-LGBT respondents into “allies,” “detached supporters,” and “resisters” based on their self-described comfort level with LGBT people. Younger generations were disproportionately more likely to be “allies,” with those aged 18 to 24 comprising 5 percent of all “resisters” in the sample despite making up 10 percent of the population at large.

Adults between the ages of 45 and 64, on the other hand, were disproportionately more likely to be categorized as “resisters.” In fact, adults between 45 and 54 constituted a quarter of all “resisters” even though they are only 16.4 percent of the total population.

Given these trends, the eventual acceptance of LGBT people seems inevitable. How slowly we get there is a different story. At the current rate, a future when a same-sex couple can hold hands in public with perfect ease is still years away.