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Before The Supreme Court Considers Gay Marriage, An American Change Of Heart

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Before his son came out to him, Mike Neubecker had never thought about same-sex marriage. It was 1991; few Americans had. Sodomy was still a crime and gay rights activists were more focused on issues like AIDS, the military and anti-discrimination laws. What little Neubecker knew about the gay rights movement, he didn't like.

He remembers laughing derisively about the University of Michigan's attempts to kick the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, or ROTC, off campus because of the military's policy at the time of not accepting openly gay troops. That year, his son Lee was a freshman at Eastern Michigan University, and was set to join ROTC himself. But Lee's plans changed at the end of the year, when he and the other new recruits were instructed to sign papers stating that they weren't gay. In the room where the recruits were gathered, his classmates started pounding on the tables shouting, "No fags! No fags!"

Lee didn't sign the paper. Instead, he called home and told his mom that he was gay. Neubecker only found out two and half months later, when he stumbled upon some literature for families of gay people hidden in the spare sock drawer in his bedroom. Three days of crisis followed this discovery.

A small business owner who was raised Catholic in a white, conservative suburb of Detroit, Neubecker said he first felt a "rush of rage."

"I remember saying to my wife, 'This can't be happening, I won't stand for this.'" He called and left a message with his son. Then, wanting to be "armed to the teeth" for the conversation, he walked to the local bookstore and headed to the Christian section. He found a book called "How Will I Tell My Mother" and started reading it. The book, which purports to offer "a way out of homosexuality for those who want to escape," explained that his son wasn't gay, just confused and sick.

On the second day, he drove down to Cincinnati, a four-and-a-half-hour drive, to talk to his old pastor. He didn't dare talk to any of his neighbors or people at the local church. The pastor listened carefully and told Neubecker to tell his son he loved him, but warned him not to speak about it to anyone else.

When he returned home, he called an 800 number listed in the back of the book. "They said, 'Oh Michael, your son should come here and see our facility. We can help him.' Then, they asked for my insurance policy number," he recalled. "They said they would put it down as severe mental depression."

It wasn't until the third day that Neubecker finally got on the phone with his son. "Your mother thinks you might be gay," he began.

"No, Dad, I am gay," Lee replied.

Lee had already been going to a gay rights group for months to prepare for this conversation -- one that Neubecker now sees as a turning point. "I realized my son was not severely depressed," he said. "I was."

In just the last decade, millions of Americans, from former Vice President Dick Cheney to President Barack Obama, have changed their positions on the rights of gay people. On same-sex marriage in particular, there's been a shift of opinion so dramatic that it leaves political historians grasping for comparisons. As the Supreme Court prepares to hear two historic cases that could shape the future of same-sex marriage in America, some activists privately worry that the country and its highest court still aren't ready. They point to the millions of Americans who would still deny gays the right to the marry, the 32 states where same-sex marriage is still banned, and the fear of a backlash like the one that followed Roe v. Wade and froze progress in the pro-choice movement for decades.

But others say the time is right. In 2004, just 30 percent of Americans told pollsters that they supported legalizing same sex marriage. Less than a decade later, as one recent poll showed, that percentage has climbed to nearly 60. For the first time in history, the majority of Americans support gay rights.

While social scientists struggle to pinpoint exactly what leads to such a cultural shift, academics generally point to the fact that Americans are less religious than they used to be just five years ago, and to the sharp generational divide on the issue -- young Americans across the political and religious spectrum are far more likely to support same-sex marriage than their older counterparts. As displayed in many of the most famous stories, having a close friend or a family member who is gay is often an important factor. In 2004, Dick Cheney was one of the first Republicans to support same-sex marriage after his daughter came out; nearly a decade later, when Sen. Rob Portman, the first sitting Republican U.S. senator came out in support of marriage equality, he explained to the press that it was due to a conversation with his gay son: “It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that's of a dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have -- to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years."

Whatever the reasons for the shift, converts to the cause of gay rights often describe the process as difficult, even painful, and some say they ended up paying for it in unexpected ways. But none regret it. The phrase that Dan Savage made famous in his campaign to lift the spirits of bullied gay teens seems to also apply to the experiences of those who have come to believe that gays should have the right to marry: It gets better.

AN ON-THE-ROAD CONVERSION

"I will tell you one thing about David," said Jonathan Rauch, the gay writer and activist, on the phone from his Washington office at the Brookings Institution this week. "Despite the fact that some people are trying to put him out of business -- and by the way, might succeed -- he seems a lot happier now than before all this happened."

Up until recently, David Blankenhorn -- the founder and president of nonprofit think-tank the Institute for American Values -- was one of the most prominent opponents of same-sex marriage in America. In books, articles and more than a dozen public debates, Blankenhorn made the case that legalizing gay marriage would hurt the institution of marriage and American children. Most famously, he tried to make that argument in 2010, in a courtroom in California where he stood as one of just two expert witnesses defending the state's marriage ban, Proposition 8, from a lawsuit that will arrive before the Supreme Court next week.

Raised in Jackson, Miss., Blankenhorn worked closely with conservative opponents of gay marriage and considered many of them his friends. But he never fit their mold. Unlike some in the opposition camp, such as the American Family Association's Bryan Fischer, who once claimed that homosexuality "gave us Adolph [sic] Hitler…the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews," Blankenhorn has always made a point of saying that he believed in the "equal human dignity" of gay and lesbian love. Blankenhorn never used religious arguments and he did not oppose civil unions for gays and lesbians.

Blankenhorn started his institute 1987, after having spent several years working as a community organizer in low-income areas of America and becoming interested in the roles fathers played in their children's lives. His institute provided research on marriage, families, and children. He wasn't interested in gay marriage until the mid-2000s, when he began writing his book, "The Future of Marriage." By then, the conversation on gay marriage was so pervasive that it wasn’t possible for anyone offering professional opinions on marriage to ignore it.

At the time, he believed that gay marriage could weaken the institution of marriage as a whole, leading to an increase in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births, and discouraging the presence of fathers in their children's lives. "It would require us, legally and formally, to withdraw marriage’s greatest promise to the child -- the promise that, insofar as society can make it possible, I will be loved and raised by the mother and father who made me," he wrote.

The flag-bearers of the opposition movement needed someone like Blankenhorn -- an ally who could argue against gay marriage without the bile of someone like Pat Buchanan -- and they leaned on him heavily in their defense of Proposition 8. The suit and his book helped make him a star of the same-sex marriage debate circuit, where he continued to make his case despite becoming an object of ridicule in the media and on the left. "I have taken plenty of pounding on this issue and none of it had any impact on changing my mind about any of this," he said.

What did have an impact was his unlikely friendship with Rauch, the gay activist and writer and a frequent sparring partner of Blankenhorn's in the debates. In 2011, after going head to head at the University of Georgia at Athens Law School, Rauch and Blankenhorn rode back to the Atlanta airport together, Blankenhorn driving, Rauch in the passenger's seat. For once, their talk went beyond the pros and cons of legalizing same-sex marriage.

"We just talked a lot about growing up," Blankenhorn recalled. "And I realized there's just whole parts of American life that just pass me by. For a lot people as teenagers, for gay and lesbian teenagers, it can be really hard and there's much higher levels of suicide, for example, and depression and so forth. And all this was completely not known to me, I completely just didn't know any of this. So when you meet people, and you get to talk about what it was like to be a gay kid 25 years ago -- I'm just saying it was new information to me."

Last June, a year after that car ride, Blankenhorn wrote an op-ed in The New York Times announcing a shift in his views. "To my deep regret," he wrote, "much of the opposition to gay marriage seems to stem, at least in part, from an underlying anti-gay animus." His institute immediately lost half its funding -- around a million dollars -- and half the board resigned that same day. But Blankenhorn stuck by his new beliefs. "I'm an old Southern white guy," he said, "and I grew up learning all the bad names about gay and lesbian people, all the stereotyped ideas. We were too busy fighting about race to really talk much about anything else, but I imbibed the stereotypical ideas that I think most of my generation did, and they weren't pretty."

Blankenhorn has since issued a tract called "Marriage, A New Conversation," a renunciation of the culture war signed by 74 activists, writers and scholars from both the left and the right. Rauch now sits on the board of his institute.

NO SUDDEN EPIPHANY

Back in May 2009, when former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and attorney David Boies announced they were filing a federal lawsuit challenging the legality of California's Proposition 8, nearly every major national gay rights group, from Freedom to Marry to the Human Rights Campaign and the Log Cabin Republicans, joined in issuing a statement decrying the decision. "Rather than filing premature lawsuits, we need to talk to our friends, family and neighbors, and help them understand why denial of the freedom to marry is wrong," the statement said. "The history is pretty clear: The U.S. Supreme Court typically does not get too far ahead of either public opinion or the law in the majority of states."

Four years later, many gay rights activists attribute the unexpected wave of support not just to the understanding that comes from personal relationships, but also to the work they did both before and after the passage of California's law to frame the conversation. Close observers say that that framing got more effective over the years, as activists traded a technical legal argument -- about the 1,100 or so benefits of marriage that gay people should not be excluded from -- for a more emotional approach focusing on love and commitment and American values. Michael Bronski, the author of A Queer History of the United States and a Harvard professor, notes that sentimental arguments have become increasingly prevalent, and successful, in social movements over the last century. "Uncle Tom's Cabin was far more effective than quoting biblical texts or making a constitutional argument and abolitionist writings are filled with the tragedy of children being torn away from their mothers," Bronski said in an interview. "Suffragists mostly only used legal arguments but later, second wave feminism did better portraying a talented 12-year-old girl who wanted to play field hockey (or become a doctor) than in arguing for equal wages for female factory workers."

"We made the question of gay rights not just what do you feel about gay people but what kind of person are you?" said Evan Wolfson, the director of the gay rights group Freedom To Marry. "What are your values? What kind of country do you want to live in?"

For former Colorado state Rep. BJ Nikkel, a Republican who recently signed a brief along with around two dozen other Republicans urging the Supreme Court to declare all gay and lesbian couples have the right to wed, the answer gradually became clear. "I've always thought of myself as a very fair person," Nikkel said in a recent interview. "So, after awhile, it just seemed more and more inconsistent with what I really believe at my core to not support gay marriage."

There was no moment of sudden epiphany for Nikkel, no particular friendship with a gay person. Her change followed a trajectory of at least six years. The first moment came in 2006, when she stopped working as a district director for the former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, who sponsored a national constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2003, 2004 and 2006, and once said she didn't think there was "anything more important out there than the marriage issue."

Nikkel now says she left the job in part because she disagreed with Musgrave's stance on marriage. But it took her several more years to come around completely. In 2011, she voted against a proposed civil-union law, but in 2012, after a year of what she described as serious consideration of the legal and social issues, she voted for it, in spite of a voicemail from her former boss urging her to vote no.

'LOVE IS IMPORTANT!'

One factor the gay rights movement has on its side is that there are few, if any, recent examples of public figures moving from the marriage-equality camp to the opposition. In conversation with a dozen Americans across the political spectrum who have changed their position on gay marriage, all of them said that they now believed they were "on the right side of history."

For Mike Neubecker, that feeling came slowly, even after coming to grips with the panic and rage that he felt immediately after learning of his son's gay orientation. "I told him I loved him, but that he should keep quiet and not tell anyone else. He said, 'I'll give you a little time but it won't be forever.'"

A month after Lee came out to his dad, he called his father to tell him to be prepared: He'd been involved in a protest at a Cracker Barrel restaurant -- the chain was a long-time target of gay rights groups because of a company policy requiring employees to display “normal heterosexual values" -- and he'd gotten arrested and would likely be on the evening news. "By then I was okay enough to say, 'Well, son I'm glad you're standing up for your rights," Neubecker said.

This is when Neubecker's own coming-out process began. He started by telling his 12 siblings and his parents, but not customers or friends. A year later, in 1992, he voted for Bill Clinton -- the first Democrat he had ever supported -- because of his opposition to the outright ban of gays in the military. In 1994, he and his wife and son went to a dinner in Detroit hosted by the Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group. At the dinner, a woman got up and told a story about how she was out with a group of friends when one said, "What is with these homosexuals, they just want special rights." She responded, "Well, maybe now is a good time to tell you that my son is gay."

"I thought, I want that kind of courage," Neubecker recalled. "I wanted to be able to speak up when someone says something negative instead of being quiet and feeling my stomach acid and anger. I thought, I want to be able to tell people before they say something bad."

A month later, he joined the local chapter of PFLAG, the same support group for families and friends of gay people whose pamphlet he had discovered in his sock drawer four years earlier.

Last month, he was among the signers of PFLAG's amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to weigh in on the side of marriage equality.

As for Lee, he got married in 2004 in San Francisco, and he and his husband, David, adopted a daughter, Braiden, and a son, Michael. Braiden, now 10, wrote a letter that was included in the brief. Neubecker likes to share it with people.

"Love is important!" it begins. "It doesn't matter who people love, as long as they are happy. Everyone should have the right to marry who he or she wants. You may not like two men being married, but for them, it's normal."

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