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  • The Path to Gay Rights: How Activism and Coming Out Changed Public Opinion by Jeremiah J. Garretson
  • Long Doan
The Path to Gay Rights: How Activism and Coming Out Changed Public Opinion
By Jeremiah J. Garretson
New York University Press, 2018. 352 Pages.

The degree to which public opinion about lesbians and gay men has changed since the 1980s has been unprecedented. In about three decades, lesbians and gay men went from being the subjects of near universal condemnation to having legal recognition. Lesbians and gay men now serve openly in the public sphere—a far cry from a time when less than half of Americans believed that a gay man should be allowed to be a teacher in the 1970s. What is it about the gay rights movement that is different?

In The Path to Gay Rights, Garretson provides a compelling, multi-method account of the role of the gay rights movement, politics, and interpersonal contact in creating this massive shift in public opinion. Termed the theory of affective liberalization, Garretson argues that shifts in public opinion toward greater support for gay rights is primarily driven by warming emotional reactions to lesbians and gay men. The theory explains this affective warming at the community and societal level. Increased activism from the LGBT community forced more societal attention and a national dialogue on gay rights in politics and the media. This increased attention has some effect on public opinion in its own right, but Garretson argues that it has a larger effect on creating space for LGBT individuals to disclose their sexual identities to others. In doing so, they create positive associations among the larger public with LGBT individuals, which shapes thinking on LGBT-related issues among the public.

After outlining the history of changes in American attitudes toward gay rights and the theory, Garretson walks through four primary sources of alternative explanations to demonstrate the flaws in their explanatory power: (1) issue evolution, (2) media framing, (3) changes in views on the etiology of homosexuality, and (4) policy advances. In dismissing these alternative explanations, Garretson draws on logical and empirical inconsistencies in their ability to explain changes in attitudes. For example, why would framing have limited effects on issues like abortion and healthcare, yet be effective on gay rights? Even if framing has an unusually large effect on growing support for gay rights, why is liberalization occurring even for issues that did not receive much media attention?

Using a mix of national surveys, historical analysis, and experiments, Garretson shows that the AIDS epidemic provided a catalyst for a lesbian and gay community that was finding a collective identity. The election of Bill Clinton brought policy debates surrounding gay rights into the national conversation. Popular entertainment also began showing lesbians and gay men in a more positive light. This increased national attention helped spread lesbian and gay identity outside urban enclaves. Lesbians and gay men saw that a collective community exists, that they are not alone, and that some of their political leaders care about their lives. Average age of coming out dropped from adulthood to high school age. The proportion of Americans who knew an LGBT person increased.

The increase in interpersonal contact is consistent across political groups, but other cleavages exist in terms of the effects of interpersonal contact. The largest among them is a generational divide. Garretson argues that affective liberalization should most strongly affect millenials, whose formative years were during this period of social change. Unlike those from prior generations, millenials did not have prior negative associations with lesbians and gay men to counteract their positive experiences stemming from interpersonal contact. Using a natural experiment where a character on the show Grace under Fire came out of the closet, Garretson shows that respondents who knew about the show (and thus presumably watched it), were more warm toward lesbians and gays after this episode, but that this effect was curvilinear by age and sharply stronger among younger respondents.

The core arguments of the book—that the AIDS epidemic is a major catalyst for social change and that interpersonal contact lead to rapid and sustained liberalization of attitudes—are not new...


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