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  • The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture by Peter Hart-Brinson
  • Susan Gluck Mezey
The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture
By Peter Hart-Brinson
NYU Press, 2018, 320 pages.

In his book, The Gay Marriage Generation: How the LGBTQ Movement Transformed American Culture, Sociologist Peter Hart-Brinson delves into an important issue in the debate over same-sex marriage. Deriving his data analysis from interviews with college students and their parents in a university town about ninety miles from Chicago, he argues that the rapid acceptance of same-sex marriage was largely due to "generational change in the social imagination of homosexuality in American culture" (p. 8).

His analysis of the concepts of generational theory and social imagination in chapter 1 explains the relationship between cohorts and generations (a generation is a subgroup of a cohort) and the manner in which the social imagination of the generation born after 1974, what he calls the "gay marriage generation" changed to became more hospitable to the idea of homosexuality and subsequently marriage equality. This chapter is especially important for readers unfamiliar with the concept of social imagination and its relationship with public opinion.

Chapter 2, largely historical, presents an overview of the changes in the social imagination over a 60-year period (from 1945 to 2015), spurred by figures in politics and the media. In doing so, it shows that despite the changes and increasing acceptance of homosexuality, this era was still characterized by discrimination in a number of arenas, not simply in marriage.

In chapter 3, the one I found most interesting, Hart-Brinson explains how support for same-sex marriage came about partially through cohort replacement, that is, population turnover. However, he stresses, cohort replacement by itself does not lead to changing opinions and must be accompanied by generational change, which, in this case, was triggered by shifts in the social imagination of homosexuality. Relying on public opinion data, he found that generational change leading to greater acceptance of homosexuality occurred because of cohort replacement as well as intra-cohort attitude change (meaning that the older population within the cohort changed its views). Not surprisingly, the analysis also revealed that in addition to changing times, attitudes toward same-sex marriage are mediated by factors such as religious beliefs and political ideology.

Based on his personal interviews, Hart-Brinson introduces the discourses that frame the debate over same-sex marriage. They range from unambiguous support and unambiguous opposition, at the ends of the spectrum, and two middle grounds he labels "libertarian pragmatism" and "immoral inclusivity." In chapters 4 to 7, quoting extensively from his interview subjects, he discusses how they fall into each of these categories. Again, he specifies the role that political ideology and religion, in addition to generational change, play in molding views on homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

The recounting of the interviews was the most captivating part of the book as he portrays how the subjects struggled to come to terms with their attitudes and to explain them. He identifies views that his subjects shared about marriage in general, and same-sex marriage in particular, including the fact that most believed that procreation is not an essential part of marriage. Ironically, many states defended their ban on same-sex marriage by pointing to the state's interest in procreation. As the court rulings also demonstrated, this turned out to be a losing argument for the states.

This book has a lot to say about how public opinion on same-sex marriage was shaped, explaining that it came about as a result of factors related to population changes that shaped the social imagination as well as political and religious ideologies. While reading it, I wondered if his analysis of generational change and social imagination would apply to another marginalized group—the transgender community—to explore how generational change and the image of transgender individuals could lead to greater public acceptance and ultimately greater equality. Retrospectively, one might ask whether the theory of generational change can also explain the path of acceptance and equality for people with disabilities, people of...


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