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Gay marriage makes big gains, but attitudes are stuck in the 1960s

In 2015, LGBT activists will shift their focus to changing attitudes, not just laws

In a 1967 CBS news program titled “The Homosexuals,” a young Mike Wallace takes viewers into a gay club in an unnamed American city, where men meet amid the flashing lights of a bowling lane. “The homosexual, bitterly aware of his rejection, responds by going underground,” Wallace reports. “They frequent their own bars and clubs and coffeehouses, where they can act out in the fashion that they want to.” Literally and figuratively, homosexuals live in the shadows.

Nearly a half-century later, they no longer live in the shadows. They are television stars on shows like “Modern Family,” which won its fifth consecutive best comedy Emmy this year. They run companies such as Apple, whose CEO, Tim Cook, came out publicly in October. And they are victorious plaintiffs in several civil rights lawsuits — even in Republican strongholds such as Kansas and South Carolina, where judges in November overturned same-sex marriage bans.

Despite these important public gains, private attitudes among Americans have not changed as significantly. A November survey by the American Sociological Association found that an overwhelming majority — 70 percent — of gay and straight Americans approved of equal legal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans but only 45 percent said they approve of a scenario in which two gay people kiss each other on the cheek in public. That kind of measure hasn’t changed much since Wallace’s report, which included a survey concluding that two-thirds of Americans “look upon homosexuals with disgust, discomfort or fear.” And yet only 10 percent felt homosexuality should be a crime punishable by law. Today, as in the ’60s, there is a large discrepancy between America’s feelings on rights for gays and their more private feelings about homosexuality.

Closing that gap will be a key priority for the gay rights movement in 2015 and for many years to come. Negative opinions about homosexuality are at the root of violence against LGBT communities, and despite progress on legal rights, physical assault and other orientation-based crimes against those communities persist. The latest FBI hate crime statistics report, released in December, showed 1,402 such reported crimes against LGBT people in 2013 — only a minor fluctuation from previous years. In one recent case, a young gay man was lured to a home in Springfield, Texas, where he was brutally assaulted because of his sexual orientation. His attacker was sentenced to 15 years in jail in November, the FBI reported

Physical violence isn’t the only problem stemming from persistent homophobia. As gay marriage rights gain ground, employment discrimination may become a more important battlefield. Gay couples can now legally marry in 12 states where they nevertheless have no protection from orientation-based discrimination at the workplace. As gays become more visible, they may increasingly become targets of discrimination. Without legal protection, some fear that even talking about their marriage could put gay people at risk of losing their jobs. But so far, the fight for gay rights in the workplace has focused on passing laws to empower victims of discrimination rather than change the social perceptions of employers. Some activists are starting to question that strategy, arguing that a strictly rights-based approach won’t change what employers think in private.

Long Doan, author of the November survey, told Al Jazeera, “It would be great to take a more comprehensive approach” to securing gay empowerment. Rather than fighting for legal rights and hoping that attitudes will follow, some in the movement are shifting it back toward an earlier, more radical tradition of activism that began with the riots at a New York City gay club called the Stonewall Inn — hailed by many in the community as the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement — just two years after Wallace’s CBS segment.

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