As a Jacksonian Democrat surrounded by a sea of Republican red, the only numbers down here I see moving faster than the takedown of the middle-class is the change in sentiment toward gay marriage.
A 20 percentage point shift in southern opinion over the last eight years has pushed the region’s pro-gay marriage numbers to 42%. Personally, I delight in this and hope my northern acquaintances might have some kind of epiphany and think we at least have a little sense down here.
Naturally, support is not as high here as in other parts of the country where fewer evangelicals live. But this dramatic shift on marriage equality should serve as a loud call to Democrats that it’s time to return to the south where the notion of “individual liberty” is as sacred as the Bible.
This tenet is not something new as it has been alive and well in Dixie since the Scots-Irish migration brought it to the region in the 18th century. It is not libertarian in a Rand Paul political sense. It’s pure passed-down culture.
I should have realized 40 years ago this day would eventually come. In the mid-seventies, I was among a group of self-important people who met every day of the work week in the semi-respectable confines of a Holiday Inn lounge. It had been pretty much common knowledge for some time that one of the regulars in our group was gay. Of course, that was a long time ago, and the word “gay” had not yet become a word used in the Southern Appalachian dialogue. In those long gone days, people just whispered, “Dick’s queer.”
As I got to know and like him, I became concerned about Dick and what I ignorantly perceived at the time as a cruel and unacceptable disorder. But, it was still a friend’s plight. One night, we were the only two left at the table, and since I was wrongfully certain I was talking to the only gay dude in all of Southwest Virginia, I had this insatiable urge to ask him if it was true.
Even with all the courage instilled by the distilled, I fumbled until he finally came to my rescue. “Are you asking me if I’m gay?” I was relieved to answer, “Yeah, that’s the one!”
He looked me straight in the eye, didn’t pause, and said, “Yes, I’m gay, but Mudcat, you don’t have to worry about it because it has no effect on you.” He went on to add, “Besides, you don’t turn me on.” I had no further questions concerning his sexuality, but I will confess the last part of his answer still pissed me off for some reason.
Dick passed away without knowing that opinion would eventually change in the south. In 2004, just 20% of Southerners supported gay marriage. Today, 42 percent believe in it.
But his words “no effect on you,” now seem prophetic. There are some demographic reasons that account for the shift towards gay marriage support, but demographics haven’t changed the political and cultural landscape twenty points in eight years.
As the issue moved into the public conversation over the last few years, a great number of Southerners, I believe, have come to see gay marriage as compatible with the old Dixie ethos that if someone is not directly affected by an issue, they are also not bothered by it.
There are still plenty of gay naysayers in the South where faith has deep roots.
But the overriding political implications of this shift in the South can’t be minimized. As history shows, Republicans have prospered for decades in Dixie by hooking voters with an assortment of hate-wedging lures.
But the gay wedge isn’t the only one that’s being pried loose. Anybody who’s been around southern elections for a while knows the use of racism as a hate-wedge is nowhere near the vote-driver it once was. This sudden gay marriage shift should be taken as a sign that the time is now for national Democratic organizations to head back south, develop a culturally-acceptable version of their message, and importantly, help rebuild state parties for battle.