Top-down is So Passé

Is the generation gap in views on gay marriage as wide as cyberspace?

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that in America the separation between church and state is as black and white as blue and red. Yet a recent survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute has found that attitudes toward gay marriage are changing: From 2008 to 2010 there was an eight percent increase—from 29 percent to 37 percent—in support for gay marriage across religious groups. Furthermore, relative to those who changed positions, gay marriage gained three supporters for every new opponent, and the study found the most movement among Catholics. Yet the Christian Church is certainly not changing its standpoint on gay marriage: With the release of the Manhattan Declaration in November 2009, Orthodox, Evangelical, and Catholic Christians created a veritable manifesto deeming gay marriage “a loss of the understanding of the meaning of marriage” and one of the three most pressing concerns in our society today.  Unfortunately for the Manhattanites, the fact that no Evangelicals under 40 initially signed the Declaration symbolizes the group’s greatest problem. The generation gap is pushing the priorities of younger Americans farther and farther away from those of older generations with regard to homosexuality.

The PRRI study found that 75 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 support gay marriage or civil unions, in stark contrast to the just 51 percent of Americans 65 and older. And according to Dan Cox, the Director of Research at PRRI, the data indicate that “nearly two-thirds of Americans under 30 say that one of the biggest problems in the country is that not everyone is given an equal chance in life,” versus “less than half of adults 65 and older.” Initiatives like the Manhattan Declaration do not seem to be bridging the generation divide; they do not encourage discussion and youth involvement but rather make broad appeals with unequivocal labels such as “A Call to Christian Conscience,”

What galvanizes this generation is movement and lateral communication, specifically through the Internet. The lateral and interlocking function of the Internet is perhaps the most insurmountable distance for the elder generation to cross. I’m not saying that older people don’t know how to use the Internet, or even that all young people use it as much as we’re accused. Rather, it is the difference between a native speaker of a language and someone who learns it in school: The Internet is a resource and a refuge for our generation in a way that feels natural and organic rather than applied. As a sphere, the Internet can be as private or as public as the user needs it to be. It becomes a space where people can explore identities, probe taboos, and answer questions on their own, seeking the advice and experience of others as anonymously or vocally as they want.

The implications for LGBT youth, then, spread as quickly as the gap between the priorities of younger and older Americans. And as Robert Jones of PRRI notes, the more our social networks fill with LGBT friends, the more it matters to us that they have access to the same rights as everyone else. Anyone who regularly sifts through Facebook “Page” and “Cause” solicitations knows this to be true. The recent tragedies of Tyler Clementi and others reverberate through these networks, perturbing anyone with a familiar stake in the matter far more deeply than someone outside this social network.

In such a context, it is easy to see how the older generation of discussion dominators are falling behind on the gay marriage issue. How could the vertical nature of edicts such as the Manhattan Declaration appeal to a laterally oriented generation? How could such a statement trump the constant viral network of exchange, support, and discussion? What better suits our generation is interactive projects such as “It Gets Better,” a LGBT support website created in September 2010 as a “video archive to share the stories of people overcoming bullying and finding happiness.” The traditional churches could never have made this website, and this is their problem.

Diana K. McKeage ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a literature concentrator in Mather House. She is studying abroad in Spain this term.

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