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Public faces: The gay rights movement's key advantage

In the cascade of comparisons made recently between abortion and same-sex marriage — and the specter of a political backlash arising from a Supreme Court ruling advancing gay marriage — one glaring distinction between the two issues has been largely overlooked by prognosticators: the power of coming out.

Sixty percent of Americans now say they have a close friend or family member who is gay, an 11 percent jump from 2010. In the 1990s, most Americans said exactly the opposite.

Essentially, a progressive societal shift has taken place — what was once considered taboo has now become polite dinner table conversation in a good number of American households. And while civil rights advancements almost always provoke some societal tension, this trend toward a humanization of the subject may largely insulate the LGBT equality movement from the setbacks that have sometimes befallen the reproductive rights movement.

Not everyone agrees with the premise — often raised in association with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg — that the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing certain abortions was a galvanizing moment that fueled the antiabortion movement. Most notably, Linda Greenhouse, the famed Supreme Court reporter for The New York Times, and Yale University Law Professor Reva Siegel, have made a consistent and strong case against that notion.

As they recently noted, “running through commentary” on the two marriage cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry (the Proposition 8 case) and United States v. Windsor (the Defense of Marriage Act case), “are continual references to Roe v. Wade. ‘Watch out! Don’t go there! Look what happened 40 years ago when the Supreme Court granted women the right to abortion.’”

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