Utah and Gay Marriage: A Courtship

A supporter of gay marriage in England, June 3, 2013.

Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Utah—probably the last state you’d expect to embrace gay marriage—is embracing gay marriage. How is this happening? What can we learn from it? What should we do about it?

The last big poll on this issue in Utah came out a year and a half ago, from Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. It found that between 2004 and 2012, the percentage of Utah voters who opposed any legal recognition of same-sex relationships had slid from 54 percent to 29 percent. But what’s more interesting is how this happened. Take a look at the partisan breakdown of the shift over time:

On the left, you can see Democrats accepting same-sex marriage. In the middle, among independents, the trend is less clear. But on the right, among Republicans, there’s no shift on marriage at all. And yet, over the eight-year period, the percentage of Republicans who oppose legal recognition of same-sex relationships plummeted from 72 to 42. Why? Because Republicans bought the compromise position: civil unions.

Many people who support the right to marry a person of the same sex despise the idea of civil unions. They say it’s a second-class status. And it is. In this poll, civil unions were framed explicitly as a rejection of gay marriage:

Which of the following comes closest to your view?

[a] Gay couples should be allowed to legally marry.

[b] Gay couples should be allowed to form civil unions but not legally marry.

[c] There should be no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship.

But second-class is better than nothing. And in Utah, this compromise offer was crucial to the change between 2004 and 2012. It gave Republicans a way to accept legal recognition without having to ditch their beliefs about marriage. If you read the BYU center’s full blog post on this poll, you’ll see that the shift among Utah Republicans over time closely matched the shift among Utah Mormons. The option of civil unions allowed Mormons to reconcile same-sex relationships with LDS doctrines on marriage. And those Mormons and Republicans were crucial. Without them, legal recognition would not have become the majority position in Utah.

Now look at a second pair of polls. They were commissioned by David Baker, a Mormon gay activist, using Google Consumer Surveys. Two weeks ago, Baker offered people in Utah three choices: 1) “Same-sex weddings should be legal,” 2) “Civil unions for gay couples should be legal,” and 3) “No legal recog­nition for gay couples.” Result: Forty-one percent picked same-sex marriage, 24 percent picked civil unions, and 31 percent picked no recognition. Then, a week ago, Baker narrowed the choices to two, removing the civil unions option. Result: Fifty-one percent picked same-sex marriage, and 44 percent picked no recognition.

Baker said he narrowed the options because some supporters of gay marriage had complained that “by including civil unions as a choice, the [first] poll may have under-represented support for full civil marriage equality.” But you could just as easily look at it the other way. When the civil-unions option was removed, support for gay marriage increased by 10 points, but opposition to any legal recognition increased by 13 points. That’s a net loss.

Baker said his second poll showed, for the first time, that “a majority of Utahns support marriage equality.” But this was an entirely digital survey, using a small sample, with a single question framed by an activist. If you’re trying to win a political fight in Utah for gay marriage, you’d better be certain that this all-or-nothing strategy is going to get you 51 percent of the vote. Otherwise, you might push so many half-persuadable people into the no-recognition camp that you get nothing.

Yesterday, in fact, the Salt Lake Tribune released a poll indicating that you might not get 51 percent. In the Tribune poll, when Utahns were asked whether same-sex couples should “be allowed to get state-issued marriage licenses,” they were evenly split: 48 percent yes, 48 percent no. But civil unions won hands down. When Utahns were asked whether same-sex couples should “be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships” (apparently this question, unlike the civil-unions question in the CSED poll, did not include an explicit rejection of gay marriage), 72 percent said yes. Every group that said no to same-sex marriage—Republicans, Mormons, men—said yes to civil unions.

If you’re an advocate of marriage rights for same-sex couples, this is a judgment call. Which poll do you trust? Which way do you frame the question? In a political fight between different ways of framing the question—which is what most political fights are—which formulation do you think most voters would absorb? Every recent poll shows that by a substantial margin, Utahns support civil unions for gay couples. With that support, you could easily shatter—not just in a court ruling but at the ballot box—the state’s ban on legal recognition of same-sex relationships. Do you go that route and postpone the marriage debate until the polls have moved further? Or do you go all in on marriage?

This is how politics works. It’s not just about beating up the other side and rallying your friends. It’s about listening to people in the middle, understanding how their perspectives differ from yours, and working with them, as partners in conversation, toward a better world as you understand it. It requires wisdom and patience. Outrage is not enough. Condemnation, derision, and snark are useless at best. To elevate the world, we must elevate ourselves first.