That dream didn’t always seem possible. Before coming out in 2012, I struggled through months of therapy, preparing for the possibility of losing all connection with my Irish Catholic family. I prepared for the possibility that I would be viewed as an outsider, as someone different or perhaps even worse by friends, colleagues and strangers. I confessed nervously, first to my parents, brother and one trusted cousin, asking them to spread the word through layers of aunts and uncles and cousins. While it took some time for them to process the news — time that was truly painful — every single person in my family accepted us. They treated us normally; everyone acted like it was obvious that two girls, even two girls with long hair who wore makeup and high heels, could be in a relationship, and that was fine.
I knew then that we were lucky. I only realize now how extremely fortuitous the timing was. I came out to my family in the middle of the whirlwind sprint toward full LGBTQ rights that was sweeping the country during the Obama administration. Court cases affirming those rights dominated headlines; celebrities were coming out seemingly every day. It emboldened me to proclaim who I was and whom I was dating. The national climate allowed me to feel safe. It seemed like people were on my side. When we married in 2016, we were benefiting from the good luck of landing in the most accepting time for LGBTQ rights in history.
Now, a year and a half into our marriage, things have started to change.
A study recently released by GLAAD found that for the first time since the survey began in 2014, non-LGBTQ Americans are growing less comfortable with LGBTQ people. Fewer than half of straight adults (49 percent) said they were comfortable with LGBTQ people, a notable drop from last year (53 percent). Compared to last year’s survey, significantly more respondents said they would be uncomfortable with a family member, a child’s teacher, or their doctor who was LGBTQ. Meanwhile, 55 percent of LGBT individuals surveyed said they faced discrimination last year, a jump of 11 points over 2016.
The data represents a change from other polls conducted before 2017, which consistently showed that Americans were growing in their acceptance of LGBTQ people, including the latest Pew poll on the subject, from the spring of 2016.
GLAAD and the Harris Poll, which conducted the survey of 2,160 adult Americans, the majority of whom were non-LGBTQ, suggest the change has much to do with who is sitting in the White House. GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis said that President Trump’s policies, including his announced ban on trans military members and the appointment of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, were partially responsible. So was his rhetoric.
“This change can be seen as a dangerous repercussion in the tenor of discourse and experience over the last year,” Ellis wrote in the report. “2017 brought heightened rhetoric toward marginalized communities to the forefront of American culture.”
John Gerzema, chief executive of the Harris Poll, told The Washington Post last week that the results “suggest that Americans are taking advantage of an environment in which it has become more permissible to express discomfort with marginalized groups, even as people don’t want to be thought of as bigots.” He said that the number of respondents who gave the “PC response” that they support equal rights was the same as before — 79 percent — but that discomfort had increased. The report categorized the shift as an increase in “detached supporters.”
“We are surprised at the scale and the swiftness,” Ellis told USA Today, “but if you are LGBT and living in America, you are seeing this every day.”
When I first saw the headlines about the study, I was startled by the hard data showing that the equality I felt over the past few years and the progress that had been made could slip away. I never thought we could reverse course. Of course I had worried — however briefly — when Trump was elected. I worried that Vice President Pence might push an agenda that was dangerous for my life. I worried that Trump would rubber-stamp any legislation that anti-gay GOP members found enough votes to pass.
But I hadn’t worried about public opinion changing. I couldn’t have imagined that once you agreed that I was a person who was equal to you, and my relationship was equal to yours, you could then go back to thinking it wasn’t.
But after the initial surprise, I also felt some sense of confirmation. There had been, I realized, a creeping sense gathering at the edges of my awareness of a shift in the straight people around me. Not all of them, of course. But enough.
There was that moment of pause when I first told people I had a wife; a strange silence among friends griping about husbands when I joined in, complaining about dirty dishes or an unmade bed. There was a change in how often I disclosed I was gay, how quickly I was willing to admit it. A relative had commented over Christmas that she feared the teacher of her child was gay.
If Americans are still not quite sure that same-sex marriage is a right, or that a same-sex marriage is equal to a Bible-approved straight marriage (holes in that theological idea aside for a moment), I can understand their point of view. But fearing a gay person being around a child; viewing me as a threat to a child without knowing anything about me — that idea is terrifying.
I don’t think the data is entirely the fault of Trump and a handful of LGBTQ policy changes. This feels like a broader pendulum swing — during the Obama years, people felt social pressure to become accepting of different identities, and then they became resentful of that social pressure. Last year, one older man told me why he thought voters in Alabama were considering voting for Roy Moore: “It’s because people in this country are sick of being told how to think and live, and that they have to accept every trans whatever person.”
The statement startled me, and then it frightened me. There’s something bigger than Trump happening in the country, and that change in sentiment — and willingness to express it — is more frightening than any single politician. In a fraught political environment like the one we’re in now, in an increasingly angry economic environment with widening inequality, societies often turn to scapegoats. I worry about the possibilities for that anger and that shifting public sentiment.
On my wedding night, a Protestant minister blessed our marriage in the eyes of God, and I danced with my father under a tent overlooking a moonlit bay. I didn’t think I was at risk of losing that dream anymore. I didn’t think that my identity, the very core of who I was, meant I had to give up a wedding or a family or be at risk for something much more sinister. But this poll brought me back to reality. Our equality, and the world’s sense of our humanity, is not set in stone. It is not assured. I am right to be afraid.