Gates' research on U.S. Census data drives home a point that the gay vanguard has been wrestling with for a while: The hedonistic, transgressive, radical ethos (and stereotype) that once characterized gay culture doesn't represent reality anymore. The decline of urban coastal gay communities, the increase in the gay population in the interior U.S. and the overall diversification of the gay population are facts. What's more, Gates argues, these trends are a function of the growing acceptance of homosexuality among the American public.
Not at all. There is, he says, a vocal, virulent -- and sometimes violent -- anti-gay movement, but it doesn't negate decades of opinion surveys that show a marked increase in tolerance in most Americans' attitudes toward gays and lesbians. In 1998, for example, a Gallup poll found that only 33% of Americans thought that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal. By 2007, that figure had risen to 59%.
Growing acceptance of homosexuality means a decline in social stigma associated with same-sex relationships, and a consequent shift in the politics of coming out. The more people come out, the more accepting people are around them, and the more accepting the public becomes, the more people come out.
Gates' study shows that the number of openly gay couples in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1990, and the biggest increases are in the country's more socially conservative areas.
Utah is the poster state. Between 1990 and 2006, for example, it went from having the 38th-highest concentration of same-sex couples in the country to 14th highest. In that same time period, the percentage of gay couples who lived in large cities declined from 45% to 23%. Even more counterintuitive, from 2000 to 2006, states that banned same-sex marriage had above-average increases in the number of gay couples. And places where voter referendums went against same-sex marriages saw even larger increases.
Some of the growth in the number of openly gay couples in conservative areas could be because of migration. And yes, some on-the-barricades members of the gay rights movement have gotten older and mellower and moved out to the heartland. But the larger trend is simply that as more gays come out, they don't need to change or assimilate to fit into the mainstream because they are already very much a part of it.
"The demographic characteristics of the gay population are converging with those of the mainstream," Gates says. If you're from a state like Utah or Nebraska, chances are you're going to share a lot with your neighbors whether you're straight or gay: "They're rural," Gates says, "they're religious, and they're Republican."
So what does this all mean for American culture at large?
"Society is beginning to say that being gay is not such a big deal," Gates says. "What that means for gays is that homosexuality won't have the centrality to their identity it once did. Being gay then becomes one of a variety of an individual's competing identities."
In other words, as the challenges associated with coming out diminish, so does the primacy of the identity that that act of self-discovery and self-assertion once forged. It means that the culture once associated with gay identity becomes less distinctive from the mainstream.
Gates doesn't believe that these trends spell an end of gay "associational" life. The process he's describing is not unlike the one experienced by so many immigrant or minority groups in America that fought against discrimination, moved beyond their enclaves and then felt a little sad that they lost the embracing sense of uniqueness and community that they once enjoyed.
As gays meld into the broader population, places like West Hollywood and the Castro district in San Francisco will inevitably lose some of their appeal. As more gays come out in more places, the diversity of homosexual politics and lifestyles will come out with them, and the tolerant will multiply.
For some of the pioneers from the edgy, embattled, ecstatic "good old days," this may be bittersweet. "But isn't that what everyone wanted 20 years ago?" Gates asks. "Just to be treated like everyone else?"