On Wednesday, the World-Herald's Joseph Morton talked with Iowans on both sides of the same-sex debate. Read what they had to say.
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The little girl stared up at her mother, confused.
Her mom had just delivered the news: Grandpa and Doug are getting married.
But to whom? The little girl knew that men got married to women, and she didn't know if Grandpa or Doug knew very many women.
They are getting married to each other, her mom said. They are getting married at a wedding because they love each other.
“Oh,” said the little girl, Dr. Loren Olson's granddaughter. “That's weird.”
The 8-year-old sat silently for a moment. She thought hard about something. And then she spoke again.
“At the wedding ... will there be cake?”
Loren A. Olson laughs when he delivers the punch line. He laughs because his granddaughter is cute, and he laughs because he lived for decades as a Nebraskan terrified of his sexuality, and he laughs because he's traveled a long, long way from the dark place where he began.
And then he repeats the punch line, because it tells us something important. In large swaths of this country, opposition to gay marriage is disappearing faster than a slice of wedding cake placed before Olson's sweet-toothed granddaughter. And this striking shift in attitudes is driven largely by young Americans not all that much older than his six grandkids.
It's as if the millennial generation collectively looked at this hot-button topic, nodded their heads, shrugged their shoulders and asked the same question.
Will there be cake?
“When I was growing up, the worst thing in the world was to be called a sissy,” says Olson, a 70-year-old Iowa psychiatrist who was born in Hartington, raised in Wakefield and graduated from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “Gay wasn't even a word. There were powerful, powerful reasons for me to deny who I was. It's very difficult now for young people to even understand that. They can't even grasp it!”
As the U.S. Supreme Court debates the constitutionality of gay marriage this week, Olson is buoyed by the fact that the highest American court is even discussing it. There is undeniably still controversy surrounding the issue, particularly in red states like Nebraska, where World-Herald polling last fall showed that residents are roughly split into three camps: A third favor same-sex marriage, 22 percent favor civil unions but not marriage, and 38 percent oppose both.
But to understand Olson's optimism, you have to understand where he came from.
He remembers 1968, his third year of medical school. He didn't know a single gay person. He didn't dare try to find out if Omaha had any gay bars. Sometimes he opened his American Psychological Association diagnostic manual and flipped to the definition for “homosexual.”
“Pathological deviancy. That's how it was defined. And I thought, 'I'm not pathological. I'm not deviant. I must not be gay.'”
He got married, had children, tried to convince himself for years and years that his feelings for men were just little quirks in his personality, the equivalent of someone who laughs too loud at his own jokes or can't remember where he put the car keys.
Every year and every denial felt like another brick in his own, one-man cell. He mortared himself in with guilt. He caulked the cracks with shame.
Eventually he couldn't hide those cracks any longer — his wife found his journal, where he'd written about his secret.
So in 1986, he told his wife. He told his two daughters. He told his deeply religious mother.
It was the hardest truth any of them had faced, and it wasn't any easier for Loren Olson until the day in the late 1980s when he walked into a support group for gay fathers.
He looked around. These guys didn't look like the Village People. These were a dozen men of different beliefs and income levels and politics, who were united by only two things. They were gay. And they wanted to be good fathers.
“It shattered every stereotype I had. You have to remember ... (older gay men) incorporated the same stereotypes and the same prejudices into our own thinking. Part of coming out was deconstructing that reality and building a new one.
“For me, it was a shock. Everything I believed to be true about being gay was no longer true.”
Olson told the truth to co-workers, neighbors and friends. He wrote a book called “Finally Out” and went on the speaking circuit and told his story to complete strangers.
What he found is that it often takes just one friendship — sometimes even just one conversation — with a gay person for a straight person to start rethinking his or her views on gay rights. And in fact a recent Pew research poll shows that getting “to know someone who is homosexual” is the No. 1 reason why a person flips to support same-sex marriage.
It's why young people are so wildly supportive of same-sex marriage, Olson thinks. The latest numbers show that three of every four Americans under the age of 32 support Loren's right to marry Doug.
“You have a hard time getting to 18 without knowing a gay person now,” he says.
And it's why middle-aged Americans, and even senior citizens, are steadily shifting their views on a host of gay-rights issues.
For example, 31 percent of the Silent Generation — the generation of Americans born between World War I and World War II — now supports gay marriage, according to Pew. That's 10 percentage points higher than an identical survey done in 2001.
It all adds up to this: Two decades ago, polls showed that about 25 percent of people supported same-sex marriage.
Today, in poll after poll, more Americans support same-sex marriage than oppose it.
That's more than a percentage point a year. That's a polling tsunami.
There are places, generally in the Midwest and the South, that the wave hasn't reached. Nebraska, like many other states, has enshrined in its constitution its version of the Defense of Marriage Act, defining marriage as between a man and a woman. And in Iowa, voters successfully ousted three State Supreme Court judges a year after the state's high court legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.
But extrapolations done by data guru Nate Silver suggest that the wave is coming. He crunched the numbers and found that a majority of the residents in 45 states — including Nebraska and Iowa — will support same-sex marriage by 2020 if the polling trends of the past quarter-century persist.
Olson doesn't need any of this fancy math. He used his eyes and watched what happened as he and Doug, a farmer, planned their 2009 wedding.
He thought the people at the courthouse in Madison County, a conservative county outside Des Moines, might give them the cold shoulder. Instead, the courthouse workers wanted to take photos of them. They wanted to take photos with them.
The caterer was excited. The jewelry store workers were ecstatic.
They invited way too many people from their little town, convinced that a lot of people wouldn't show up.
Nearly 400 people showed up at the Agriculture Building at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. His daughters were there, and his grandchildren, including one who made a beeline for the cake she'd been promised. They drank. They danced. And at some point you had to squint pretty hard to see the young medical student in 1968, the young Loren Olson who was terrified he'd be kicked out of medical school if he asked a single question about his sexuality.
This Loren Olson is a veteran psychiatrist, an author, a man who gave a book talk at the Wakefield library during his 50th year reunion weekend.
This Loren Olson has been with the same man for the last 27 years. And now, for the last four years, he's been legally married to Doug.
There is still disagreement in this country about his marriage, Olson knows.
But he also knows he can feel something changing, something that no U.S. Supreme Court decision could ever touch.
“We're not going to lose, no matter which way (the U.S. Supreme Court) decides,” says Olson. “I feel so optimistic. I feel more optimistic than I ever did before.”
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The following interactive explores the issue of gay marriage by state and Americans' changing views of same-sex couples.