WASHINGTON — While some nations enact laws targeting homosexuals, same-sex marriage rights are expanding in the United States. Next week marks two years since President Barack Obama declared his support. Since then, the number of states where gays can legally marry has nearly tripled, and public attitudes have shifted as heterosexuals stand up for the gay people in their lives.
Examples of the trend abound. A Maryland gay couple, Chris and Shawn Riley, wed after the state legalized same-sex marriage in 2012. The couple has the full support of Chris’ mother, Beverly Rochford. But it was not always so. Raised in a conservative Christian community, Rochford was taught from an early age that homosexuality is evil.
“You weren’t even supposed to say the word ‘homosexual,’” she said. “It was a sin far above all other sins.”
For years, she envisioned Chris one day marrying a woman. But at age 18, he told her he thought he was gay, sparking a crisis of family and faith. Beverly Rochford said she first tried to convince Chris he was mistaken. Then, she reached out to a Christian ministry that promised to cure homosexuality through faith, and bombarded him with religious pamphlets about God’s design for human sexuality.
“Back then,” Rochford said, “I truly in my heart and soul believed that Chris had a choice, that he was choosing to be gay. I did not think he could go to heaven unless he changed. I really did believe that.”
Chris Riley vividly remembers the period of friction with his mother. “It was a tug of war between the two of us,” he said.
Chris feared losing his mother’s support, but did not back down. “I know what the Bible says, I know what religion says. But I also am a living example of what it is like to be inside someone who is gay. I am the person who is in here. I know how it [my sexuality] evolved. It wasn’t a choice.”
Over time, Beverly Rochford was able to reconcile church teachings with the reality of a gay son - and, now, a gay son-in-law. She said she remains a fervent practicing Christian, but her views on homosexuality have changed.
“I just want them [Chris and Shawn] to feel loved,” she said. “They are children of God. I am a child of God. How can we help the gay community if all we do is call them an abomination?”
Rochford is part of a growing legion of heterosexual allies of gay people that has helped boost U.S. support for same-sex marriage to 59 percent in a recent poll - more than double the proportion that backed gay marriage rights 20 years ago.
The shift is startling to opinion pollster Kim Parker of the Pew Research Center. “I have been working in polling for the last 20 years,” she said, “and I think this is one of the most dramatic changes in public opinion that we have seen.”
Among the causes, according to researchers, is a basic dynamic: gay people feel increasingly comfortable revealing their sexuality, causing family, friends, and peers to rethink attitudes and beliefs.
Parker said polling data confirm this. “The people that said they had moved from opposing gay marriage to favoring it, we asked them an open-ended question: ‘What changed your mind?’ And most of them said, ‘It is because I know someone who is gay and that changed my opinion, because I want the best for that person.’”
The trend is not universal. Many faith leaders remain opposed to homosexuality. Even so, Maryland Pastor Michael Hall concedes that same sex marriage advocates are transforming public opinion.
"They may win the battle,” said Hall. “It seems that way now. But we are standing pretty firm on what we believe. We are going to respectfully and lovingly disagree [on same-sex marriage]."
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 17 states and the nation’s capital. In all but a handful of the other states, bans on same-sex marriage are being challenged in federal court. It is widely believed the issue ultimately will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
During the 2012 battle in Maryland, State Senator Richard Madaleno saw numerous heterosexuals speak out for their gay loved ones - and the impact of their testimony.
“When you have a parent come forward and say, ‘Look, this is my child. This is the child that I love. I saw them lose a house, I saw them lose a job, I saw them denied a service. That is not OK with me as a parent. I do not want that, and you should not want that for your children.’ And that changed the debate,” said Madaleno.
Beverly Rochford’s evolution on homosexuality has yielded an unbreakable bond with her son, Chris, who called his current relationship with his mother “top-notch.” She has also gained a son-in-law, Shawn Riley, who said he is grateful for Rochford’s “loving daily support.”
Rochford said she is awed by Chris’ journey from a tormented teenager to an openly-gay married man active in the battle to expand civil rights. “If he has the courage and the conviction to do that, I am very proud of him. I am very proud of him for doing that,” she said.