Poll shows a gay embrace in Pennsylvania

Posted: September 01, 2011

EVEN FROM his pioneering days in the early 1970s as a young "Gay Raider" who broke into nightly newscasts just to get the media to acknowledge that homosexuals exist, Mark Segal insists, he believed this day would come.

In Pennsylvania - long viewed as an East Coast bastion of blue-collar social conservatism - a new poll shows that half of residents now support gay marriage, and a solid majority supports civil unions for same-sex couples.

The Franklin & Marshall College Poll, conducted for the Daily News and other statewide media outlets, finds that exactly 50 percent of Pennsylvanians either strongly or somewhat support a constitutional amendment to allow same-sex marriage. That number has spiked from 42 percent in 2009.

Likewise, support in the Keystone State for civil unions - allowing gay couples to claim most rights bestowed on married heterosexuals - continued its steady upward climb, from 42 percent in 2004 to 58 percent in 2009 to a solid 62 percent in the latest F&M survey.

Segal, who today is publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, said he'd forecast several years ago - based on the long-term polling trends - that gay marriage would reach majority support in Pennsylvania as early as 2010, and yesterday he was delighted to see that prediction on the cusp of reality.

"The gay-rights movement is a movement of education," said Segal, and he believes the rise in support is an indication that most Americans now view the issue as one of equality - similar to successful civil-rights crusades for minorities and women.

Experts agree that the key to the changeover has been young people.

Pennsylvania's older population has always been a major reason for lagging behind neighboring states such as New York, New Jersey and Delaware - but even old states get younger over time.

Senior citizens grew up in a time when homosexuality was still taboo and the vast majority of gays kept their lifestyle in the closet, while most people under 30 have grown up in an environment in which gay people are open and better accepted.

"They accept things that older generations won't accept," G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall Poll, said of the generational shift. "In 30 years, this won't be an issue. They won't care about it."

State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Montgomery County Democrat and a leading advocate in Harrisburg for legalizing gay marriage in Pennsylvania, put it even more bluntly.

"Every day a supporter of equality is born," Leach said, "and an opponent of equality goes to heaven."

Pennsylvania's surge in support for civil unions and same-sex marriage may also be driven by widespread news coverage of New York's successful legislative drive to allow gay marriage, enacted over the summer.

That law now makes Pennsylvania something of a Mid-Atlantic outlier, since both New Jersey and Delaware have fairly progressive civil-union statutes. (The new Delaware law takes effect in January.)

Pennsylvania is in a different place. The state doesn't recognize civil unions or so-called domestic partnerships. But efforts to pass a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage or any equivalent - similar to measures that have passed in a majority of states - have also fallen short.

Still, with Republicans seizing control of the governor's mansion and both houses of the Legislature in the 2010 elections, the pendulum in Harrisburg is still swinging toward banning gay marriage - putting the politicians at odds with the public yet again.

But advocates say the long-term trend shows it's a matter of time before the lawmakers catch up with a new generation of Pennsylvanians and OK gay marriage. Their only question is . . . when?

"This is inevitable. It will happen here," Leach said of same-sex marriage. "I would like it to happen in Pennsylvania before it happens in Mississippi."

- Staff writer Chris Brennan

contributed to this article.

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