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Opinion: How youth led change in public attitudes on same-sex marriage

By Yoruba Richen, Special to CNN
June 26, 2013 -- Updated 1718 GMT (0118 HKT)
The Rev. Tony Larsen and his partner, Craig Matheus, are refused a marriage license by Racine County Clerk Wendy Christensen, right, in the clerk's office in Racine, Wisconsin, on Friday, June 13. The county does not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a judge's ruling that the state ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional. The Rev. Tony Larsen and his partner, Craig Matheus, are refused a marriage license by Racine County Clerk Wendy Christensen, right, in the clerk's office in Racine, Wisconsin, on Friday, June 13. The county does not grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples despite a judge's ruling that the state ban on gay marriage is unconstitutional.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Yoruba Richen: Attitude toward same-sex marriage and the gay community has evolved
  • She says youth have been key in changing the perception of gay rights
  • Their efforts and work behind the scenes have allowed a new understanding, she says

Editor's note: Yoruba Richen is a documentary filmmaker who has directed and produced films in the U.S. and abroad. Her latest film, The New Black examines homophobia in the black community's institutional pillar- the black church. It won the audience award at AFI Docs and will be broadcast on PBS in 2014. She also serves on the adjunct faculty at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism.

(CNN) -- There has been momentous change in America's attitude around gay rights.

In 2012, a Gallup poll showed that 59% of American adults said gay and lesbian relationships are morally acceptable, up 19 percentage points since 2001.

Polls show that a majority in the country support same-sex marriage.

Yoruba Richen
Yoruba Richen

The gay marriage question has even reached halls of the Supreme Court which, today, struck down a key provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and California's Propostion 8, a voter-approved ballot that banned same-sex marriage.

There has been much written in the press about how gays have gone from a reviled minority to accepted in just a matter of decades.

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But it is important to remember that this is not some magical shift that happened because we watched lovable gay characters on "Will and Grace" and "Modern Family."

It is due in part to real people led by youth, who came out of the shadows to work to change attitudes within their own communities, neighborhoods, workplaces and places of worship.

Over the past three years, I've filmed The New Black, which examines how the black community is grappling with the gay rights issue in light of the marriage movement and the fight over civil rights.

The film is centered in Maryland, which has a significant black voting bloc, during the 2012 election. It documents the activists working to build support for a referendum supporting marriage equality.

It features young people like Karess Taylor-Hughes, who spent the past three years working to build support for marriage equality in black churches and communities.

I followed her in the streets of Baltimore and the leafy suburbs of Prince George's County as she engaged with people from all walks of life about how the push for gay equality was an expansion of civil rights. She questioned how black people, given their struggle to be granted freedoms, could be against granting rights to someone else.

What I saw in Maryland was that the activists who were working for marriage equality were untangling the layers of the issue, and they were engaging African-Americans in a way that had not happened before.

And it was youth -- the "New Black" in the film -- who pushed their parents, their teachers and some of their clergy to understand gay rights as an expansion of civil rights.

These conversations helped lead to a very different outcome in Maryland in 2012 than in California in 2008: For the first time, the public voted for marriage equality.

These discussions were happening in different homes around America.

Even President Barack Obama cited his daughters, Malia and Sasha, in his evolution from supporting civil unions to supporting same-sex marriage.

It feels like their efforts have now allowed this new understanding about who gets civil rights, and also the perception of gay Americans.

And even as there are still more battles to fight -- to stop hate crimes, allow for adoption laws and end workplace discrimination -- it is significant that the gay community is seen less as a deviant group asking for special rights and more as humans entitled to civil rights, fairness and equality to all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Yoruba Richen.

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