By Joe Sheller / Guest Editorial

Great shifts in our culture are, I think, a bit like plate tectonics. Hidden under the surface, energy builds up until, in a sudden spasm, it is released and the land upon which we rest suddenly shifts.

It feels a bit like we’ve experienced just such a cultural earthquake now, and Iowa and its media have been ground zero. The U.S. Supreme Court declared June 26 in Obergefell v. Hodges that gay marriage is protected by the 14th Amendment, and thus is legal in all 50 states.

It’s a ruling that would have been unthinkable a generation ago, but the cultural plates have shifted since then. The media has been a part of the slow building of hidden forces and their sudden release.

Some call the larger cultural change in attitudes about gays and lesbians the “Will and Grace” effect, named after the 1998 NBC situation comedy that depicted a gay man living with a straight woman. Of course, in that same era, Ellen DeGeneres was also the star of a situation comedy on a major network, and raised eyebrows when she announced her sexual orientation.

TV sitcoms and famous entertainers don’t shape our law, but they reflect our cultural norms and attitudes. By 2009, many gay people argued that marriage was a legal right denied to them in an arbitrary, unconstitutional way.

I’m not going to get into the debate over same-sex marriage here – what I am interested in is how media both reflect and precipitate big cultural changes such as the one we’re in the midst of. Just consider some of the striking media images we saw last week:

  • The White House decorated in rainbow hues. President Obama is getting on in his second term, at a time when presidents feel a bit freer to do whatever they want to do anyway – he’s never running for re-election, after all. But still, Obama himself has flip-flopped on the gay marriage issue, and who a few years ago would have expected a rainbow-splashed White House?
  • Facebook decked out in rainbow hues. Again, it’s easy to use an online app and go along with or resist a cultural movement, but more than 25 million people (including me) added rainbow hues to their online identities in reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision.
  • Gay couples kissing on newspaper front pages. Steve Buttry, a former editor of the Gazette, wrote on his blog after the court ruling about how, as a reporter for The Des Moines Register in 2000, he covered the issue of gay pastors in a series of stories. One of his stories included a photo of two men kissing. According to Buttry’s post on The Buttry Diary, an editor thought the paper’s Iowa readers would be too offended by that picture, and two newspaper pages were quickly redesigned to eliminate it.

 

Lots of things have shifted in Iowa since 2000.

The day after the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision, newspapers all over the country featured gay couples, kissing or otherwise reacting, on their front pages. A whole montage of gay couples, many in mid smooch, appeared on page one of the New York Times.

And it wasn’t just liberal East Coast media that had images reflecting our cultural change. In Macon, Georgia, The Telegraph showed two women exchanging wedding rings. In Lafayette, Indiana, a man waved a giant American flag with the bars replaced by rainbow hues.

All of this just six years after the Iowa Supreme Court declared, in Varnum v. Brien, that same-sex couples could wed in this state. The Iowa ruling, while it foreshadowed the reasoning of the Supreme Court, was not decided on the same legal basis – the Iowa judges were interpreting Iowa’s Constitution.

Iowa was not the first state to declare gay marriage legal, but it was the first in the Midwest. The change didn’t go down easy. In the 2010 election, three Iowa Supreme Court justices were removed from office because of the Varnum ruling.

Still, in 2015, not many Iowans are shocked at the idea of gay marriage. A portion of Iowans object to it on religious grounds, and they have a First Amendment right to do so, but the reality of gay marriage is no longer alien in our state.

The plates have shifted. Media had a role in that. What was unimaginable before is not so shocking after the earthquake. “Will & Grace” was a mediocre show – but I think it was a sign that deeper forces were waiting to erupt. And they have.

 

 

 

Joe Sheller is associate professor of communication and journalism with Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids. He can be reached at jsheller@mtmercy.edu.