I must confess that I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s science popularization book The Tipping Point, but recent events have caused me to think of the general concept behind tipping points. What causes a social movement to hit critical mass? We’ve all heard the concept of a “vocal minority,” but when — and how — does a minority become loud enough to be heard? And when is that minority loud enough that they are perceived as bigger or more influential than their numbers would suggest?
I have had a guarded optimism about recent events where Mormons have been thrust into the spotlight on progressive issues. I wondered about the mixed message that the BYU student group Understanding Same Gender Attraction’s contribution to the It Gets Better project sends to Mormons and non-Mormons. I wrote about the trend I’ve recognized where the distinction between Mormon people and a Mormon church is blurred, exploited or bent. But like the Matrix’s spoon, perhaps progressive Mormons have realized the truth — that there is no Mormon church, so it is not the church that bends, only ourselves.
This past weekend has brought another such event. Mormons Building Bridges at Gay Pride in Salt Lake City.
It seems to be a slam dunk for the church from a public opinion perspective, but it’s also a slam dunk for progressive Mormons. Could it be a tipping point?
Signs of Opposition
The problem here is that narratives like this usually don’t go unopposed. One major question is whether there are people from within the church who find problem with this narrative. I’m sure there will be people commenting to this very article about how they have disagreements with what happened, but I think I’ll summarize with Well-behaved Mormon Woman’s position:
If this march (and others planned) is to be a show of LDS member support for gays, intended to draw outside attention, then I would question exactly what message this is sending and why? Did any of these LDS members, marching in the parade, have signs inviting gay members to return to Church, saying “Come Worship With Us Again” — or rather, are these marches simply intended to broadcast a message that Mormons support gay Mormons, no matter how they choose to live their lives, and that we will embrace you within our congregations — even if you choose to openly and actively live a homosexual lifestyle? If it is the latter, then certainly most “active” members of the Church would not be in support of such public, minority declarations.
Once again I have concerns that small fringe groups, of LDS members, are using any available media source to promote and advocate for change that is oppositional to what current prophets teach. During this time of increased interest in everything Mormon, it is beyond easy to bring media attention to anything remotely controversial about being Mormon. Normalizing same-sex attraction, with its advocates, both inside and outside of the Church, has become a joint effort with, no doubt, hopeful political results.
(Bolded Emphasis added, but italicized emphasis preserved from original.)
One thing I will say is that I have never seen the word “active” used in scare quotes like this before. I can almost imagine someone speaking about so-called active members of the church.
…But there’s something there. I’ve seen people go so far as to analyze the photos of the marchers and check to see whether clothes worn would be plausible with garments. Quite frankly, that seems like something you might see out of BYU, but there is definitely some skepticism as to whether Mormons Building Bridges reflects something substantial and real.
In her article covering the event, Jana Riess points out that there is still change to be made in church policy to reach a more charitable position toward gay and lesbian members. While her post opens its own can of worms, I focused on an earlier part of her article:
I can’t pinpoint a precise date when I started to recognize that instead of being part of a stubborn minority of Mormons who cared about GLBT rights, I was part of a growing community of faithful Latter-day Saints who long for equality for all people regardless of sexual orientation. But this transformation has indeed been happening — not just in the media but on the ground, in the Mormon communities I see and know. Good Mormons who just a few years ago might have felt comfortable making homophobic judgments or remarks are expressing to me that they are rethinking this issue.
From “stubborn minority” to “growing community,” eh?
While certainly a growing community can still be a minority (and a stubborn one at that), it seems to me that Jana intends to contrast these designations…it’s not just a stubborn minority…it’s something…weightier. The proof of the pudding is in the media and on the ground.
Is This Real?
That’s the first question I ask myself: is this real? Is what Jana says about a transformation of members something that is actually happening?
Personally, I can accept that attitudes are changing. Even in the church. But my optimism is still guarded because of the remaining questions I ask myself: what is the speed of change? How large is the movement of support? Will it make a difference in church policies or doctrine?
This gets me back to thinking about tipping points.
The Atlantic recently suggested that Americans have no idea how many gay people there are. Now, it’s definitely in vogue to point out things that Americans don’t know, but I won’t really dwell on that point. What struck me was the magnitude of difference:
One in ten. It’s the name of the group that puts on the Reel Affirmations gay and lesbian film festival in Washington, D.C., each year. It’s the percent popularized by the Kinsey Report as the size of the gay male population. And it’s among the most common figures pointed to in popular culture as an estimate of how many people are gay or lesbian.
But what percentage of the population is actually gay or lesbian? With the debate over same-sex marriage again an emerging fault line in American political life, the answer comes as a surprise: A lower number than you might think — and a much, much, much lower one than most Americans believe.
In surveys conducted in 2002 and 2011, pollsters at Gallup found that members of the American public massively overestimated how many people are gay or lesbian. In 2002, a quarter of those surveyed guessed upwards of a quarter of Americans were gay or lesbian (or “homosexual,” the third option given). By 2011, that misperception had only grown, with more than a third of those surveyed now guessing that more than 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian. Women and young adults were most likely to provide high estimates, approximating that 30 percent of the population is gay. Overall, “U.S. adults, on average, estimate that 25 percent of Americans are gay or lesbian,” Gallup found. Only 4 percent of all those surveyed in 2011 and about 8 percent of those surveyed in 2002 correctly guessed that fewer than 5 percent of Americans identify as gay or lesbian.
Contemporary research in a less homophobic environment has counterintuitively resulted in lower estimates rather than higher ones. The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a gay and lesbian think tank, released a study in April 2011 estimating based on its research that just 1.7 percent of Americans between 18 and 44 identify as gay or lesbian, while another 1.8 percent — predominantly women — identify as bisexual. Far from underestimating the ranks of gay people because of homophobia, these figures included a substantial number of people who remained deeply closeted, such as a quarter of the bisexuals. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of women between 22 and 44 that questioned more than 13,500 respondents between 2006 and 2008 found very similar numbers: Only 1 percent of the women identified themselves as gay, while 4 percent identified as bisexual.
I’m trying to conceptualize what a world where one in four people is gay would look like. That reminds me of a particular image meme, but I won’t link it here. But seriously…something must be happening if people perceive gay folks as being so ubiquitous.
The tipping point?
The original “one in ten” figure for gay folks is particularly interesting. I imagine that Alfred Kinsey had no real understanding of the mathematical significance of 10% from a sociological and sociopolitical viewpoint, yet 10% pops up again in a Rensselaer Polytechnic study regarding the ability of committed minority groups to persuade not-as-committed majorities. That research has some caveats (it assumes there is one committed minority group and that the remaining majority is basically open-minded or otherwise uncommitted), but otherwise, the results are intriguing — no matter what the size of the population, or the mechanism of communication, or venue of network, 10% is the magic number for critical minority influence.
…Obviously, though, data suggests that the gay and lesbian population is even less than 10%, however. So, does that mean the LGBT movement is doomed?
Not so. After all, straight allies exist, and they matter.
The straight Mormon allies (such as Mormons Building Bridges) have multiple fronts upon which they are a minority seeking to effect change, however. Perhaps they are first minority in a society beginning to go supercritical in a chain reaction of support for gay rights…but secondly, they are a progressive and often unorthodox minority in a church that still values and enshrines tradition and orthodoxy.
So, to get back to Jana’s point from earlier, have progressive Mormons successfully from stubborn minority to growing community? Has it hit the 10% (or whatever the necessary number is) of active or church-going or whatever-the-criteria-is-for-Mormon-credibility Mormons necessary to reach a tipping point within the church? Or is this a case for which the research does not apply, because the majority is just as committed to its side?
or…I don’t know…do I have things skewed to begin with? I mean, I am friends with several people who share these articles, so I see this stuff all the time, but maybe it’s not that prevalent at all.