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Commentary: A slow march to gay marriage

One day, voters in North Carolina enshrine in their constitution that gay men and lesbian women shall not enjoy the same privileges as heterosexual couples.

The next day, the president of the United States says he has come around to believing that same-sex couples should be able to legally marry.

One week, a Republican Missouri legislator creates an uproar with a bill barring public schools from discussing human sexuality.

The next week, a different Missouri legislator calls a news conference and declares himself to be “a proud Republican, a proud veteran and a proud gay man.”

So it goes in the inexorable move toward acceptance and equality for gay men and lesbian women. One step backward, one step forward. But the forward strides are always a little longer than the backward lunges, and so we make progress.

Eight years ago, Missouri became the first state to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Now there are 31. But same-sex couples can legally marry in nine states, and nine others permit domestic partnerships or civil unions.

The day will come, sooner than we think, when people will wonder why so many fought so hard to discriminate against gay and lesbian Americans.

It will come not because President Barack Obama followed in the perhaps inadvertent footsteps of his vice president, Joe Biden, and unequivocally declared his support for gay marriage, although Obama’s declaration this week was historic and wonderful.

Acceptance will come because gay men and lesbian women have openly become parents, joined school PTAs, run for public office and assumed leadership roles in churches. It becomes difficult to argue that gay unions will destroy the institution of marriage when your lesbian neighbors are doing a great job of parenting or you find yourself running the school snack bar with an openly gay dad.

Obama spoke to that point in his interview Wednesday with Robin Roberts of ABC News as he explained how his thinking on gay marriage had changed from four years ago, when he said that he supported civil unions but that marriage should be between a man and a woman.

The president said he has staffers “who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.”

His daughters have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, Obama said. “It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently.”

Conservative lawmakers can try to keep schools from discussing issues of sexuality, as state Rep. Steve Cookson and nine co-sponsors have attempted with a bill in the Missouri legislature. And bullying of gay youths will continue as long as some kids are inclined and permitted to harass peers whom they regard as different.

But the forces of intolerance have lost their hold on the hearts and minds of America’s youth.

We saw that in the Kansas City area a few years ago when hundreds of students at Shawnee Mission East High School staged a counter-protest to the despicable crew from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka. With signs, T-shirts and voices, they pronounced their school a welcoming place for gays and lesbians.

Obama said he has seen the trend on college campuses. “Sometimes I talk to college Republicans who think that I have terrible policies on the economy, on foreign policy, but are very clear that when it comes to same-sex equality or, you know, sexual orientation, that they believe in equality.”

It will take awhile for the young to convert beliefs into action. In North Carolina, where the gay marriage amendment passed with more than 60 percent of the vote, the average age of early voters was 59.

But over time, state legislators and others who stand in the way of full equality will find themselves increasingly at odds with younger constituents, students in their districts and even their own children. States will begin permitting civil unions. And once it becomes clear that same-sex couples pose no threat to society, the American family or anything else, states will come around to gay marriage.

Just like the president.