Outside of conversations about science and technology, we rarely make reference to something or someone “evolving.” So, it struck me as odd when we celebrated that President Barack Obama’s views on same-gender marriage were “evolving” last summer. I thought this might be the product of odd phrasing, and decide to focus on the significance of his support rather than the language used.
I have since seen this phrasing a few more times, including an article posted yesterday at The Advocate magazine about Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. He has been criticized for “flip-flopping” in his views on marriage equality; but, the Mayor insists that he has actually “evolved.” That leaves me to wonder why such language is used, and what is actually meant by “evolving” on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. I propose three possibilities:
- Change: To “evolve” on LGBT rights simply means to change. I suppose saying that attitudes “shift” leaves too much possibility for them to shift back; for them to “evolve” may imply a shift that is permanent or at least very difficult to undo.
- Slow change: For some, particularly politicians, “evolving” on LGBT rights is a way to signal change that will occur slowly and incrementally. It may be politically unwise to create drastic changes overnight, especially for an issue as divisive and contentious as LGBT equality. For President Obama, his evolution may be promising enough to pro-LGBT voters and donors, yet slow and incremental enough to avoid losing anti-LGBT voters and donors. Indeed, he was successfully re-elected this past November.
- Advancing: Finally, some may use the term “evolve” to reference a shift to a more advanced state of being. To support LGBT rights, particularly marriage equality, is to be an enlightened individual that believes in equality, civil liberties, and democracy.
Ironically, less than half of adults in the US believe in the theory of evolution; so I hesitate to believe that most who allude to evolution imply the third meaning when speaking about LGBT rights. However, for some time, Black Americans have been stereotyped as conservative, maybe even “unevolved,” on LGBT rights. This seemed especially heightened after the split in America over same-gender marriage shifted to majority support. Thus, despite the persistence of homophobia in America, opposition to LGBT rights is deemed as a primitive position.
Of course, I am not arguing that this terminology — evolved, evolving, and evolution — is exclusively used in reference to LGBT rights. But, I have observed a consistent, frequent use of the term over the past few years. Unfortunately, I do not have more to offer beyond this anecdote!