While gay marriage still divides the nation, support for it has been slowly growing, with polls showing slightly more than half of Americans in favor of it.

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The phone call from their younger son, away at college, caught Jim and Sharon Kabler unprepared.

Their bright child, salutatorian at his high school, Matt was telling them that he was gay.

“I felt sick to my stomach,” recalled Jim Kabler, a retired California state corrections officer and self-described conservative Republican. “I had the choice right then of throwing the phone through the wall or having a relationship with my son.”

That was 14 years ago, when in state after state — including in Washington — laws were being enacted to prevent people like Matt Kabler from being able to marry the man he someday would come to love.

His parents, who live on Whidbey Island, have since become powerful advocates for same-sex marriage — their acceptance of it foreshadowing that of other Americans, who major national polls show now support such unions at a rate of more than 50 percent.

The shift has been gradual, happening as more gays and lesbians have felt freer to live their lives openly. With that, more people have come to realize they know someone — a family member, a friend, a co-worker, the guy down the street — who is gay.

Yet, even as sentiments have shifted slowly, Americans remain deeply divided on the question of same-sex marriage.

Just hours after Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill Feb. 13 legalizing same-sex marriage in Washington, bringing the state in line with six others and the District of Columbia, those who oppose such unions filed a referendum aimed at recalling the legislation in November.

Gay-marriage opponents also have filed an initiative to ensure marriage in the state remains between one man and one woman.

In fact, gay marriage is expected to play a significant role in this year’s presidential election and could appear in one form or another on ballots in least five states.

The Rev. Joseph Fuiten, senior pastor at Cedar Park Church in Bothell, who is backing the referendum, acknowledges support for gay marriage has grown but is not convinced this shift is deep or lasting.

“I do think there’s been some movement, yes,” he said. “But how deep that change is and what the components of the belief behind it are, I don’t know. It’s an extrapolation argument. And because we’ve progressed to a certain point, is it inevitable that we will continue to progress beyond that point?”

“Ironic” support

Experts say the change toward support of gay marriage has been building gradually over the past decade as the world saw its first same-sex marriages, the Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law and cities and states were passing measures to extend more rights and protection to gays.

“What’s ironic is that all the anti-gay rhetoric increased support for same-sex marriage,” said Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. “It reduced the taboo around talking about the topic — people no longer had to lower their voice to say the word homosexual — and because the rhetoric was so heated it pushed reasonable people to want to distance themselves and say ‘I’m not like that.’ “

Gregoire and several state lawmakers who provided pivotal support for the bill spoke publicly of their personal journeys to reach this acceptance. A four-minute testimony from the House floor by state Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, has logged nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube.

Choking up, Walsh, in a later conversation, recalled a Facebook message her daughter received from a young lesbian who related how her own mother, who had not spoken to her in three years, called up in tears after watching Walsh’s video to say she wanted to reunite.

As it was for many of them and for the Kablers, acceptance often is personal, happening one individual or family at a time — if it happens at all.

In a statement explaining his vote against the measure, Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, described a childhood of poverty during the Korean War and about being adopted by a U.S. military family that raised him with strong Christian values.

It’s those values, Shin said, that guided his vote.

Barriers falling

And as Americans stake their positions around the issue, government barriers are coming down.

The military’s “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that barred gays from serving openly, was struck down last fall — 18 years after President Clinton signed it into law.

And the Obama administration announced last year that it would no longer defend in court the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Congress passed the law in 1996, Clinton signed it and 39 states, including Washington, have adopted versions of it.

DOMA defines marriage as between a man and woman and on the federal level requires agencies to use that definition for purposes of disseminating benefits, such as Social Security and taxes. In place of the Justice Department, special counsel was named by the House to defend the law, portions of which have been declared unconstitutional in a number of court cases. In the weeks since Washington approved same-sex marriage, two other states — New Jersey and Maryland — have followed. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie quickly vetoed his state’s measure and, as they have done in Washington state, anti-gay-marriage groups have said they will gather signatures to repeal Maryland’s law.

That’s where the test is likely to come.

Americans almost always reject same-sex marriage at the ballot box.

The closest such a measure came to passing was three years ago, when Washingtonians voted to uphold domestic-partnership legislation by a ratio of 52 to 48 percent.

A poll conducted last year by Strategies 360, a Seattle-based communications firm, found support for gay marriage in Washington state at 54-35.

Nationally, polls by CNN, The Associated Press, Gallup and ABC/Washington Post all show either support for same-sex marriage above 50 percent or more people favoring it than opposed to it.

Most surveys showed a little more than one-third support five years ago.

Last October, the Washington Poll, sponsored by the University of Washington, found 55 percent of respondents said that, if presented with a referendum on gay marriage, they felt either strongly or not so strongly that they would vote to keep the law, while 38 percent said they felt either strongly or not so strongly against it.

Pollster Stuart Elway this month conducted a survey for Fuiten that found 51 percent support for same-sex marriage among those surveyed, compared with 45 percent against it.

Fuiten said it was the survey’s other findings that really surprised him. When reminded in the survey that gay couples already have all the benefits of marriage, support for gay marriage dropped to 35 percent — with 58 percent of respondents saying they favor preserving marriage as a unique description of the relationship between a man and a woman.

“That tells you the support (for gay marriage) is not very deep,” Fuiten said. “What moves people here is the equality argument, the sense of fairness that we should respect other people and not bring them harm. So why do we need to change marriage if we’re already treating them fairly?”

That’s the message Fuiten said referendum supporters will take to voters.

Gay-marriage supporters, on the other hand, will counter that message with stories of same-sex couples explaining why domestic partnerships are deficient and why “separate is not equal,” said Zach Silk, campaign manager of Washington United for Marriage.

“The message about why people get married is very powerful,” Silk said. “It conveys what marriage is to everybody, that love and commitment are frankly such common currency and that domestic partnerships just don’t cut it.”

Family pulls together

A day after his son revealed in a phone call 14 years ago that he is gay, Jim Kabler said he had to “rearrange my thinking.”

“I was of the opinion he had made a choice,” Kabler said. “I’ve come to realize it’s not a choice.”

Ten years later, in December 2008, Matt met his partner, Scott Stark. Two years ago, at age 32, Matt suffered a brain aneurysm. He has been unable to return to his job as director of operations for an autism research institute because of the lingering effects. His partner has become his caregiver.

Introducing himself as a conservative Republican, Jim Kabler shared that story last month during a packed town-hall meeting on Whidbey Island, sponsored by state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, a Democrat whose eventual support for the same-sex- marriage legislation gave its sponsors the 25 votes they needed to assure passage.

He testified on the bill during a public hearing in the Senate.

The Kablers are working to establish a Whidbey chapter of PFLAG, a national support group for parents, families and friends of lesbians and gays. And they are focused on seeing that their son’s health improves.

“Matt’s sexual orientation is such a minor part of his life that I don’t see any reason to concern myself with it all,” Jim Kabler said. “I would like to see him recover and become a functioning member of society again.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420

or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @turnbullL