(MCT) — SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Shelly Bailes and Ellen Pontac moved to their Davis, Calif., neighborhood in the early 1980s, and at first their neighbor rarely spoke to them. The chasm between them seemed a lot more vast than their modest suburban acreage: She was deeply religious, and they were active in the gay and lesbian rights movement.
But over time, a warm relationship grew between the couple and their neighbor, who died recently at age 94.
Even so, during the contentious 2008 battle over Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, Bailes and Pontac were surprised to see the neighbor put up her first-ever political yard sign.
"It was for marriage equality," said Pontac, 70. "The lawn sign was for us, because she knew us."
Neighbor by neighbor across California — and family member by family member — that's exactly how cultural and political opinions toward same-sex marriage have evolved over the years, experts say.
"We've found in surveys that when people know somebody who's gay or lesbian, they're more positive and tolerant in their views about gay marriage," said Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo.
"Without that, people can't get a personalized view of the issue."
Only four years ago, Prop. 8 passed with 52 percent of Californians' vote, but since that time, perspectives about gay marriage both in California and across the country have gone through a rapid and stunning transformation.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to announce as early as Monday whether it will review the landmark case against Prop. 8, ruled unconstitutional in federal court in San Francisco two years ago. But surveys indicate that the notion of gay marriage has already gained mainstream acceptance.
Partly, that's because marriage equality activists decided that openness about their lives was the only way to change public opinion.
"We started talking to people," said Ken Pierce, spokesman for the Sacramento, Calif.-based advocacy group Equality Action Now. "We came out to our families, to our communities, in our workplaces. We discussed gay issues around the table.
"All of a sudden people who'd been against marriage equality understood that they have a nephew or a daughter who's gay. They started rethinking their views. It became a personal issue."
Support for gay marriage in California has doubled in the last 25 years — and risen markedly in just the last two years, according to the Field Poll.
Almost 60 percent of Californians surveyed in February said gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry and enjoy the same rights as other married couples. That's up from 51 percent in 2010 and from 30 percent in 1985.
Behold the divide of the generations: While almost 70 percent of Californians ages 18 to 39 support marriage equality, the same is true of only 45 percent of state residents 65 and older.
"You basically have generational replacement going on," said DiCamillo. "As the younger segment of Californians replaces the older segment, they've brought more permissive views.
"The population turns over, and they replace people who are less tolerant."
Polling trends around the nation show a similar acceleration of support: Nationwide, 50 percent of Americans supported gay marriage in May, compared with 27 percent in 1996, according to Gallup.
Maine, Maryland and Washington passed same-sex marriage laws in the recent election, joining six other states and the District of Columbia.
"It's amazing the change in attitudes," said Wendell Alderson, 60, a retired Sacramento registered nurse who married his longtime partner in June 2008, during California's brief window of legalized same-sex marriage.
"What I think helped it happen is that a lot of people, especially on TV, are coming out. 'Modern Family' shows normal gay people leading their lives. The actor Jim Parsons just came out. Who's the cute guy with the gray hair who has a talk show? Anderson Cooper. He came out not too long ago."
When Bailes and Pontac speak to classes about their activism — as they have for decades — they always make a point of asking who in the class has never known a gay person.
"I'd go over and shake their hands and say, 'Well, now you do,' " said Bailes, 71. "I can't do that anymore. Everybody knows someone who's gay. They have a gay person in their family, or they have gay friends and neighbors.
"There's acceptance, because people have come out. The world is changing. It's inevitable we'll have gay rights — and really, really soon."
(Sacramento Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.)