Gay Marriage and Public Opinion

In recent weeks, there has been flurry of activity on the same sex marriage front. Iowa (in a ruling by that state's Supreme Court) and Vermont (by a vote of the legislature) have legalized gay marriage. Other states are also in line to do so. Legislatures and courts have moved on the issue, but has public opinion?

In 1973, when the highly regarded National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked people about sexual relations between two members of the same sex, 80% described them as "always wrong" or "almost always wrong." When they last asked the question in 2006, 61% gave that response.

NORC also asks about premarital and extramarital sexual relations, and the comparisons provide perspective. Forty-seven percent said, in 1972, that premarital sex was always or almost always wrong. In the 2006 survey, 35% gave that response. Opinion on the morality of extra-marital sex has hardened over the span, on the other hand, with 85% in 1973 and 93% in 2006 describing it as always or almost always wrong.

Answers to other survey questions about homosexuality do show greater acceptance. For example, should homosexuality be legal? Forty-three percent gave that response to Gallup in 1977; 55% did in 2008. Should homosexuality be considered an acceptable alternative life style? Again from Gallup, 34% agreed in 1982, 57% do today. Should homosexuals have equal rights in terms of job opportunities? Fifty-five percent said yes in 1977, 89% in 2008. And what about gays in the military? Two-thirds support it, up about 10 percentage points from a decade ago.

Attitudes on two sensitive subjects in the past, hiring homosexuals as elementary school teachers and gay adoption, have changed too. In 1977, 27% of poll respondents told Gallup that homosexuals should be hired as elementary school teachers; 54% said that in 2005. Forty-six percent supported adoption rights for gays and lesbians in 2000, and 53% do today.

Six in 10 people polled told Gallup last year that a friend, family member, or co-worker had told them he or she was gay--and familiarity fosters acceptance.

Beyond that, two-thirds or more now say that inheritances, Social Security benefits, health insurance and hospital visitation should be available to gay and lesbian partners.

Most polls about civil unions date to the beginning of this decade. In February 2000, a Princeton Survey Research Associates/Newsweek poll found that 47% of respondents said there should be legally sanctioned gay and lesbian unions or partnerships. In December of last year, 55% gave that response.

What accounts for the growing acceptance? Six in 10 people polled told Gallup last year that a friend, family or co-worker had told them he or she was gay--and familiarity fosters acceptance. We have also seen dramatic changes in views about the nature of homosexuality. Twelve percent said it was something you are born with in 1977; now 39% believe that is the case.

Finally, as older generations are replaced by younger ones, attitudes on this issue nationally have shifted in the liberal direction. Interestingly, young people are more likely than people in other age groups to see homosexuality as a lifestyle choice and not something people are born with, but, at the same time, they are also more likely to believe it cannot be changed.

Scott Keeter of the Pew Research Center, an expert on the generation called millennials--people born between 1977 and 1990--believes that "generational change in acceptance of homosexuality as well as the slow shift in attitudes overall" may portend less division on the issue in the future.

But while Americans' opinions on gay marriage have become more liberal, courts and legislatures remain ahead of them. Majorities continue to oppose it. In 1988, in answer to NORC's question, only 12% agreed with the statement: "Homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another." In 2008, responding to Gallup and Newsweek polls, around 40% said they should have the right--but around 55% were opposed. In the Newsweek poll, 51% of 18- to 34-year-olds supported gay marriage; 22% of those 65 or older did.

Yes, public opinion on gay marriage has shifted in a more liberal direction, but a majority of Americans still stop short of unconditional acceptance.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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