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Last Monday a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit announced that the California’s ban on same sex marriages would remain in place at least until December. Earlier in the month Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Americans have changed their minds on many issues relating to homosexuality. They have moved some distance in terms of accepting gay marriage, but majorities in most polls still oppose it. Gallup asks its question this way: “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?” In May 44% (up from 27% when Gallup first asked the question in 1996) said they should be recognized as valid. But 53% in the new poll, (down from 68% in 1996) said they should not be.
Although Fox News/Opinion Dynamics pollsters pose the question differently, they too have found a substantial change in attitudes since they first asked their question about gay marriage in 2000. That year, 19% said gays and lesbians should be allowed to get married legally, 24% preferred legal partnerships similar to but not called marriage, and 47% wanted no legal recognition of gay marriage. In July 2010 37%, almost double the response in 2000, said homosexuals should be allowed to marry legally, 29% supported legal partnerships, and 28% no legal recognition.
While many still have reservations about gay marriage, attitudes about homosexuality in general have changed significantly. In 1973, when pollsters from the National Opinion Research Center asked people whether certain behaviors were always wrong, almost always wrong, sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all, 76% said sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were always or almost always wrong. In 2008 53% gave that response. During the same period, negative views about extramarital sexual relationships hardened. In 1970 86% told NORC interviewers that a married person having sexual intercourse with someone other than the marriage partner was always or almost always wrong. In 2008 92% gave that response.
Should homosexuality be an acceptable alternative lifestyle? Thirty-four percent said yes when Gallup asked the question for the first time in 1982. In 2008, the last time Gallup asked the question, a solid majority, 57%, answered in the affirmative.
What about legality? In 1977 people split evenly, 43 to 43%, on whether homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal. Now 55% say they should be legal, while 40% say they should not be.
The public has moved far in its views on job opportunities for homosexuals. In 1977 56% said they should have equal job opportunities. Today, nine in 10 give that response. Gallup also began asking about homosexuals in specific occupations in 1977. Americans were particularly resistant to hiring them as elementary school teachers–only 27% said this was OK. Today, more than six in 10 say they should be hired to teach young children.
More people know someone who is gay and that has contributed to the change in attitudes. So, too, has the arrival of new generations with more permissive attitudes on many social and cultural issues. In 1977, 47% of college freshman agreed that it was important to have laws prohibiting homosexual conduct. Today, just quarter give that response. Fifty percent of them said homosexuals should have a right to legal marital status in 1997. Nearly seven in 10 feel that way today.
There is one surprising area where young people differ from their elders about homosexuality. Since the pollsters started asking about it in the late 1977, the number saying homosexuality is something one is born with has been growing. But today, more young people than older ones believe it is a lifestyle choice. In May 50% of 18-29 year olds told CBS News pollsters that being homosexual is something people choose to be; 47% said it was something a person couldn’t change. Among those 65 and over, however, 25% said it was a choice, 55% said it was something that couldn’t be changed.
Young people tend to lead change. Each recent generation has been more liberal about gay marriage than the previous one. That factor will probably push overall opinions in that direction, but society isn’t there yet.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.
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