Polling data from the past 40 years shows a growing acceptance of gay and lesbian individuals in our society in the United States. In the last two posts, I've focused on polling regarding same-sex marriage. While looking for that data, I found a document compiling the results of many types of questions related to LGBT rights. Here's a graph of public opinion on some of the most frequently polled questions, on workplace discrimination, personal relationships, and the morality of same-sex sexual relations:
It's nice to see that there appears to have been some baseline amount of decency in our society even in the 1980s, in that a majority has always supported equal rights in the workplace. (Are you listening, Washington DC? Hello? Hellooooo????) However, this support is actually greater in the abstract than for many individual professions.
We also see that through the 70s and 80s there were consistently 10-15% of the population who said that same-sex relations are Not At All Wrong. We might guess from this that if pollsters had asked more frequently about same-sex marriage back then, somewhere around 10-20% would have supported it, as these two datasets track each other fairly closely.
Support for the legality of "homosexual relations between consenting adults" has always steered right between the two other questions shown on the graph, and generally above support for same-sex marriage. Note, again, the appearance of The Great Panic of '03 following Lawrence v. Texas.
The interesting thing this graph shows us is the large number of people who support workplace equality but not legal sexual relations (love the sinner, hate the sin). There is an additional group who support both workplace equality and legal sexual relations, but find homosexuality to be wrong (what you do in your bedroom is none of my business, but don't expect me to approve of it). The question is, how do people move from one of these more restrictive categories of support to a more supportive stance?
One possible answer is by finding out a friend or relative is gay. Indeed, of those who say they have a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, 63% support same-sex marriage. Below, a graph showing the results of polling questions that basically ask, "Do you know any gay people?" (%Yes - %No is plotted, for consistency with the other graphs in this post.)
There's not too many polls, and there's a lot of scatter because of question wording variation, but we can see that whereas in the mid-80s the vast majority of respondents did not
say they knew any gay people, by the late 90s the majority of people did
know they had friends or relatives who were gay. Then, there may be a pause - the numbers in 2008 are only a little higher than in the late 90s. This would be approximately the same pattern we see in support for same-sex marriage
, although far less detailed. Finally, starting in 2008, there is arguably an increase, coincident with the recent dramatic increase in support for marriage equality. The patterns are consistent with
the idea that coming out of the closet, or increasing visibility, has resulted in increased support for LGBT civil rights.
So what happened around 2008 that would have precipitated an increased awareness among the public that their friends and family were gay? Perhaps it was the 18,000 marriages in California. (You may not have seen Cousin Jane since you were 8, or know anything about her life, but news of a wedding is something that will make its way through the family gossip network.) With the recent burst of states recognizing same-sex marriages, we may have set up a virtuous cycle where supporting LGBT rights leads to greater awareness that leads to greater support.
Note: only the longest data series (GSS) was included in the question on the morality of same-sex sexual relations because of the difference in format of the questions from one pollster to another. GSS uses a four-answer question, "What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex - do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?" The number plotted is the last minus the sum of the first two. This question format, not surprisingly, generates more negative responses than others.