Gay marriage attitudes: A pause, not a plateau

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Article Highlights

  • In 1973 73% of those polled said relations between two adults of the same sex were “always wrong.”

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  • In 2012, 42 percent gave that response, a drop of 31 percentage points.

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  • In 2013, the public opinion needle had moved 21 points, and 64% favored the legality of gay or lesbian relations.

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  • Only 12 percent told NORC interviewers in 1988 that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.

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  • In 1996, 27% told Pew that they favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. In 2014, 54% did.

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In the latest Gallup poll, support for gay marriage ticked up a single percentage point. In the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, it dropped slightly. These new polls are the latest to show that support for gay marriage has become the majority opinion.  They also may suggest a pause in the opinion shift, but not a plateau.
Popular opinion has moved dramatically in recent years, as have court decisions in state after state, creating what USA Today’s Richard Wolf called “an aura of inevitability around the same-sex marriage movement.”  In addition, political opinions have shifted. Last week conservative Senator Orrin Hatch said gay marriage will likely become the “law of the land.”

At AEI, we have tracked opinions on homosexuality and gay marriage for more than a quarter century.  We have amassed one of the largest collections of polls from major pollsters such as Gallup and the Pew Research Center. An update of our collection will be released later this week. We don’t take polls or positions; we simply collect the data and compare the pollsters’ work to try to get a true picture of American public opinion. The changes in Americans’ opinions in this area over the past several decades have been dramatic.

*In 1973, in response to a question from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), 73 percent said relations between two adults of the same sex were “always wrong.”  In 2012, 42 percent gave that response, a drop of 31 percentage points.

*In 1977, 43 percent told Gallup “homosexual relations” between consenting adults should be legal. In 2013, the public opinion needle had moved 21 points, and 64 percent favored the legality of gay or lesbian relations.

*In 1985, 24 percent told Harris pollsters they had a friend or coworker who told them personally that they were gay or lesbian. In an identical question from Gallup in 2013, three times as many, 75 percent, did.

*Should school boards be able to fire known gay and lesbian employees? Fifty-one percent told Pew they should in 1987; in 2012, 21 percent answered affirmatively.

*Would you vote for a qualified gay or lesbian presidential candidate if your party nominated one?  Twenty-six percent said they would do so in 1978; when Gallup last asked the question in 2012, 68 percent said they would.
Attitudes toward gay marriage have changed dramatically, too.

*Only 12 percent told NORC interviewers in 1988 that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry. The last time they asked the question in 2012, 49 percent gave that response.

*In 1996, when Gallup asked whether marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages, 27 percent said they should; last month, 55 percent did.  May 2011 was the first Gallup asking in which a plurality of Americans favored legalizing same-sex marriage.

*In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal question from 1996, 25 percent favored allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into same-sex marriages. In 2013, 53 percent did.

*In 1996, 27 percent told Pew that they favored allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. In 2014, 54 percent did.
The polls can’t tell us precisely why attitudes have changed. Young people are more supportive of gay marriage than older ones, and they have helped to move, and will continue to move, public opinion on this issue. Far more people say they know someone who is gay than did so a decade or two ago, and that development, too, may be increasing acceptance.

In most recent polls, support for legalizing gay marriage is in the mid-50 percent range. Support will continue to grow over time, but perhaps more slowly than in the past. Younger people will eventually replace older ones who tend to be more opposed to same-sex marriage. Opposition has dropped significantly in recent years, but it hovers around 40 percent. Strong opposition is around 30 percent. While the latest data show there may be a pause in the opinion shift that has been taking place on homosexuality and gay marriage, there is little evidence we have hit a plateau.

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