Americans Evenly Divided on Morality of Homosexuality

by Lydia Saad

However, majority supports legality and acceptance of gay relations

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans interviewed in Gallup's 2008 Values and Beliefs poll are evenly divided over the morality of homosexual relations, with 48% considering them morally acceptable and 48% saying they are morally wrong.

While similar to last year's results, current attitudes are more affirming of gays than what Gallup found at the start of the decade when the majority said such relations were morally wrong.

Still, homosexuality emerges as the most divisive of 16 major social and cultural issues measured in the May 8-11, 2008 survey. Only doctor-assisted suicide and abortion come close to it in splitting public opinion.

All other issues have either higher majority agreement (including divorce, gambling, the death penalty, medical testing on animals, out-of-wedlock births and several other issues) or majority disagreement (including cloning animals or humans, suicide, polygamy, and extramarital affairs).

Despite Americans' divided reaction to homosexuality on a moral basis, the majority believes homosexual relations should be legal (55%) and accepted as an alternative lifestyle (57%).

Support for the legality of homosexual relations has advanced and receded over the years, beginning at 43% when Gallup first asked about it in 1977. Support then dipped in the 1980s to the low 30s, but gradually increased through the 1990s and reached 60% in May 2003.

In July 2003 (shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas sodomy law) it fell to 50% and remained at about that level through 2005. However, in May 2006 it jumped to 56%, and since then a clear majority has agreed that homosexual relations should be legal.

Agreement that homosexuality should be considered an "acceptable alternative lifestyle" (a wording Gallup began using in 1982) has followed a more linear path (though it, too, dipped after the Supreme Court ruling in the summer of 2003), increasing from 34% in 1982 to 44% in 1996, to 54% in 2003, and 57% in 2007, where it remains today.

Even in the 1970s, the majority of Americans believed homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities. But support for this principle has become nearly universal in recent years, reaching 89% in 2004 and is still 89% today.

The critical issue for the gay rights movement today is same-sex marriage. The latest poll shows there is still considerable public resistance to giving the same legal sanction to same-sex couples as the law does to traditional marriages. As Gallup reported on May 15, 2008, only 40% of Americans say such marriages should be legally valid -- as they now are in Massachusetts and California -- while 56% disagree.

Americans are more supportive of gay marriage today than they were when Gallup initiated this measure in 1996, but attitudes have changed little since about 2004 when 42% said they should be valid.

Bottom Line

Gallup polling chronicles important changes in public attitudes about homosexuality and gay rights over the past quarter century. Americans have shifted from frowning on homosexuality as an alternative lifestyle and being divided over whether it should be legal, to now supporting gay rights on both fronts. At the same time, the country remains highly ambivalent about the morality of homosexual relations, and as a result, support for legalizing gay marriage lags far behind the less culturally sensitive matter of gays having equal job rights.

Americans have generally grown more supportive of gay rights since 2001, reaching record high support on most measures in 2007; however, there has been no further increase in support over the past year.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 8-11, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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