American Attitudes Toward Homosexuality Continue to Become More Tolerant

by Frank Newport

New Gallup poll shows continuation of slow, but steady, liberalization of attitudes

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ --

KEY POINT SUMMARY

A new Gallup poll reveals a continuation of a gradual, but to some degree steady, increase in the liberalization of American public opinion about homosexuality.

Americans still exhibit ambivalence about the overall acceptability of homosexuality in American society today, and substantial numbers of Americans continue to say that homosexual relations should be neither acceptable nor legal. But there have been changes in these attitudes over time.

Here are the key points from Gallup's most recent poll on the topic, conducted in mid-May:

  • Gallup has recorded a gradual increase in adherence to the belief that homosexuality is an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Agreement with this proposition has risen from 38% in 1992 to 52% today.
  • There has also been a shift in attitudes about the legality of homosexuality, with a majority of Americans -- 54% -- now saying that "homosexual relations between consenting adults" should be legal, compared to 43% who felt this way in 1977.
  • One of the more significant changes in American public opinion on gay and lesbian issues has been the increase in the perception that homosexuality is genetic -- something a person is born with -- as opposed to being due to other factors such as upbringing and environment. For the first time in 24 years, as many people in Gallup's most recent poll say homosexuality is genetic as say it is environmental. This represents a major shift from 1977, when environment was seen as the more prevalent factor by more than a four-to-one ratio.
  • In terms of specific issues, a majority of Americans remain opposed to the extension of marriage benefits to gay and lesbian partners joined in civil unions.
  • About four out of 10 Americans think that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to work as members of the clergy or as elementary school teachers. However, only minorities of Americans are uncomfortable with gays and lesbians having a number of other professions and jobs tested in the research.
  • Over 80% of Americans accept the idea of including homosexuals under the protection of equal opportunity provisions in the workplace.

FINDINGS IN DETAIL

Basic Issues: Should Homosexuality be Legal?

Gallup first asked about the legality of homosexuality in 1977, with a basic question worded as follows: "Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?" At that point, Americans were evenly divided on the issue: 43% said yes, 43% said no and 14% weren't sure.

Gallup has asked the question numerous times since then, and at the last asking in the May 2001 poll, a majority -- for the first time -- agreed with the "legal" perspective. Fifty-four percent of those interviewed said that homosexual relations should be legal, 42% not legal, with 4% unsure. The percentage saying that homosexual relations should be legal dropped to as low as 32% in 1986, perhaps due to either the conservative environment ushered in by the Reagan administration, or the beginning of widespread publicity surrounding AIDS and its prevalence in the homosexual community.

Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?

Over the same period of time, there has been greater change in attitudes about employment rights for homosexuals. This is the specific Gallup question asks: "As you may know, there has been considerable discussion in the news regarding the rights of homosexual men and women. In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?" The percentage saying yes has risen from 56% in 1977 to a significantly higher 85% today.

Here is a graphic representation:

As you may know, there has been considerable discussion in the news regarding the rights of homosexual men and women. In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?

In short, while slightly over 50% of the public say that basic homosexual relations should be legal, more than eight out of 10 say that homosexuals should have equal rights. These two questions may play to different norms that exist in contemporary America. The "legal" question may tap into a general sense of morality, and a reluctance of a more conservative segment of society to sanction what they consider to be deviant behavior. The question about "equal opportunity," on the other hand, may invoke the public's attitudes about discrimination, fair play and equal treatment.

The widespread acceptance of "equal opportunity" for homosexuals in the general sense is contradicted somewhat when Americans are asked whether or not homosexuals should be hired for a number of specific positions. Although the substantial majority of Americans have no problem with gays and lesbians being hired as salespeople, doctors, or presidential cabinet members, or serving in the armed forces, the number accepting homosexuals as clergy or elementary school teachers is just above the 50% level.

Here is the list of occupations and Americans' willingness to sanction hiring homosexuals in each:

 

Do you think homosexuals should or should not be hired for each of the following occupations?

 

2001 May 10-14
(sorted by "should")

Should

Should not

 

%

%

     

Salesperson

91

6

Doctors

78

18

As a member of the president's cabinet

75

21

The armed forces

72

23

High school teachers

63

33

Elementary school teachers

56

40

Clergy

54

39



It should be noted that this question does not ask about the legality of refusing to hire individuals for these professions because of their sexual orientation. Instead, the question just asks more generally whether or not they "should" be hired -- tapping into the basic, underlying attitude.

Homosexuality as a Lifestyle?

Almost 20 years ago, in 1982, Gallup distinguished between Americans' personal feelings about homosexuality and their opinion about its legality by asking this question: "Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?" At that time, just 34% said yes. Now, as of May of this year, that number is up to 52%, with 43% saying no. In short, over the 19-year period from 1982 to 2001, Americans moved from leaning against the acceptability of homosexuality to a slight majority acceptance on the issue.

Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?

Part of the argument about homosexuality through the years has focused on the issue of how much control individuals have over their sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian leaders stress the idea that homosexuality is an inborn trait, and -- similar to being born a woman or being born black -- there isn't much that an individual can do about it. Conservatives have argued, on the other hand, that leading a homosexual lifestyle and having homosexual relations is a choice over which the individual does have control.

In 1977, the public was more likely to agree with the argument that homosexuality is due to factors such as one's upbringing and environment rather than that homosexuality is something with which a person is born -- by a margin of 56% to 13%. More than two decades later, the percentage of Americans accepting the genetic argument has more than tripled, to 40%, while the percentage citing "other factors" has dropped to 39%. Thus, for the first time, the current poll finds Americans essentially split on the issue of nurture versus nature as the causal factor behind gay and lesbian orientation:

In your view, is homosexuality something a person is born with or is homosexuality due to other factors such as upbringing or environment?

 


Born with

Upbringing/
environment


BOTH (vol.)

NEITHER (vol.)

No
opinion

 

%

%

%

%

%

           

2001 May 10-14

40

39

9

3

9

           

1999 Feb 8-9

34

44

13

1

8

1996 Nov 21-24

31

40

13

3

13

1989 Oct 12-15

19

48

12

2

19

1982 Jun 25-28

17

52

13

2

16

1977 Jun 17-20

13

56

14

3

15

           

(vol.) Volunteered response



 

 

Legal marriage

Polling consistently shows that at least six out of 10 Americans are opposed to the recognition of marriages between homosexuals as legally valid unions, with the same rights as traditional marriages.

If the question is phrased to emphasize giving benefits to gay or lesbian partners or couples without mentioning gay marriage, the percentage opposed drops some, but is still a majority. In a question asked in the May poll, 52% say they oppose a law that would "allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples":

Would you favor or oppose a law that would allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples?

 

 

Favor

Oppose

No opinion

 

%

%

%

       

2001 May 10-14

44

52

4

       

2000 Oct 25-28 ^

42

54

4

       

^

Suppose that on election day this year you could vote on key issues as well as candidates. Please tell me whether you would vote for or against each one of the following propositions. Would you vote -- [RANDOM ORDER]? (For or against a law that would allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples)



Survey Methods

The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,012 adults, 18 years and older, conducted May 10-14, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. 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.

Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?

 

Should be legal

Should not be legal

No opinion

%

%

%

2001 May 10-14

54

42

4

1999 Feb 8-9

50

43

7

1996 Nov 21-24

44

47

9

1992 Jun 4-8

48

44

8

1989 Oct 12-15

47

36

17

1988 Jul 1-7

35

57

11

1987 Mar 14-18

33

55

12

1986 Sep 13-17

33

54

13

1986 Jul 11-14

32

57

11

1985 Nov 11-18

44

47

9

1982 Jun 25-28

45

39

16

1977 Jun 17-20

43

43

14



As you may know, there has been considerable discussion in the news regarding the rights of homosexual men and women. In general, do you think homosexualsshouldorshould nothave equal rights in terms of job opportunities?

 

 

Yes, should
have equal rights


No, should not


DEPENDS (vol.)


No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

85

11

3

1

         

1999 Feb 8-9

83

13

2

2

1996 Nov 21-24

84

12

2

2

1993 Apr 22-24

80

14

--

6

1992 Jun 4-7

74

18

--

8

1989 Oct 12-15

71

18

--

11

1982 Jun 25-28

59

28

--

13

1977 Jun 17-20

56

33

--

11

         
         

(vol.) Volunteered response



Do you think homosexuals should or should not be hired for each of the following occupations? First, ... Next, ... [RANDOM ORDER]?

A. Salesperson

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

91

6

2

1

         

1999 Feb 8-9

90

8

1

1

1996 Nov 21-24

90

7

1

2

1992 Jun 4-8

82

13

3

2



B. The armed forces

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

72

23

2

3

         

1999 Feb 8-9

70

26

2

2

1996 Nov 21-24

65

29

3

3

1992 Jun 4-8

57

37

2

4



C. Doctors

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

78

18

2

2

         

1999 Feb 8-9

75

21

2

2

1996 Nov 21-24

69

25

3

3

1992 Jun 4-8

53

42

2

3



D. Clergy

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

54

39

2

5

         

1999 Feb 8-9

54

40

2

4

1996 Nov 21-24

53

40

3

4

1992 Jun 4-8

43

50

2

5



E. Elementary school teachers

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

56

40

3

1

         

1999 Feb 8-9

54

42

2

2

1996 Nov 21-24

55

40

3

2

1992 Jun 4-8

41

54

3

2



F. High school teachers

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

63

33

3

1

         

1999 Feb 8-9

61

36

2

1

1996 Nov 21-24

60

34

3

3

1992 Jun 4-8

47

49

2

2



G. As a member of the president's cabinet

 

 

Should

Should not

DEPENDS (vol.)

No opinion

 

%

%

%

%

         

2001 May 10-14

75

21

2

2

         

1999 Feb 8-9

74

23

1

2

1996 Nov 21-24

71

24

2

3

1992 Jun 4-8

54

39

3

4

         
         

(vol.) Volunteered response



Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?

 

 

Acceptable

Not acceptable

No opinion

 

%

%

%

       

2001 May 10-14

52

43

5

       

1999 Feb 8-9 ^

50

46

4

1997 Apr 18-20 ^

42

52

6

1996 Mar 15-17 ^

44

50

6

1992 Jun 4-8

38

57

5

1982 Jun 25-28

34

51

15

       

^ Asked of half sample



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