Over the last few decades, landmark legal cases, medical discoveries, and movies and TV shows have done much to increase acceptance toward homosexuality in American culture. The American public's recognition of homosexuality as a lifestyle, although still relatively limited, has never been more widespread than it is now, largely because of the opinions of young adults.
A Gallup poll last May* found 52% of Americans saying they believe homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle, up from just 34% in 1982. The poll also showed that a stronger majority -- 62% -- of young adults (age 18 to 29) consider homosexuality acceptable.
Age is also a significant factor with regard to opinions of one of most hotly debated facets of this topic: same-sex marriages. Overall, 44% of Americans said in the May 2001 poll they would favor a law that would "allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples," while 52% said they would oppose such a law. A generational gap appears when results are broken down by age category: among 18 to 29 year olds, 59% would favor the law, compared to 42% of those aged 30 to 49 and 35% of those 50 and older. Further, a poll of American teens aged 13 to 17 conducted from December 2000 to February 2001** indicates that nearly half of them (46%) approve of marriage between homosexuals.
The public's gradually shifting stance on homosexuality is also evident in other measures. More than half of Americans (54%) now say they think homosexual relations between consenting adults should be considered legal, while 42% say they should not be legal. As recently as 1986, only 32% of American adults thought homosexual relations should be legal. Again, the data indicate that young adults are helping drive the change in public perception: 65% of 18 to 29 year olds currently say homosexual relations should be legal, compared to 58% of 30 to 49 year olds, 49% of 50 to 64 year olds, and 33% of those age 65 and older.
So the data clearly indicate that younger people tend to be more accepting of homosexuality -- but can they tell us anything about why? The "nature versus nurture" question is often a prominent facet of discussions about gay rights. The 2001 results show that overall, the American public is split on the question, with 40% saying they think homosexuality is something a person is born with and 39% saying it is due to factors such as upbringing or environment, while 21% did not have an opinion either way. Among the general population, those who view homosexuality as a genetic trait tend to be more accepting of it than those who believe it is a function of one's environment, which implies a more voluntary lifestyle choice.
Given that younger Americans are more accepting of homosexuality, are they also dramatically more likely to come down on the side of genetics? Surprisingly, the answer is no: among 18 to 29 year olds, 46% say they think homosexuality is due to factors such as upbringing and environment, while 36% believe it is an inherent trait -- results that are little different from other age groups. It is perhaps this question that demonstrates most convincingly that the changing attitudes represent a true cultural shift toward acceptance: the scientific origin of homosexuality doesn't appear to make much difference to young adults -- they're more likely to be accepting of it either way.
*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, age 18 and over, conducted May 10-14, 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 3 percentage points.
**Results are based on telephone interviews with 501 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted December 2000 through February 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 5 percentage points.