Six in 10 Americans Agree That Gay Sex Should Be Legal

by Frank Newport

Older Americans least likely to approve

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The Supreme Court's decision on Thursday to invalidate a Texas anti-sodomy law is generally in line with the attitudes of the majority of Americans.

About 6 out of 10 Americans believe that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, essentially the Supreme Court's position in its decision in the Lawrence v. Texas case.

Gallup has asked the public about the issue since 1977, and the latest results -- from mid-May of this year -- show that 59% of the public says homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal, while 37% say they should not be.

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

There has been a significant shift in public opinion on this issue over the last 26 years. In 1977, when Gallup first asked about the legality of homosexuality, Americans were evenly divided on the issue: 43% said gay and lesbian relations should be legal; 43% said they should not be; and 14% weren't sure.

During the mid-1980s, the percentage saying that homosexual relations should be legal dropped to as low as 33%, most likely due to either widespread publicity surrounding AIDS and its prevalence in the homosexual community, or a more general conservative environment on social matters ushered in by the Reagan administration. As recently as 1988, a clear majority said that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be illegal, but since 2001, the majority has come down on the "legal" side of the issue.

When this legality question is made specific to the issues involved in the Lawrence v. Texas case -- in which police responding to a disturbance complaint arrested two men having sex in their home -- there is little difference in the results compared to the more general legality question:

Do you think it should be legal or should not be legal for two men who are consenting adults to have sex with each other in their own home?
May 30-June 1, 2003

A separate question asked about two consenting women engaged in sex in their own home, and found virtually the same results.

Do you think it should be legal or should not be legal for two women who are consenting adults to have sex with each other in their own home?

 

Should be legal

Should not be legal

No opinion

2003 May 30-Jun 1

63%

30

7



Differences by Subgroup

As noted, about a third of Americans persist in believing that homosexual relations -- even between consenting adults -- should be illegal. Those most likely to believe this way include the following groups in American society:

 

"Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?"
May 5-7, 2003

 

% Responding "Should Not Be Legal"

Attend church weekly or more often

55%

65 yrs. of age and older

51

Live in rural area

49

Conservative

46

H.S. education or less

46

Live in South

46

Republican

42

SAMPLE AVERAGE

35



Religious behavior, age, geographic location, education, ideology, and partisanship are all related to views on the legality of homosexuality. As can be seen in the table above, Americans who are most religious (as measured by church attendance), older Americans, those living in rural areas and in the South, conservatives, Republicans, and those with lower levels of education are most likely to believe that gay and lesbian relations should be illegal.

Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?
May 19-21, 2003
Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?
May 19-21, 2003

Fewer Americans Believe Homosexuality Is Morally Acceptable Than Believe It Should Be Legal

The fact that a majority of Americans believe that gay and lesbian relations should be legal does not mean that homosexuality is widely accepted in principle within American society. Indeed, a review of survey research on the topic suggests that there is still significant ambivalence about the overall acceptability of homosexual relations. Substantial numbers of Americans continue to say -- as they have for the past quarter century -- that homosexual relations and a gay and lesbian lifestyle are not morally acceptable.

Gallup's long-standing trend question on homosexuality finds that the majority of Americans now say it is "acceptable," but a sizable minority of 43% says it is "not acceptable." The pattern of results suggests that the legality of homosexuality is more widely accepted than is its moral acceptability:

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

 

Acceptable

Not acceptable

No opinion

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

54

43

3

2002 May 6-9

51

44

5

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



A May Gallup Poll also asked about the morality of homosexuality (along with a list of a number of other behaviors and actions). In this context, a slight majority of Americans said that homosexual behavior should not be considered morally acceptable:

 

2003 May 5-7
(sorted by "morally acceptable")

Morally acceptable

Morally
wrong

%

%

Divorce

66

27

The death penalty

64

31

Medical testing on animals

63

33

Gambling

63

34

Buying and wearing clothing made of animal fur

60

36

Sex between an unmarried man and woman

58

41

Medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos

54

38

Having a baby outside of marriage

51

46

Doctor assisted suicide

45

49

Homosexual behavior

44

52

Abortion

37

53

Cloning animals

29

68

Suicide

14

81

Cloning humans

8

90

Polygamy, when one husband has more than one wife at the same time

7

92

Married men and women having an affair

6

93



 

Gay Marriages and Civil Unions?

The Supreme Court decision is not a political one, of course, but there are other laws and proposed laws that are political -- including in particular those relating to gay civil unions and marriages.

An appeals court in Ontario, Canada recently changed the definition of marriage to include "two people" rather than a man and a woman, and there are indications that the Canadian government will pass laws legalizing same-sex marriage across Canada in future months.

Conservatives reacting to Thursday's Supreme Court decision have argued that it could lead to a higher probability of legal sanctioning of gay marriage or gay civil unions.

Our latest poll shows great ambivalence on the issue of gay civil unions that have "some of the legal rights of married couples," although the percentage of the public favoring such arrangements has increased over the last three years:

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

%

%

%

2003 May 5-7

49

49

2

2002 May 6-9

46

51

3

2002 Apr 8-11

45

46

9

2002 Feb 8-10

41

53

6

2001 May 10-14

44

52

4

2000 Oct 25-28 ^

42

54

4

^

WORDING: 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

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18+, conducted May 5-7, 2003, and telephone interviews with 1,014 national adults, aged 18+, conducted May 19-21, 2003. For results based on each sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±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.

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