An informal survey by the Washington Post published June 18 asked a tiny number of well-placed experts—six—to say what they think will happen if federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturns California’s ban on same-sex marriage. Two of the six pointed to existing polling data to warn of the potential for a negative impact.
Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, said Pew’s previous polling data predicts “backlash.” Those polls, and others, have historically shown LGBT victories in court lead to an increase in public opposition to same-sex marriage. It happened after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state sodomy laws (in June 2003). It happened after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled gay couples had a constitutional right to marriage equality (in November 2003). And even before Walker issues his decision, said Keeter, polls indicate the public opinion climate “remains chilly” for same-sex marriage.
Joe Mathews, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a political think tank, said that, while public opinion is trending in favor of marriage equality, “a divisive court decision that gets too far ahead of voters could prolong the fight over same-sex marriage for a generation or more. . . .”
“If judges strongly support overturning Prop 8 at each stage of the appeal, this emerging judicial consensus that gay-marriage bans are unconstitutional would speed acceptance of such unions across the country,” wrote Mathews. “But if Prop 8 is overturned by a narrowly and nastily divided U.S. Supreme Court, say 5 to 4, such a decision could conceivably do more harm than good.”
So, where is public opinion on same-sex marriage right now?
Two recent reports shed some light on that, and some doubt.
First, the light: The 2010 Values and Beliefs survey, which Gallup conducts every May, indicated that 52 percent of adults surveyed consider “gay and lesbian relations” to be “morally acceptable,” compared to 43 percent who said they are “morally wrong.” Five percent had no response or had some other opinion. The results were based on random telephone interviews with 1,029 adults conducted between May 3 and 6, 2010. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The 52 percent saying “morally acceptable” was up three points over 2009, when 49 percent said “morally acceptable.” And the percentage saying “morally wrong” was down four points—from 47 percent in 2009 to 43 percent this year. (Five percent no opinion or other response in 2009.)
This year was the first time since Gallup began asking the question that more than 50 percent of Americans said they believe “gay and lesbian relations” are morally acceptable.
“What’s different this year is that the spread between ‘morally acceptable’ and ‘morally wrong’ is a whole lot bigger,” says Lee Badgett, a professor of Economics at UMass Amherst, and the research director at the Williams Institute for Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA. It was a nine-point spread this year, compared to only a two-point spread last year.
“The question is,” said Badgett, “will that turn out to be a tipping point or not?”
Gallup polling data shows the “morally acceptable” response has been on a steady trend upward since 2004. It took a six-point dive in 2004, just six months after the Massachusetts high court issued its landmark marriage equality decision.
The percentage of Americans who consider gay relations to be “morally wrong”—43 percent—is the lowest it’s been in a decade. And also for the first time, a larger percent of men said “morally acceptable” than women—53 percent of men and 51 percent of women now believe “gay and lesbian relations” are morally acceptable.
The change in men’s attitudes was striking. In May 2006, 39 percent of men polled said they felt “homosexual relations” were morally acceptable. By this year, that number had jumped to 53 percent. That’s a 14-point jump, while, over the same period, acceptance among women increased just 2 percent.
Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA who studies the LGBT population, cautions against putting too much stock in one poll. But, he says, “a variety of polls have been showing, depending on the wording, increased amounts of acceptance towards LGB and, in some cases, T people. That acceptance has gone up in both men and women.”
To a certain degree, the improvements could have something to do with the fact that Gallup’s wording changed in 2008, from “homosexual relations” to “gay and lesbian relations.” According to Gates and Badgett, people respond differently in polls on gay issues depending on the way questions are asked. Questions about “homosexuals” tend to receive more of a negative reaction than the same questions about “gays and lesbians.”
“The closer you get to people having to think about sex,” said Gates, “the worse gay people do in polls.”
But experts agree say there is probably no single reason for this change in how men are polling, but rather a number of contributing factors.
“Some of it is exposure,” says Mark Stevens, a psychologist at California State University in Northridge. “Guys are growing up where they have friends who are gay. There is a little bit more in the media, on the TV. And it’s kind of cool to be a little bit more liberal and a little bit more accepting.”
Gates agrees that exposure is likely a big part of it, though not just for men.
“We know that a higher proportion of gay people are being more open and being more open at younger ages. And we do know that knowing gay people or having a relationship with an LGBT person does actually have an impact on people’s broader attitudes.”
Age is, and always has been, a factor, something that was clear in the survey’s results. Younger men (like younger women) are generally more accepting than their parents and grandparents.
In addition to the increase in acceptance among men, the Gallup poll also found improved attitudes towards gays and lesbians among every other sub-group polled: from Catholics to Protestants, Democrats to Independents, moderates to conservatives.
Though the degree to which those views shifted differed greatly, it’s evident that there is a steady, gradual shift taking place in the way Americans view gay and lesbian relationships and civil rights for gay people. In fact, Gallup’s polling this year shows the public views “gay and lesbian relations” as more morally acceptable than doctor-assisted suicide (46 percent) and less than having a baby outside of marriage (54 percent).
But what about legalizing marriages for same-sex couples?
While the Gallup poll showed 52 percent of people said they consider “gay and lesbian relations” to be “morally acceptable” and 58 percent said those relations should be “legal,” only 44 percent said such marriages should be recognized. That is up four points from 2009, and up 16 points since 1996, when Gallup first began asking about gay marriage specifically. The Gallup polling on gay marriage is now approximately where it was for interracial marriage in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The balance in favor interracial marriage crossed its tipping point with the 1991 survey –when 48 percent approved and 42 percent disapproved marriage between blacks and whites.
But do people’s attitudes necessarily translate into how they are likely to vote on an issue? Not as reliably as one might expect.
Political scientist Patrick Egan, who has done considerable polling on gay-related political issues, examined the results of 167 pre-election polls on 32 different ballot measures concerning either same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships. He found that pre-election polls “consistently underestimated” the number of people who would vote for a ban on same-sex marriage—by an average of seven points. And, “the share of the public saying they intend to vote for or against these measures typically changes very little over the course” of the ballot measure campaigns.
This gap between how voters say they will vote and what they actually do in the voting booth does not appear to be a product of wanting to give the a poll-taker a socially desirable response of supporting equality for all, said Egan. He could find no evidence for that. For instance, he said, in states with large gay populations, one would expect many people who wanted to ban gay marriage would tell a pollster that they were against the ban. Voters in California, for instance, would be more likely than voters in Mississippi to say they were going to vote against the ban and then vote for it. But there was no such correlation and no other evidence emerged in Egan’s analysis to explain the gap.
Still, it’s clear Americans are becoming increasingly open and accepting and experts and polling data suggest this trend will continue—unless something happens to set opinion back.
“You never know how society is changing, and sometimes it’s not very obvious because it’s very subtle,” says Stevens. While the reasons such a shift is occurring now “might not be necessarily explainable,” he says, “it’s really good to see.”
Lisa Keen contributed to this report.