New generations are advancing equality

Robert Jones

A new national report provides data to back up what many have sensed for a long time: that the positive shift in America’s attitudes toward equal rights for LGBT people has a lot to do with age.

There is a 20-point gap between so-called “millennials” (adults 18 to 29 years old) and “seniors” (ages 65 and older) on a range of LGBT issues, including marriage, civil unions, adoption, and protections for employment discrimination.

That generation gap is the major finding in a report released August 29 by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a nonprofit, non-partisan research and education organization, located in Washington, D. C. And the generation gap on marriage equality is especially eye opening.

Support for same-sex marriage among millennials has reached 62 percent, but among seniors, it is only 31 percent.

“It is certainly impossible to understand current public opinion on rights for gay and lesbian Americans without understanding the steady upward trend in support, which actually includes an acceleration over the last two years,” said Robert P. Jones, PRRI’s chief executive officer and leading author of the report, during a telephone conference call.

In 2011, public opinion polls for the first time began showing a slim majority of people in support of allowing same-sex couples to marry. And over the past five years, public support for marriage equality has registered double-digit increases.

“When you look at the overall trends, broader context, and the strongly supportive attitudes, particularly among the millennial generation,” said Jones, “it suggests that we will look back at 2011 as a year marking the sea change for gay and lesbian issues, a change that is largely driven by Americans ages 18 to 29.”

The PRRI report, Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights, is based on a random sample survey of 3,000 English and Spanish language telephone interviews (1,000 of which were to cell phones), conducted between July 14 and July 30. The margin of error is plus or minus two percentage points for the overall sample and plus or minus 4.5 percentage points for the sample of 18 to 29 year olds.

It is one of the largest public opinion surveys on religion and gay issues ever conducted. The Arcus Foundation, which works to advance LGBT equality, funded the survey. The report notes that the independent findings of the study are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of Arcus.

Millennials and seniors are indeed a generation at odds. As the report states, “It is difficult to find another issue on which there is a deeper generational disagreement than on the issue of homosexuality and rights for gay and lesbian people.”

The report highlights other key findings, including that the generation gap on same-sex marriage is “striking and persists even among conservative religious and political groups.” For example, 44 percent of white young evangelicals favor marriage equality compared to 19 percent of white evangelicals overall and only 12 percent of white evangelical seniors.

The survey also found that the majority of respondents in two major American religious groups—white mainline Protestants (51 percent) and Catholics (52 percent)—favor same-sex marriage. But most black Protestants (60 percent) and most white evangelicals (76 percent) strongly oppose marriage equality.

Sixty-seven percent of non-Christian religiously affiliated Americans—a category that includes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other smaller non-Christians—favor same-sex marriage.

The survey found that most Americans believe it is difficult to live openly gay, but they also believe more lesbian and gay people “coming out” is a good thing for society.

Sixty-nine percent of millennials say that religious groups alienate young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian people. But only 37 percent of seniors agree.

More than six in ten Americans believe that negative messages from America’s houses of worship contribute to higher rates of suicide among gay youth.

Joining Jones on the teleconference call to release the survey results were Daniel Cox, PRRI’s director of research; Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Laura Olson, a professor of political science at Clemson University—all of whom offered observations on key findings.

Cox pointed out that, in addition to age, four other powerfully important predictors that a person will oppose marriage equality are holding a literal interpretation of the Bible, attending religious services at least once a week, identifying as a political conservative, and being a white evangelical Protestant.

Professor Olson said one likely explanation for the millennials support for marriage equality and equal rights for gays is the “exposure hypothesis.”

“Young people today know gay people or they feel they know someone gay,” said Olson. “They see gay people who are portrayed by the media in importantly positive ways—Ellen Degeneres, characters on TV shows, reality shows, the movies.”

“Social science research indicates that the more exposure one has to a person with a characteristic different from their own,” said Olson, “the more likely that person is to be accepting of that characteristic.”

“Proximity” to gay people also leads to “increased tolerance or acceptance,” added Bowman.

The bottom line? The younger generation’s familiarity with gay people bodes well for the future of the LGBT civil rights movement.

“The relationship younger Americans have with gay and lesbian people is not going to change as they get a mortgage, raise kids, and attend religious services in higher rates,” said Jones.

And the survey also shows that “a number of people are willing to draw a line …making a distinction between support for public policy and what they believe in their own personal or religious lives,” said Jones.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans say sex between two adults of the same gender is morally acceptable, according to the PRRI report, but even more (47 percent) favor allowing gay people to marry and 64 percent say gay and lesbian relationships should be accepted by society.

Evan Wolfson, founder and president of the National Freedom to Marry (FTM) organization, said PRRI’s findings confirm “powerful support from young people.” He said the support is part of the “shifted political equation” towards “the national majority” for marriage equality.

Boston-based Charles Martel, co-chair of Catholics for Marriage Equality, said, “The current research on millennials shows that acceptance not tolerance is a hallmark of the shift in attitude towards gay persons.”

“From a religious perspective,” he said, “millennials find themselves questioning attitudes and teachings about homosexuality that do not reflect their own experiences and knowledge and therefore see these teachings as lacking substance based on reality.”

Executive director of Equality Illinois, Bernard Cherkasov, said, “The findings of the survey are encouraging across the board.”

“While it’s true that support for marriage equality among senior citizens lags that of millennials,” said Cherkasov, “a clear majority of seniors support [some kind of] relationship recognition for same-sex couples.”

The PRRI report found 51 percent of seniors support civil unions.

“We know from our work across the state that many seniors understand why equal protections for same-sex couples are necessary,” said Cherkasov, “but they are not accustomed to seeing married same-sex couples. Seniors may support equality for same-sex couples, but they are making a distinction as to the terminology through which equality would be granted.”

“The challenge is for us in the LGBT equality movement,” said Cherkasov, “is to make a clear case why the only way to have full equality for same-sex couples is to have marriage equality. A separate institution with a different name does not turn out to provide equal rights and protections.”

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