of Gays on Rise, Polls Show
While 30 years’ worth of surveys consistently show a
majority of Americans against same-sex marriage, they also reveal some
remarkable shifts in attitudes.
Angeles Times, March 30, 2004
Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053
Fax: 213-237-7679 or 213-237-5319
By James Ricci and Patricia Ward Biederman, Times Staff
That gays are more widely accepted in American society is
readily apparent in everything from television sitcoms to corporate
anti-discrimination policies to recent U.S. Supreme Court opinions.
Less apparent is why and how the shift in attitude
occurred. Although some religious and social leaders believe the new
visibility of gays points to a national moral decline, the evolution of
attitudes about gays is a complex brew of factors, according to historians,
social psychologists and others who have studied the phenomenon.
The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think
tank in Washington, D.C., has compiled 30 years’ worth of major public
opinion poll results on Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuals. While the
surveys consistently show that about two-thirds of Americans oppose gay
marriage, an issue that has now reached the California Supreme Court, they
also demonstrate remarkable shifts on numerous other fronts. For example:
• Public acceptance of gays in the military grew from
51% in a 1977 Gallup Poll to 80% in 2003.
• Approval of gays as elementary school teachers grew
from 27% in 1977 to 61% over the same period.
• A 1999 Gallup survey showed that 59% would vote for a
well-qualified presidential candidate who was homosexual, up from 26% in 1978.
“There’s been an enormous increase in tolerance –
that’s the bottom line,” said Karlyn Bowman, who compiled the poll results
for the institute.
Some of the factors fueling the changes have been related
to gays’ own efforts, some have not. Some factors have opposed one another,
some have been mutually reinforcing. The black civil rights movement, changes
in state and local laws, the AIDS epidemic and even the Sept. 11 catastrophe
have been part of the mix.
Two powerful societal forces associated with the 1960s
– the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement – are credited with
driving the change in attitude.
The emergence of widespread contraception and a new
insistence on sexual privacy were key elements in Americans’ evolving view
of sexuality, according to Gregory Herek, a UC Davis psychology professor and
an authority on sexual orientation and prejudice. That a person’s sexual
behavior was his or her affair, and not society’s, became an accepted
That philosophy eventually led last year to the landmark
U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence vs. Texas, which abolished anti-sodomy
laws. Just 17 years earlier, in Bowers vs. Hardwick, the high court had upheld
Georgia’s anti-sodomy law, essentially agreeing that homosexuality was a
“In the Bowers case, the court’s opinion essentially
trivialized the lives of gay people,” said Herek, who helped prepare
abolitionist briefs in both high court cases. “In the Lawrence opinion, the
court recognized the important role sex plays in people’s lives, and
recognized gay people as human beings. The tone was so different. It was a
Civil Rights’ Influence
Whether that change was viewed as good or bad, it
occurred in part because the black civil rights movement – well organized,
passionately led and highly visible – served as a model for subsequent
“It became imaginable to talk about the harassment of
gay workers really only after people had talked about the harassment of
African American workers, Latino workers and women workers,” said University
of Chicago historian George Chauncey, who has chronicled the evolution of gay
Moreover, according to Cornell University psychology
professor Daryl Bem, “each of these civil rights movements has moved faster
than the one before.”
Most historians mark the so-called Stonewall riots of
1969 as the first flaring of gay militancy. When gay men took to the streets
after police raided the Stonewall Inn bar in New York’s Greenwich Village,
they showed other gays that they need not be invisible or silent.
In response to pressure from newly vocal gay groups, the
American Psychiatric Assn. in 1973 removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic
and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
In Herek’s view, that toppled one of three pillars on
which prejudice against gays traditionally rested. “Up to that point,
homosexuality could be a sin, a crime and a sickness, and that took one of
those away,” he said.
The 1970s also saw early attempts to include gays in
local anti-discrimination laws. Acceptance began to surge after large numbers
of gays began to come out of the closet.
“The act of coming out has probably been the single
most important determinant in the change in public opinion polls,” said Brad
Sears, who directs the Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law at UCLA Law
School. “People learn that this isn’t some kind of abstract, foreign,
exotic creature. This is somebody who lives down the street.”
Especially persuasive, psychologists said, is learning
that a family member is gay. “If your notion of a gay man was someone
lurking in the park looking for sex – now it’s your son,” said
Cornell’s Bem, who has studied how attitudes change in society. “It’s
hard to regard them as a sinner or as a second-class citizen, because we want
our children to be happy.”
Scholars describe the dynamic of social acceptance as
self-accelerating – the more gays come out of the closet, the more
heterosexuals come to know gays and feel more tolerant toward them; in turn,
the greater atmosphere of tolerance allows more gays to come out.
Effect of AIDS Crisis
Nothing, however, galvanized gays as much as the AIDS
epidemic that descended with such devastating impact in the 1980s.
The AIDS crisis, said UC Davis sociologist Stephen
Russell, “changed the gay community’s thinking from sexuality being an
individual thing to the politics of sexuality. People realized it was not OK
to just be left alone to your sexual identity, but that government and public
attitudes were matters of life and death for gay people.”
Countless media images of gay people caring for their
stricken and dying partners went beyond stereotypes of gay behavior.
Meanwhile, gay organizations from the Human Rights Campaign, founded in 1980,
and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP, begun in 1987) were emerging
as a powerful force, lobbying the federal government and agitating for
stepped-up AIDS research.
Gay influence continued to grow, and soon spawned a
strong conservative political reaction, epitomized by the 1992 presidential
candidacy of Pat Buchanan, an outspoken opponent of gay rights. A pattern
established in the 1970s thus repeated itself.
The new visibility of gays back then had prompted the
first major backlash by social conservatives – Anita Bryant’s successful
1977 campaign to overturn a Dade County, Fla., decision to include gays in
local anti-discrimination laws.
Just as they had organized against Bryant, gay
organizations in the ‘90s redoubled their efforts, and many heterosexuals
recoiled at Buchanan’s vociferousness.
Then came Bill Clinton. With his election as president,
gays had their most powerful advocate ever and, according to opinion polls,
the early ‘90s marked the greatest upswing in public acceptance of gays.
Clinton “appointed gay people to high office,” Herek
said. “That sort of moved the bar to a new level where gay people were
considered to be full citizens by a significant portion of the American
Politicians too have begun acknowledging their sexual
orientation, notably longtime Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
Two years ago, five California lawmakers formed the Legislative Lesbian, Gay,
Bisexual and Transgender Caucus.
Though no federal law prohibits discrimination against
gays, anti-discrimination employment policies that cover gays exist in 38
federal agencies and departments, in 25 state governments (including
California), and in 258 local governments, according to figures compiled by
the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay advocacy organization.
The 1990s also saw gay anti-discrimination policies
proliferate among private employers.
In 1992, software producer Lotus Development Corp. became
the first publicly traded company to adopt “spousal equivalent” benefits.
Today, according to HRC statistics, 1,498 companies, including 362 of the
Fortune 500, have anti-discrimination policies, and 7,360 offer health
benefits to same-sex domestic partners.
“Business has found it to be good for business,” Bem
said of such anti-discriminatory practices.
A Niche Market
As occurred with African Americans, advances in the
rights of gays caused businesses to begin regarding gays as a niche market for
everything from vodka to furniture to travel packages.
Similarly, gay characters began appearing on TV shows as
long ago as the 1970s. The 1972 TV film “That Certain Summer” was
considered a landmark because it presented sympathetic gay characters (played
by Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen) in a long-term relationship.
That film, Billy Crystal’s stint as the gay Jodie
Dallas on “Soap,” MTV’s decade-old reality show “The Real World,”
and other programs prepared the way for the gay characters and gay-themed
programs broadcast today.
While there are dozens of gay characters on TV, few are
in committed relationships, said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for
the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. Thompson thinks TV’s
failure to show gay characters in marriage-like relationships may help explain
why more people approve of gays than of gay unions. “‘Ozzie and Frank,’
you don’t see it out there.”
Both the marketing and media developments were attempts
to capitalize financially on the greater societal acceptance of gays, experts
said, but served also to further that acceptance.
“When you have [dozens of] gay characters on situation
comedies, the conservatives have lost,” Bem said. “We have a whole
generation raised in an integrated world on TV. There’s no putting that
genie back in the bottle.”
News reports of gay people swept up in the Sept. 11
attacks provided a small but resonant affirmation of homosexuals’ inclusion
in society, Sears of UCLA said. “The whole country was undergoing collective
grief and suffering, and gay people were part of it – the gay New York Fire
Department chaplain who was killed, the gay rugby player who fought back on
one of the planes. People saw those positive images.”
What is more, Sears said, some same-sex domestic partners
were able to collect survivors benefits offered by the federal government.
Though debate and legal battles continue over gay
marriage, the attitudes of today’s young people, scholars said, augur for
further advances in gay acceptance in the future.
Polls show people ages 18 to 29 are far more likely than
their elders to be tolerantly disposed toward gays. A national survey of 1,000
high school seniors, conducted in 2001 by students at Hamilton College in
association with the Zogby polling organization, found that 66% favored
legalizing gay marriage – more than double the percentage found in polls of
“There’s a larger generation gap on this issue than
on any we’ve seen, with the possible exception of marijuana legalization
during the 1960s and ‘70s,” Bem said.
Moreover, millions of children are being raised by gay
parents, though precise numbers are hard to come by, scholars said.
The social acceptance of gays has achieved such momentum
that some gay scholars, such as Martin Duberman, a distinguished professor of
history at City University of New York and a pioneer in gay studies, wonder if
the uniqueness of the gay experience in America is in danger of being
“National organizations within the gay world are
presenting themselves as just plain folks – ‘We’re ordinary citizens.
We’re just like everybody else. So let us in. We’re going to behave just
the way you want us to behave,’” Duberman said. “As a people we’ve had
a different historical experience, just as black people have. The mainstream
needs to know what we know.”