Last edited: February 13, 2005

Six out of 10 Americans Say Homosexual Relations Should Be Recognized as Legal

But Americans are evenly divided on issue of legal civil unions between homosexuals giving them the legal rights of married couples

Gallup News Service, May 15, 2003

By Frank Newport, Gallup News Service

PRINCETON, NJ—Attitudes toward homosexuality and homosexual relations continue to be one of the more complex areas of public opinion that Gallup measures. The issue is not only one of significant concern because of its traditional moral and religious overtones, but in recent years it has been at the center of state and federal legislative battles, highly publicized court challenges, and political debate.

Gallup’s recent Values and Beliefs survey shows that a majority of Americans accept the idea that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal and that homosexuality is an acceptable way of life. The acceptance of homosexuality as legal is now at the 60% level, up from 52% last year and 43% when Gallup first began asking about it in 1977. The recent survey also finds that almost 9 out of 10 Americans agree that homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities, although opinions on allowing homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples, are evenly divided.

A plurality of Americans believe that homosexuality is something that is a result of one’s upbringing or environment, rather than being a genetic trait with which a person is born, although opinion on this has been somewhat inconsistent over time.

Should Homosexuality Be Legal?

Gallup first asked about the legality of homosexuality in 1977, with a basic question worded as follows: “Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?” At that point, Americans were evenly divided on the issue, as 43% said yes, 43% said no, and 14% were not sure. In Gallup’s recent Values and Beliefs poll, conducted May 5-7, the public has clearly become more moderate toward homosexuality than was the case two decades earlier: 60% of Americans now say that homosexual relations should be legal, 35% not legal, with 5% unsure. During the mid-1980s, the percentage saying that homosexual relations should be legal dropped to as low as 32%, perhaps resulting from either the conservative environment ushered in by the Reagan administration, or the beginning of widespread publicity surrounding AIDS and its prevalence in the homosexual community.

Equal Job Opportunities

Over the same time period, there has also been significant change in attitudes about employment rights for homosexuals. The specific Gallup question asks: “As you may know, there has been considerable discussion in the news regarding the rights of homosexual men and women. In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?” The percentage saying yes is now 88%, similar to recent years, but significantly higher than the 56% when first recorded in 1977. As recently as 1992, fewer than four in five Americans felt homosexuals should be given equal treatment in hiring.

Thus, there is a gap between the 60% of the public saying that homosexual relations should be legal, and the 88% saying that homosexuals should have equal rights in the workplace. These two questions may play to different norms that exist in contemporary America. The legality question may tap into a general sense of morality, and a reluctance of a more conservative segment of society to sanction what they consider to be deviant behavior. The question about equal opportunity, on the other hand, may invoke the public’s attitudes about discrimination, fair play, and equal treatment.

Homosexuality as an Acceptable Lifestyle

Indeed, a sizable percentage of Americans continue to frown on the homosexual lifestyle. In 1982, Gallup distinguished between Americans’ personal feelings about homosexuality from their opinions about its legality by asking this question: “Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?” At that time, just 34% said yes. Public acceptance on this measure has increased incrementally since that point, and our latest poll shows that a small majority, 54%, now agrees that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle. Still, that leaves a substantial minority of 43% who disagree.

Nature or Nurture?

Part of the argument about homosexuality through the years has focused on the issue of how much control an individual has over his or her sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian leaders stress the fact that homosexuality is an inborn trait, and—similar to gender or race—is not a decision over which an individual has direct control. The classic Gallup Poll question designed to get at this issue—first used in 1977—asks if homosexuality is “something a person is born with or is homosexuality due to other factors such as upbringing or environment?”

In 1977, the public was more likely to agree with the argument that homosexuality is due to factors such as one’s upbringing and environment, rather than the argument that homosexuality is something with which a person is born—by a margin of 56% to 13%. Twenty-six years later, in 2003, the percentage of Americans accepting the genetic argument has more than doubled to 38%, while the percentage agreeing that homosexuality is environmentally caused has dropped to 44%. Thus, a slight plurality of Americans now agrees with the “nurture” argument over the “nature” argument. Still, unlike other trend questions that have moved to a more liberal orientation in this year’s survey, the “upbringing/environment” alternative in response to this question is more prevalent now than it was in either 2001 or 2002.

Should Homosexual Couples Be Given the Same Legal Rights as Married Couples?

The answer to this question is a clear “yes” if the issue is simply whether gay or lesbian partners should be able to share healthcare and Social Security survivor benefits. Americans are less supportive if providing legal rights is done in the context of establishing a right of civil unions for gays and lesbians, akin to marriage.

Polling in recent years has consistently shown that at least 6 out of 10 Americans are opposed to the recognition of marriages between homosexuals as legally valid unions, with the same rights as traditional marriages.

If the question is re-phrased to emphasize giving “some of the legal rights of married couples,” but without the assumption that they would in some ways be “married,” public opinion breaks even. In May 2002, 46% favored a law that would “allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples,” while 51% opposed. This year, opinion is exactly divided, with 49% in favor and 49% opposed.

At the same time, a question that asks about giving homosexual couples the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples “regarding healthcare benefits and Social Security survivor benefits” finds 62% agreement.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,005 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7, 2003. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects 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.

[Note: Additional charts and graphs accompany this article on the Gallup website: ] [Link not working on 2/13/2005 -Bob]

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