WASHINGTON — A new public opinion survey is the latest to confirm a major social trend that shows no sign of ebbing: rising acceptance of same-sex marriage and homosexuality in America.
Fully one in seven adults say they’ve changed their mind about gay rights, often because they have a friend or family member who is gay, according to the new national poll by the independent Pew Research Center.
Recently, another national poll, by The Washington Post and ABC News, found that support for gay marriage is now at an all-time high, as the Supreme Court prepares to take up the issue, including a test of California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages.
The Pew poll shows less lopsided support for gay marriage than the Post/ABC poll, but both surveys reflect similar shifts in favor of same-sex unions. The Pew poll also traces the causes of the wider social shift, one of the biggest on any issue question over the past decade. These roots are worth examining, even if some may not seem overly surprising — like the fact that the emergence of a younger, more tolerant generation has a lot to do with the overall change in public attitudes.
In the 18-32 age bracket, support for same-sex marriage is at 70 percent. Ten years ago, among members of the same generation, it was 51 percent. But support for same-sex marriage has also increased among those born between 1928 and 1945; in 2003, just 17 percent were in favor, and today that figure is 31 percent.
Among those who have changed their minds about gay marriage, one in four say it’s just because they’ve grown older. One in five say today’s world is different and this change is inevitable. Nearly as many (18 percent) say they think that government should no longer intrude in people’s lives in this way and that individuals should be free to do what makes them happy. Almost one in three say it’s because they know someone who is gay. And 13 percent credit a belief in individual rights or various moral or religious teachings for their change of heart.
The shifting attitudes toward same-sex marriage closely track mirror changing opinions about homosexuality. Today, a slight majority of Americans (51 percent) says that same-sex marriage isn’t a threat to traditional families. A decade ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to permit same-sex marriage, most people (56 percent) said the practice would undermine the traditional family and only 39 percent said it wasn’t a threat.
Evolving opinions toward gay and lesbian rights closely resemble other social and political divides, the study finds. For example, nearly two in three Democrats (63 percent) disagree with the notion that allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally undermines the traditional family, while just 33 percent agree. In 2003, Democrats were evenly split on the question. Among independents, growing support for gay marriage has largely paralleled increases among Democrats.
At the same time, Republican attitudes are little changed. In 2003, 59 percent of Republicans said homosexuality should be discouraged; today that figure is 54 percent, according to Pew’s polling. The percentage of Republicans who favor gay marriage stands at 27 percent today, versus 21 percent a decade ago.
There is a gender gap on gay marriage (women are in favor; men are opposed), as well as an age divide. Those over 50 are against gay marriage, with resistance highest among those over 65. Americans with a high school education or less are opposed, while support for gay marriage is highest among college graduates. Income levels, too, reflect differences of opinion; those with family incomes above $75,000 support gay marriage, while those who earn less are evenly split.
Regionally, support for gay marriage is highest in the Northeast and the West, while opposition is highest in the South. The Midwest is more evenly divided, with those favoring gay marriage slightly outnumbering opponents (48 percent to 43 percent), according to the Pew survey.
Among religious groups, only white mainline Protestants have registered substantial changes on gay issues, the study finds. A majority in 2003 (58 percent) said gay marriage would go against their religious beliefs; today that figure is 44 percent. Evangelical Protestants remain strongly opposed to gay marriage, while the highest level of support is among those who list their religious preference as unaffiliated.