Acceptance of Gays Rises Among New Generation

Times Staff Writer

Gays and lesbians have experienced a dramatic rise in acceptance over the last two decades, according to a Los Angeles Times poll.

Almost seven in 10 Americans know someone who is gay or lesbian and say they would not be troubled if their elementary school-age child had a homosexual teacher. Six in 10 say they are sympathetic to the gay community, displaying an increasing inclination to view same-sex issues through a prism of societal accommodation rather than moral condemnation.

On questions ranging from job discrimination to role models to whether homosexuality is morally wrong, responses indicate that as gays and lesbians have become more open, heterosexuals in return have become more open toward them. A key exception is same-sex marriage -- supported by only one in four.


The change has come within one generation. In two Times Polls in the mid-1980s and other data from the same era, the level of sympathy toward gays and lesbians was half what it is today.

“The stigma of being gay is disappearing,” said Gary Gates, a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington. “This is a huge change. Gay people in general are feeling more comfortable in society -- and society is feeling more comfortable with gay people.”

The fact that 69% of those polled by The Times said they know a gay or lesbian -- up from 46% in 1985 -- is particularly significant, Gates said. “Being gay is no longer an abstraction. It’s my friend, my neighbor, my brother, my office-mate.”

The Times poll showed that women tended to be slightly more sympathetic toward gays and lesbians than men, and the survey affirmed a polarization that puts liberals and conservatives at opposite ends of a broad spectrum.

The poll also found a profound gulf in attitudes between older and younger Americans. Compared with those over 65, respondents between 18 and 29 were so much more favorably disposed toward gays and lesbians that, Gates said, over time, “many of these issues are simply not going to be issues any longer.”

But resistance remains in some areas.

A slight majority opposed adoption by same-sex couples.

And 72% opposed same-sex marriage -- an issue that has driven the subject of homosexual rights to the forefront as Massachusetts, because of a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling, prepares to allow gays and lesbians to marry next month.


The issue also prompted President Bush to support a constitutional amendment restricting marriage to a union between a man and a woman. The poll found 51% supported such an amendment. An overwhelming 69% of conservatives voiced support and 70% of liberals were in opposition.

Yet the nationwide survey showed that regardless of their own feelings on the subject, 59% of respondents believe legal recognition of marriage for same-sex couples is inevitable.

Among those in the 18-to-29 age group, 71% said legal recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable. These young Americans were more than four times as likely to support same-sex marriage as those over 65, the poll found.

“When we were young[er], the world was changing and we didn’t have a problem with that. We thought it was fine. If someone was gay, that was fine too,” said poll respondent Christine Claesgens, 25.

Claesgens, a waitress in Portland, Ore., predicted that when she is 65, same-sex marriage “might still be an interesting topic. But I don’t think it will be a problem.”

The Times Poll, supervised by polling director Susan Pinkus, surveyed 1,616 adults nationwide March 27-30. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll produced a variety of strong responses that reflect expanding acceptance of gays and lesbians:

* 61% say a homosexual would make a good role model for a child.

* 72% favor laws to protect homosexuals from job discrimination and 74% favor laws to protect gays and lesbians from housing discrimination.

* 62% say gays and lesbians should get the same civil rights protections as women and minorities.

* 70% say the military should not discharge gays or lesbians.

* 62% say their community accepts gays and lesbians.

* 65% say they can accept gays and lesbians living together.

But John P. DeCecco, editor of a quarterly publication in San Francisco called the Journal of Homosexuality, characterized the growing tolerance as “an uneasy acceptance.”

Heterosexuals remain “very sensitive as to whether their friends and colleagues are gay,” said DeCecco, a 79-year-old professor emeritus at San Francisco State University who for decades taught classes on sexuality.

But “there is less rejection on that basis than there has been in the past,” he said. “They would not make that the only basis for rejection.”

The tenuous nature of the new tolerance is reflected by the angst over same-sex marriage, DeCecco said. In The Times poll, 24% of respondents said gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. Another 38% said gays and lesbians should be allowed to form civil unions but not marry, and 34% said same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry or form civil unions.

Among those who approved of same-sex marriage, the age gap was pronounced -- as was the extreme discrepancy in views between self-described liberals and conservatives.

Within the 18-to-29 age group, 44% supported same-sex marriage -- against 10% of those 65 and older. Among liberals, slightly more than half endorsed marriage for gays and lesbians. For conservatives, the figure was 7%.

Poll respondent James F. McNamara, 73, said he was resigned to the idea that “some kind of union will happen” for gays and lesbians.

“But I hope it’s not called marriage,” said McNamara, a retired computer programmer in Connecticut. “I just think marriage per se should be between a man and a woman, and it is basically for creating a family -- for sexual intercourse -- and for raising a family.”

Far from acceptance, the notion among many Americans that the legalization of same-sex unions is unavoidable shows that “most people just feel there is nothing they can do about it,” said Jan LaRue, chief counsel in Washington for Concerned Women for America, an advocacy organization that seeks to bring a Christian perspective to public policy.

“People recognize that we are facing judicial activists, such as in Massachusetts, and renegade mayors and public officials, such as we have seen in San Francisco, Oregon and New York,” LaRue said. “And despite whatever it means to be sympathetic to the gay community, the vast majority do not want their children to live in that lifestyle.”

In The Times poll, 60% said they would be upset if their child were gay or lesbian -- down from 73% in a national poll in June 2000. In a 1983 poll, the figure was 90%.

About a third in this latest survey said homosexuality is something people are born with, while 14% said it was something that develops because of the way people are raised, and 35% called it a lifestyle preference. Twenty years ago, 16% said gays were born that way.

The Times poll also showed that slightly more than half the respondents believe homosexual orientation can be changed in just a few cases, or never. Just over a third said homosexual orientation could be changed some or most of the time. Forty-nine percent of conservatives, however, and 43% of non-Catholic Christians said homosexual orientation could be changed in most or some cases.

Nearly three in five of those surveyed said same-sex relationships are “against God’s will.”

In the Chicago suburb of Aurora, poll participant Mel Rauch, 38, called being gay or lesbian “a life choice, instead of a lifestyle. I feel it is not something you are born with and I think it is improper behavior.”

Rauch, an engineer, said he has warned his three children that if they “turned homosexual,” he would disinherit them -- “because if my child was to choose that lifestyle, basically my bloodline would end with that child and not continue on. Why give him an inheritance that he is just going to have to give to the state someday?”

Asked about the causes of homosexuality, poll respondent Kathleen Halbrook said: “I don’t understand it, really. I don’t know if it’s something they picked up because they wanted to do it, or what.”

Halbrook, 80, lives near Memphis, Tenn., and has a family that includes 22 great-grandchildren.

She said she did not know what she would say to a child “with that problem,” homosexuality.

“There are enough complications in life without that,” she said. “But if someone is like that, what could you do about it?”

The Times poll found 52% oppose adoption by same-sex couples. In a national survey from 1992, 63% said gays and lesbians should not be allowed to adopt children. But support for adoption by same-sex couples rose to 40% in the current poll, up from 23% in the earlier poll.

In the 18-to-29 age group, 54% said they favored adoption by same-sex couples, while 70% of those over 65 opposed it. Sixty-five percent of liberals and 56% of Catholics said they favored same-sex adoptions. But 73% of conservatives and 63% of non-Catholic Christians opposed such adoptions.

Nearly two-thirds of poll respondents said watching gay and lesbian characters on television has not changed their feelings toward homosexuals. Slightly more than half said gay and lesbian issues received too much attention in the media, and more than seven in 10 said they had closely followed the recent debates about same-sex marriage.

Older people were much more likely to say they would not watch television programs with homosexual characters.

Frances Kata, 74, said she was annoyed by the news onslaught, as well as the appearance of homosexual characters on TV shows like “Will & Grace.” Kata, a poll respondent who lives near Philadelphia, said the attention generated by gays and lesbians was disproportionate to their numbers.

“And they are practically committing anarchy with what they are doing. It is just not peaceful, these people going and blatantly getting married, all this nonsense,” said Kata, who sold real estate before retiring.

The poll showed that people are five times as likely to say that knowing a gay or lesbian person has made a positive change in their attitude as compared to those who say it has a negative effect.

Knowing a gay or lesbian person also made respondents less likely to be upset about having a homosexual child. They also were less worried about letting their children spend time in households where a gay or lesbian resided, and less concerned about permitting their children to read books featuring gay or lesbian characters.

Familiarity also has broken down political barriers. Almost six in 10 respondents in The Times poll said they would be willing to vote for a gay or lesbian candidate.

“It all boils down to a single premise: that it is far harder to hate and discriminate against someone you know than someone you don’t know,” said Cheryl Jacques, president of the nation’s largest gay and lesbian advocacy organization, the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. “And more and more people, as this poll shows, know gay people in their family, in their community and in their workplace.”

“This has helped people to understand that the majority of gay and lesbian people, many raising children -- like my family -- are pretty darned normal,” said Jacques, who lives with her female partner and their two young sons.

“Our household runs on Cheerios and bedtimes and choosing schools and reading books at home together,” she said.

Jacques said she could easily envision a world where her two boys, Timmy and Tommy, would not have to explain a household with two mothers.

“Absolutely, and I don’t think it will take that long,” she said. “I think the resistance to [gay] marriage is going to turn around very quickly. By and large, the vast majority of Americans do not think twice about an interracial couple or a mixed-religious couple -- things that to our parents’ generation were taboo. There will be a whole generation that will not think twice about the moms next door.”

Poll respondent Rodney Lawrence, 23, an insurance worker in central Illinois, said he had several gay friends. He said he viewed stigmatizing homosexuals as “just like being prejudiced. People that are prejudiced, they look at someone of another race as a lower value -- and that is how some people see gays and lesbians.”

Besides, Lawrence said, “When it comes down to love, it’s just about what a person feels in their heart. And no one else really has a say in what you feel in your heart.”



Today’s attitudes toward gays

Q: How sympathetic would you say you are to the gay community?


Sympathetic: 60%

Unsympathetic: 36%

Don’t know: 4%

Sept. 1983

Sympathetic: 30%

Unsympathetic: 63%

Don’t know: 7%

Q: Which comes closest to your view:

*--* Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry 44% 10% 24% Same-sex couples should be allowed to form civil unions 31 38 38 Same-sex couples should not be allowed to do either 22 48 34 Don’t know 3 4 4


Q: Do you think legal recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable?

*--* Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All Inevitable 71% 45% 59% Not inevitable 22 39 31 Don’t know 7 16 10


Q: Do you personally know someone who is gay?

*--* Currently Dec. ‘85* Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All All Know someone 74% 52% 69% 46%


Q: If you had a child who told you he or she was gay or lesbian, what would your reaction be?


Very upset: 33%

Somewhat upset: 27%

Not too upset: 11%

Not upset at all: 25%

Don’t know: 4%

Sept. ’83

Very upset: 63%

Somewhat upset: 27%

Not too upset: 4%

Not upset at all: 3%

Don’t know: 3%

Q: Do you personally think that it is possible for two people of the same sex to be in love with one another the way that a man and a woman can be in love?

*--* Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All Yes 65% 31% 58% No 32 44 31 Don’t know 3 25 11


Q: In your opinion, what causes homosexuality? Is it something:

*--* Currently Sept. ’83 Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All All People are born with 29% 32% 32% 16% Develops because of the way people are brought up 16 15 14 25 Just the way some people prefer to live 39 36 35 37 Don’t know 16 17 19 22


Q: Should gays be protected under civil rights laws in the way racial minorities and women have been protected, or not?


Protected: 62%

Not protected: 28%

Don’t know: 10%

Oct. ’95

Protected: 43%

Not protected: 50%

Don’t know: 7%

Q: Do you favor or oppose gay couples legally adopting children?

*--* Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All Favor 54% 22% 40% Oppose 43 70 52 Don’t know 3 8 8


Q: If you had a child of elementary school age, would you object to having a gay person as your child’s teacher, or would that not bother you?

*--* Currently Feb. ‘93* Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All All Object 19% 44% 26% 55% Not bother 76 50 68 41 Don’t know 5 6 6 4


Q: Do you think a gay person could be a good role model or not?

*--* Currently June ‘94** Youngest Oldest respondents respondents All All Good role model 74% 39% 61% 36% Not a good role model 22 48 30 57 Don’t know 4 13 9 7


Q: Do you personally believe that same-sex relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong, or is that not a moral issue?


*--* Morally wrong Not morally wrong Don’t know Youngest 34% 61% 5% Oldest 62% 30% 8% All 48% 46% 6%


March ‘78***

*--* Morally wrong Not morally wrong Don’t know All 53% 38% 9%


*CBS/New York Times Poll

**Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners Poll

***Time/Yankelovich, Skelly & White Poll

The youngest respondents are between the ages of 18 to 29. The oldest respondents are 65 years of age and older.

Some of the numbers may not add up to 100% where some answer categories are not shown.

How the Poll Was Conducted

The Times Poll contacted 1,616 adults nationwide by telephone March 27 through 30. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the nation and random digit dialing techniques were used to allow listed and unlisted numbers to be contacted. The entire sample of adults was weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age and education. The margin of sampling error for all adults is 3 percentage points in either direction. For certain subgroups the error margin may be somewhat higher. Poll results may also be affected by factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.

Source: Los Angeles Times Poll