Acceptance of Gays on Rise, Polls Show
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 precept.
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 crime.
“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 tremendous change.”
Civil Rights’ InfluenceWhether 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 movements.
“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 culture.
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 CrisisNothing, 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 people.”
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 MarketAs 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 adults.
“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 overwhelmed.
“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.”