WASHINGTON -- In the nearly four and a half years since California voters approved Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriages in the state, public attitudes on the subject have gone through a remarkably rapid transformation.
Nationally, 1 in 7 American adults said in a recent Pew Research Center survey that they had changed their minds about same-sex marriage. Nearly all had gone from opposing legal marriage for same-sex couples to supporting it.
Having a friend or family member who is gay was the most common reason for having switched positions, the poll found.
At the state level, 61% of California registered voters approved of allowing same-sex couples to marry, according to a Field Poll last month. Almost one-third of voters, 32%, said they opposed same-sex marriage, the poll found.
In 2008, Proposition 8, the subject of a hearing Tuesday in the U.S. Supreme Court, passed with 52% support from voters. At the time, no state’s voters had approved same-sex marriage in a referendum. This past November, by contrast, voters in Maryland, Maine and the state of Washington approved same-sex marriage measures and voters in Minnesota defeated a measure that would have banned such marriages.
Nine states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples to marry, and several more states have measures pending in their legislatures that could come to a vote this year.
The shift in opinion on same-sex marriage is one of the biggest -- and most rapid -- on any issue over the last decade. Its roots involve several factors, including the emergence of a younger generation of voters that expresses more acceptance of homosexuality.
Nationwide, in the 18 to 32 age bracket, support for same-sex marriage stands at 70% in the Pew poll. Ten years ago, among members of the same generation, it was 51%. But support for same-sex marriage has also increased among those over 65; in 2003, just 17% were in favor, and today that figure is 31%, the poll found.
Among those who’ve changed their minds about gay marriage, almost 1 in 3 (32%) said they had shifted because they know someone who is gay. One in 4 (25%) said the shift was just because they’ve grown older. One in 5 (20%) said today’s world is different and the change is inevitable. Nearly as many (18%) said 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. And 13% 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 changing opinions about homosexuality itself. Today, a slight majority of Americans (51%) says that same-sex marriage isn’t a threat to traditional families, according to the Pew survey. A decade ago, when Massachusetts became the first state to permit same-sex marriage, a larger majority (56%) said the practice would undermine the traditional family and only 39% said it wasn’t a threat.
Evolving opinions toward gay and lesbian rights closely resemble other social and political divides, Pew researchers found. Nearly 2 in 3 Democrats (63%) disagree with the notion that allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally would undermine the traditional family, while 33% 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% of Republicans said homosexuality should be discouraged; today that figure is 54%, according to Pew’s polling. The percentage of Republicans who favor gay marriage stands at 27% today, versus 21% a decade ago.
There is a gender gap on gay marriage (more women are in favor; more men are opposed in the Pew poll), as well as an age divide. A majority of those over 50 remain against gay marriage, with resistance highest among those over 65. Americans with a high school education or less tend to be 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% to 43%), according to the Pew survey.
Among religious groups, white nonevangelical Protestants have registered substantial change on gay issues, the study finds. A majority in 2003 (58%) said gay marriage would go against their religious beliefs; today that figure is 44%. Evangelical Protestants remain strongly opposed to gay marriage, while the highest level of support for same-sex marriage is among those who list their religious preference as unaffiliated.