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Gay Marriage: A Country Is Moving, Its People Not So Much

• July 01, 2013 • 4:16 PM

Paris Gay Pride parade to support gay rights, on June 26, 2010. (PHOTO: OLGA BESNARD/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Comparing a multi-year study of attitudes with other surveys suggests that America’s growing acceptance of gay marriage does not necessarily mean that individual feelings have shifted.

In coverage leading up to and reporting on the Supreme Court’s decisions last week removing some obstacles to gay marriage, a persistent meme has been that Americans in the last few years are increasingly OK with same-sex marriage. The evidence cited is public opinion polling, like this Gallup poll that shows Americans’ acceptance rolling over the halfway mark about a year ago.

But a new white paper from Rice University’s Portraits of American Life Study, which looks at the religious attitudes of the exact same group of 1,294 randomly sampled Americans captured in 2006 and again last year, reports that opinions not only aren’t changing, but positions are hardening. Yes, on this issue as on so many right now, Americans are more divided than ever, although not as cleanly along the red-blue fault lines as you might see on, say, Obamacare.

Ethnically, the vaunted African-American opposition to gay marriage may not be as much a factor of race, the researchers believe, as it is of African-American’s above-average religiosity.

How can it be that attitudes are changing if attitudes aren’t changing?

In part, according to Rice sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Laura J. Essenberg, because the attitude change has been exaggerated. “In fact,” they write in the white paper (PDF), “we find that statistically, there was no change in people’s response to legal marriage being defined as one man and one woman. In both years, slightly over half of adult Americans agreed with the statement (57 percent agreed in 2006, 53 percent agreed in 2012, not a statistically significant change) about one-third disagreed, and the remainder were uncertain.”

But that fail-safe statistical tool, the anecdote, suggests that lots of individuals have changed their minds and now accept, if not embrace, gay marriage. What gives?

Peeking under the numerical hood, Emerson and Essenberg find that 16 percent of the people who in 2006 agreed that “the only legal marriage should be between one man and one woman” disagreed with that same statement last year. But, and this is the surprising bit, 28 percent of the people who disagreed with that statement in 2006—i.e. those who presumably accepted gay marriage—now agree with a more restrictive idea of marriage.

What about those swing voters of polling, the undecideds? Of those on the fence in 2006, about two-thirds have now taken a position, and by a little under two-to-one margin they support gay marriage. (I’m using agreement/disagreement with the statement as a direct proxy for being in favor or opposed to gay marriage. Whatever subtle difference may be covered up by that I’m willing to ignore.)

And so, write the researchers, “Thus we find substantial movement of people in every direction on the topic of legal marriage. The end result is that overall the percentages end up unchanged.” Put another way, whiles America’s attitude toward gay marriage has shifted, the attitudes of individual Americans largely has not.

What really matters, the Rice researchers insist, is the divide. “The end result is important: Americans are now more divided on this issue along educational, religious, and age lines than they were in 2006,” Emerson was quoted in a release.

And not just the infamous blue states vs. red divide, even though that colorful shorthand helps define where marriage is legally defined as solely a heterosexual endeavor.

Regardless of what type of state people live in, in 2012, 54 percent agreed with the marriage statement, about a third disagreed, and the remainder was uncertain.

What is striking about this finding is it suggests that how marriage is legally defined across the states has little to do with actual public opinion, and more to do with higher-level political debates and special interest groups. Of course, one survey question is not sufficient to determine if this is the case—it only suggests such—and more research into why states end up with the legal definition of marriage that they do is warranted. What will also be interesting to track is whether public opinion follows law over time, that is, whether greater change in public opinion will occur in states not defining marriage as one man and one woman.

Using demographics, there are some clues as to what subsequent research will find. Education, or lack of it, is a big determinant. Between 2006 and 2012, those without a high-school diploma became even more anti gay marriage (66 percent in 2008, 75 percent in 2012), while those with post-college education became more marriage friendly (44 percent hewing to the one-man, one-woman line in 2006, compared to 37 percent in 2012).

Religion, or the flavor of it, also matters a lot. The more often you attend services, the more likely you are to oppose gay marriage—only 37 percent of those who don’t attend services at all opposed gay marriage in 2012, compared to 84 percent who go more than once a week. And Evangelicals were most opposed and getting more vexed (72 percent in 2006, 75 percent in 2012), while Jews were least likely to be opposed and are getting more relaxed (21 percent in 2006, 12 percent in 2012). Mainline Protestants, Catholics, and non-Judeo-Christian religions were all in the mid-50s.

Race and gender aren’t key factors in the PALS results. Ethnically, the vaunted African-American opposition to gay marriage—which in 2012 saw the GOP salivating over Barack Obama’s distance from a key part of his base—may not be as much a factor of race, the researchers believe, as it is of African-American’s above-average religiosity. After all, a study looking at years of surveys has shown that while a larger-than-average majority of African Americans specifically reject gay marriage, they’re actually more supportive of (other) gay civil rights.

The most important demographic component, though, is age. While in no age group did support for gay marriage trump opposition, only in the oldest cohort (51 and older in 2006) did opposition rise, by one percentage point, between 2006 and 2012. Opposition fell progressively among younger groups, with it falling seven percentage points, to 40 percent, for those 18 to 30 in 2006. Keep in mind, since PALS talks to the same people over time, it hasn’t talked to anyone who’s under 25 today.

That young people are in the vanguard of gay rights has been a part of the meme for a while—and for good reason. Two years ago, for example, Towson State’s Amy B. Becker, also looking at two past national surveys, confirmed that young people were choosing to support gay marriage—in part based on the Rumsfeldian process of knowing they know gay people—while older people stuck to their predispositions.

So even if, on the whole, individuals aren’t changing their minds, the combination of current trends and the work of the Grim Reaper suggest acceptance of gay marriage will continue to grow.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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