How LGBT adults see society and how the public sees them
As the Supreme Court readies its long-awaited ruling on same-sex marriage, two Pew Research Center surveys this spring — one of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults and the other of the American public — found a common thread: that society as a whole has become more accepting of gays and lesbians.
That finding has its caveats. While an overwhelming number (92%) of LBGT adults saw society as having become more accepting over the last decade, many reported continued discrimination, taking various forms. On the part of the general public, opposition to same-sex marriage remains substantial, and religious beliefs are a major factor. Just under half of Americans (45%) say they think engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.
The surveys do not offer a perfect comparison. The LGBT survey included bisexuals (who comprise 40% of the LGBT survey) and transgender adults. The survey of the general public focused on views of gay men and lesbians.
But taken together, the surveys offer some commonalities in several areas: acceptance, the experience of telling friends and family, the importance of personal contact, and in the difficult terrain of religion.
While LGBT adults say society is more accepting, just 19% say there is “a lot” of social acceptance today and many say they have been victims of discrimination, such as being subject to slurs or jokes, or suffering rejection by a family member.
The number of Americans who had a favorable view of gay men stands at 55%, an 18 percentage point increase compared to a decade earlier; 58% had a favorable opinion of lesbians, a 19 percentage point increase over the same time span.
A March-April survey of the general public also showed that, in recent years, there has been a decline in the percentage of Americans who think that more gays and lesbians raising children is a bad thing for American society. Currently, 35% view this as a negative trend for society. While that is unchanged from 2011, it represents a 15-point decline since 2007 (from 50%).
About one-in-five adults (19%) say they would be very upset if they learned their child was gay or lesbian. That contrasts with 1985 when 64% said in a Los Angeles Times survey that they would be “very upset” if their child told them he or she was gay or lesbian.
While public attitudes have been changing significantly over the last few decades about a child “coming out,” the experience is still a difficult one for many LGBT adults, according to our survey. Some 56% of all LGBT adults have told their mother about their sexual orientation or gender identity and 39% have told their fathers. Within the LGBT population, roughly seven-in-ten gay men (70%) and lesbians (67%) have told their mothers, while 53% of gay men and 45% of lesbians have told their fathers.
About six-in-ten (59%) of all LGBT adults who have told their mother said the experience was a difficult one, and 65% of those who told their father said the same. Relatively few said it resulted in their relationships growing weaker.
An overwhelming percentage of Americans (87%) say they know someone who is gay or lesbian, compared to 61% who said so twenty years ago in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. The survey of the general public found that 23% say they personally know “a lot” of gay or lesbian people, while 44% say they know some, and 19% have only one or two gay or lesbian acquaintances.
The survey also found that 68% of those who know a lot of people who are gays and lesbians — and 61% who have close friends or family members who are gay or lesbian — say they support same-sex marriage
LGBT adults believe that greater social acceptance has come as a result of more Americans knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to our survey. Individual relationships and the role of well-known public figures, like Ellen DeGeneres, are viewed as being the most helpful things in fostering acceptance. Seven-in-ten LGBT adults say people knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender helps a lot in making society more accepting, and 24% say this helps a little.
The survey of LGBT adults found that many in that community saw major religious institutions as unfriendly toward them. About three-in-ten (29%) said they had been made to feel unwelcome at a place of worship or religious organization at some point in their lives. The Muslim religion (84%), the Mormon Church (83%), the Catholic Church (79%) and evangelical churches (73%) were viewed as more unfriendly than the Jewish religion or non-evangelical Protestant churches.
While the survey of the general public found that, overall, the percentage of Americans who say homosexuality should be accepted by society increased from 47% to 60% over the last decade, opinions vary widely based on religious affiliation and practices. Among those who attend religious services once a week or more, those saying homosexuality should be accepted went from 33% a decade ago to 41% today.
When the nearly one-third of Americans who say homosexuality should be discouraged are asked in an open-ended question why they feel this way, by far the most common reason — given by 52% — is that homosexuality conflicts with their religious or moral beliefs.
Bruce Drake is a senior editor at Pew Research Center.