by Shawn Neidorf , Research Associate Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
and Rich Morin, Senior Editor, Pew Research Center
In the past four decades, growing numbers of gays have come out of the closet and into the mainstream of American life. As a consequence, 4-in-10 Americans now report that some of their close friends or family members are gays or lesbians, according to a recent national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
About half of all women, young people, college graduates, political liberals and mainline Protestants say that someone close to them is gay, the survey found. But significantly fewer men, conservative Republicans and older Americans report that a good friend or family member is homosexual.
An analysis of survey results suggests that familiarity is closely linked to tolerance. People who have a close gay friend or family member are more likely to support gay marriage and they are also significantly less likely to favor allowing schools to fire gay teachers than are those with little or no personal contact with gays, the poll found.
Taken together, these findings underscore the complexity of public attitudes about homosexuality. These divisions were dramatically highlighted during a recent Republican presidential debate when former Health and Human Resources Secretary Tommy Thompson provoked a flurry of criticism when he said in response to a question that an employer should be allowed to fire a gay worker. Thompson quickly recanted, saying he was distracted when answering the question. The results also help to explain why the debate over gay rights remains so divisive nearly four decades after the Stonewall disturbance in New York City in late June 1969 marked the beginning of a new era in the politics of sexual orientation.
Overall, the poll of 2,007 randomly selected adults conducted Dec. 12-Jan. 9, 2007 found that 41% say a close friend or member of their family is gay. Another 58% said they had no gay friends or family members while the remainder offered no opinion or declined to answer the question. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
According to the survey, considerably more women than men—47% versus 35%—say they have a close friend or family member who is gay. There is very little difference by age in the percentage of people who know gays well, except when it comes to those 65 and older, who are much less likely to say they have gay family members or close friends.
Percentages vary greatly by political orientation: Conservative Republicans are the least likely to say they have a close gay friend or family member (33%), while liberal Democrats are most likely to say so (59%). Race seems to have virtually no effect on whether a person knows gay people well.
Among religious groups, mainline Protestants and seculars (those who don’t claim any particular religion) are the most likely to say they had a gay family member or close friend, with 47% saying so. White evangelicals (31%) and Hispanic Catholics (33%) are the least likely to say they have gay family members or close friends.
People living in the south (37%) are less likely to know gay people well than are people living in the Northeast or West, and people living in rural areas (34%) are less likely to say so than those in urban or suburban areas.
Overall, those who say they have a family member or close friend who is gay are more than twice as likely to support gay marriage as those who don’t — 55% to 25%. A similar relationship between knowing gays and favoring gay rights is evident when people are asked whether school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals. That idea gains support from only 15% of those who have a close friend or family member who is gay. Almost four-in-ten (38%) of those who don’t have close friends or family members who are gay support the idea. In other words, those without close friends or family members who are gay are more than twice as likely to say schools should be able to fire gay teachers as are people who are close to gays. Overall, 28% of the public thinks school boards should be able to fire gay teachers.
Over the past 20 years, support for the idea that school boards should be able to fire gay teachers has waned. In May 1987, 51% of people agreed with the idea. By June 1992, that number had fallen to 40% and it has dropped into the 30s-range ever since. The January 2007 poll that put it at 28% is the first time support has fallen below 30%.
Opposition to gay marriage also has declined somewhat, although it remains strong. More than half of Americans (55%) oppose letting same-sex couples marry legally, and 33% oppose it strongly. Support for gay marriage stands at 37%, and only 13% favor it strongly. That pattern — opposition being higher and stronger and support being lower and weaker — is longstanding. In June 1996, for example, 65% of Americans opposed gay marriage, 41% of them strongly; 27% favored it, only 6% strongly.
Only Massachusetts grants gays the right to marry. New Hampshire is poised to join Vermont, Connecticut and New Jersey in enacting a civil-union law that conveys all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage, without the title. Rhode Island this year became the first state to accept gay marriages from Massachusetts and a New York judge this month decided to legally recognize the marriages of some New York residents who tied the knot in Massachusetts. Oregon and Washington this year joined California, Hawaii and Maine in enacting domestic partnership laws, which offer a handful of state marital benefits. Most states — 42 — have laws prohibiting same sex marriage, and 26 have amendments to their state constitutions forbidding the practice, according to Stateline.org.