Most Americans say they are not personally bothered being around gays and lesbians. Currently, 82% say “it doesn’t bother them to be around homosexuals,” while 14% say it does. This is only modestly changed from a decade ago, when there was far less acceptance of homosexuality generally. In October 2003, 76% said it did not bother them to be around homosexuals.
The new survey finds larger changes over the past decade in favorable opinions of gay men and lesbians. Ten years ago, the balance of opinion toward both gay men and lesbians was unfavorable: 37% viewed gay men favorably, while 51% viewed them unfavorably; 39% had a favorable impression of lesbian women while 48% had an unfavorable opinion.
Today, by a 55% to 32% margin, more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of gay men. And about twice as many view lesbian women favorably (58%) than unfavorably (29%).
As with many attitudes about homosexuality, opinions about gay men and lesbians have become more positive across nearly all demographic and partisan categories over the past decade. Yet there continue to be wide differences among these groups in opinions about both gay men and lesbians.
More than eight-in-ten liberal Democrats view gay men (85%) and lesbian women (84%) favorably. Opinions are nearly as favorable among white women college graduates (81% favorable view of gay men, 80% favorable view of lesbians).
By contrast, just 36% of white evangelical Protestants have a favorable opinion of gay men, while 50% have an unfavorable view. White evangelicals express mixed views of lesbian women (39% favorable, 46% unfavorable).
Among African Americans, about as many have favorable views as unfavorable opinions of both gay men (42% favorable, 50% unfavorable) and lesbians (50% favorable, 45% unfavorable).
And while white women college graduates stand out for their positive views of both groups, white men who have not completed college have mixed impressions of gay men (41% favorable, 43% unfavorable) and lesbian women (47% favorable, 37% unfavorable).
In 1985, a Los Angeles Times survey found that 64% of the public said they would be “very upset” if their child told them he or she was gay or lesbian. By 2004, that number had fallen by almost half (33%). Since then, it has declined another 14 points, to 19%.
Again, this has been an across-the-board shift in attitudes. Yet the change has been more dramatic among some groups than others. In 2004, fully 82% of those 65 and older said they would be upset if their child told them they were gay, and 50% said they’d be very upset. Today, only about half (47%) say they’d be upset and just 24% say they’d be very upset.
Among Republicans, the percentage saying they’d be very upset if they learned their child was gay or lesbian also has fallen by half – from 44% to 22% – since 2004.
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%), according to a separate survey, conducted March 21-April 8 among 4,006 adults.
Over this period, the percentage saying more gays and lesbians raising children is a good thing has nearly doubled, from 11% to 21%. About four-in-ten (41%) say more gays and lesbians raising children does not make much difference.
The public also takes a more positive view of another social trend – more people of different races marrying each other. Currently, 37% say this is a good thing for American society, up from 25% in 2011 and 24% in 2010. About half (51%) say more interracial marriage does not make much difference, compared with 64% in 2011 and 61% in 2010. About one-in-ten (10%) continue to view this as a negative trend for American society.
The public has divided views about why people are gay or lesbian: 42% say being gay or lesbian is “just the way some people choose to live,” while nearly as many say “people are born gay or lesbian.” Just 8% say being gay or lesbian “is a result of a person’s upbringing.”
A decade ago, in a slightly different version of the question, 30% said that “homosexuality is something that people are born with.”
Opinions about why people are gay or lesbian vary widely by race, educational attainment, partisanship and religious affiliation. Fully 66% of African Americans think that being gay or lesbian is just the way some people choose to live, while just 20% say people are born gay or lesbian. Among whites and Hispanics, opinion is more closely divided: 44% of whites say people are born lesbian or gay while 39% say it is a choice; Hispanics’ views are similar (48% born, 36% choice).
Overall, most (58%) who say that homosexuality should be accepted think that people are born gay or lesbian. A majority (63%) of those who say homosexuality should be discouraged think it is just a way some people choose to live.
However, while people under 30 are more likely than those 50 and older to favor societal acceptance of homosexuality, young people are actually more likely than older people to say being gay or lesbian is just the way some people choose to live.
An overwhelming percentage of Americans (87%) say they know someone who is gay or lesbian. Twenty years ago, far fewer (61%) say they had a gay or lesbian acquaintance, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.
Nearly a quarter (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. Overall, nearly a third of Americans (31%) say they know no one who is gay or lesbian (12%) or have only one or two gay acquaintances (19%).
About half of Americans (49%) say that a close family member or one of their closest friends is gay or lesbian. And nearly a third (31%) say they know gays or lesbians who are raising children.
While large majorities across virtually all demographic and partisan groups say they know at least someone who is gay or lesbian, there are differences in the number of gay acquaintances that people have.
Familiarity with gays and lesbians also differs by religious affiliation. Three-in-ten (30%) of those unaffiliated with a religion say they know a lot of gays and lesbians and just 8% say they know none. Among Catholics, 22% know a lot of gays and lesbians, while 14% of white evangelical Protestants say this.
Democrats (24%) and independents (27%) are about equally likely to know a lot of gays and lesbians, compared to 13% of Republicans. There is also a divide based on community type: People who live in urban areas (29%) are much more likely to know a lot of gays and lesbians than suburbanites (20%) or people in rural areas (17%).
Gay Friends and Support for Same-Sex Marriage
There is far less support for gay marriage among those with few or no gay contacts and those who do not have close gay friends or family members. Just 37% of those who know only one or two gay people favor gay marriage, as do 32% of those with no gay acquaintances.
People who have more gay contacts and close gay friends are more likely to be women, young, and religiously unaffiliated, groups that tend to be more supportive of same-sex marriage. But even holding demographic factors constant, those who have many gay acquaintances, or close gay friends and family members, are more likely to favor same-sex marriage than those who do not.
Comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is by far the most visible gay or lesbian public figure. When asked which public or entertainment figures who are gay or lesbian first come to mind, 32% cite DeGeneres. Jason Collins, the professional basketball player who revealed he was gay shortly before the survey was conducted, was named by 7%, while 6% named Elton John.
Overall, 38% of the public could not name any gay or lesbian public figure. This includes 61% of those age 65 and older and 57% those with no more than a high school education.