June 16, 2009
Late last month, Gallup released findings from a new poll demonstrating that opposition to marriage equality is higher among American adults who say they don’t know anyone who is lesbian or gay.
The survey, which was conducted earlier in May, found that Americans oppose legalizing marriage between same-sex couples by 57% to 40% . That margin hasn’t changed notably since a previous Gallup poll about a year ago.
When the May sample was split into those who said they have a gay or lesbian friend, relative, or coworker (58% of the sample) and those who didn’t (40%), the differences in marriage attitudes were striking.
The latter group registered overwhelming opposition to marriage equality — 72% opposed it whereas only 27% favored it. Within this group, 63% said legalizing marriage for same-sex couples will change society for the worse, compared to six percent who said it will change society for the better. 30% believed it won’t have any effect on society.
By contrast, respondents reporting personal contact with a gay man or lesbian were almost evenly split — 49% supported marriage equality and 47% opposed it. They were also divided over whether marriage equality will change society for the worse (39% believed it will) or will have no effect (40% believed this). Only about one in five said it will change society for the better, but that percentage was more than three times higher than the comparable figure for respondents without a gay or lesbian friend, relative, or coworker.
Consistent with past research, the poll found that attitudes toward marriage equality are linked with a person’s political ideology, and that liberal respondents were more likely than their conservative counterparts to personally know gay people. But Gallup found that the correlation between personal contact and opinions about marriage remained significant, even when political ideology was statistically controlled.
But Why Only 49%?
The Gallup report prominently characterized the survey as showing that “Opposition to gay marriage [is] higher among those who do not know someone who is gay/lesbian.”
But we might well ask why there wasn’t greater support for marriage equality among poll respondents with gay or lesbian family or acquaintances. Why did only about half of that group support marriage rights? After all, research conducted over the past two decades has consistently shown that heterosexuals are less prejudiced against gay people if they know someone who is gay, and such prejudice is closely associated with opposition to marriage equality. (Data are lacking on how knowing a bisexual man or woman affects sexual prejudice among heterosexuals, but there’s reason to believe that the pattern is similar.)
My own reading of the research literature suggests that the strength of the correlation between prejudice and mere contact has diminished in recent years. A decade ago, knowing whether a heterosexual had a gay or lesbian friend or relative provided a very good indication of that person’s attitudes toward gay people in general. Today, personal contact remains a good predictor of prejudice, but it’s not as reliable as it once was.
I believe this diminution of the predictive power of mere contact may provide insight into what it is about contact that links it to nonprejudiced attitudes. My hypothesis is that the key variable isn’t — and never was — whether heterosexuals simply know a gay man or lesbian. Rather, what’s always been critical is the nature of that relationship. Perhaps the central variable is whether or not heterosexuals have talked with their gay friend or relative about the latter’s experiences and, in the course of those discussions, developed a better understanding of and more empathy for the situation of sexual minorities.
My hunch is that in the past, when most gay men and lesbians were highly selective about coming out, it was sufficient for researchers to simply ask heterosexual survey respondents whether they knew gay men or lesbians. If they had a gay friend or relative, more likely than not, they’d found out directly from that individual about her or his sexual orientation. Or, subsequent to finding out through some other means, they talked about it with her or him.
Today, by contrast, gay men and lesbians are more publicly visible. Many more heterosexuals probably have the experience of knowing that a relative, friend, or (especially) a coworker or neighbor is gay without ever having discussed it directly with that individual. Thus, knowing the details about a heterosexual person’s contact experiences is more important today than it was a few years (or decades) ago.
This hypothesis is partly supported by data I collected in a 2005 telephone survey with a representative national sample of more than 2100 adults who identified as heterosexual. Along with questions about the nature and extent of their personal relationships with lesbian and gay individuals, respondents were asked a series of questions about their general feelings toward gay men and toward lesbians, their comfort or discomfort around both and, using a standard psychological attitude scale, their general attitudes toward them.
For purposes of analysis, I divided the sample into three groups: (1) those who said they had no gay or lesbian friends, acquaintances, or relatives as far as they knew, (2) those who knew at least one gay or lesbian person but hadn’t ever talked with that individual about being gay, and (3) those who had talked with a gay or lesbian friend or relative about the latter’s experiences as a sexual minority.
Compared to Group 1, Group 2 had more positive feelings, less discomfort, and generally more favorable attitudes toward gay men and lesbians. But Group 3 had significantly more positive views of lesbians and gay men than either Group 1 (those with no personal contact) or Group 2 (those with personal contact but no open discussion).
Combined with other survey findings that I’m still analyzing, these data suggest it often isn’t enough for heterosexuals to simply know that a member of their family or immediate social circle is gay or lesbian. In order for the experience to reduce their sexual prejudice, they also must communicate directly with their friend or relative about what it’s like to be gay.
But although such discussions probably play a key role in reducing sexual prejudice and increasing support for the civil rights of sexual minorities, they can be difficult. Not surprisingly, they don’t occur often enough. In a separate study (which is not yet published), I’ve found that most gay men and lesbians say they are out to their immediate family and close heterosexual friends, but many aren’t out to their extended family, coworkers, or heterosexual acquaintances. And many of those who are out never discuss their experiences with their family or friends.
These findings highlight the importance of assisting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in having conversations — giving them support and helping them find the best way to talk with their heterosexual friends and family members about their lives and how they’re affected by issues like marriage equality. The Tell 3 Campaign is one strategy for promoting such discussions. If the marriage equality movement is going to succeed in changing public opinion, it will have to devote more resources to Tell 3 and other programs like it.
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More information about my 2005 survey can be found in the following chapter:
Herek, G. M. (2009). Sexual stigma and sexual prejudice in the United States: A conceptual framework. In D.A. Hope (Ed.), Contemporary perspectives on lesbian, gay and bisexual identities: The 54th Nebraska Symposium on Motivation (pp. 65-111). New York: Springer.