June 9, 2008
From the June 3 USA Today:
Six in 10 Americans say the government should not regulate whether gays and lesbians can marry the people they choose, a survey finds…. The USA Today/Gallup Poll found that 63% of adults say same-sex marriage is “strictly a private decision” between two people. That the government has the right “to prohibit or allow” such marriages was stated by 33%, and 4% had no opinion.
The article goes on to report that “a majority of respondents at every level of education and income say same-sex marriage is ‘strictly private.’” This was true in every geographic region, among all age groups under 65 years, and among people who say a relative, friend or co-worker personally has told them he or she was gay or lesbian.
Sixty-three percent? Has a sea change occurred in American public opinion, with a clear majority now supporting marriage equality?
The Results in Context
When we compare the USA Today findings with those of other respected national polls, the inconsistencies are glaring. For example, surveys conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have found that:
In the time since the Massachusetts high court declared the state’s ban on gay marriage unconstitutional in 2003, public opinion on the issue has remained relatively stable. Indeed, majorities of Americans have consistently opposed legalizing same-sex marriage — from 53% opposed in a summer 2003 survey conducted by [Pew], to 55% opposed in an August 2007 Pew survey. The 2007 poll found 36% of the public in favor of allowing gay and lesbian couples to wed, about the same as in 2003.
A May 11th survey conducted by Gallup (this one without USA Today as a sponsor) asked respondents “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?” 56% said they should not be recognized by the law as valid, while 40% said they should be valid. Like the Pew Center’s surveys, Gallup has found these opinions to be fairly stable during recent years. In 2004, for example, 55% said same-sex marriages should not be valid, and 42% said they should be valid.
Thus, data from the Pew Center and Gallup (and others as well) don’t support the conclusion that a substantial majority of Americans oppose government prohibitions against marriages between two people of the same sex.
Reconsidering the USA Today Data
How can we explain the anomalous USA Today findings? When a survey’s results are so at odds with other polls, it’s a good idea to scrutinize its methodology even more closely than usual.
Let’s assume that the USA Today sample wasn’t dramatically less representative of the population than those used by the earlier Gallup surveys, and instead focus on how the question’s wording and its location in the interview might have affected the outcome.
Unfortunately, the USA Today article doesn’t clearly detail the question wording. Apparently, however, survey participants were presented with pairs of statements about different types of marriages. From each pair, they selected the one that better matched their own opinion. The order of questions seems to have been the same for everyone.
The questions went something like this (I’ve highlighted key differences):
1. “In marriage involving two people of different religions, the decision to marry should be strictly a private decision between the two people who want to marry” [OR] “The government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages.”
2. “In marriage involving two people of different races, the decision to marry should be strictly a private decision between the two people who want to marry” [OR] “The government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages.”
3. “In marriage involving two people of the same sex, the decision to marry should be strictly a private decision between the two people who want to marry” [OR] “The government has the right to pass laws to prohibit or allow such marriages.”
The choice is always between saying that the decision to marry is a private matter versus endorsing the view that the government has the right to pass laws about marriage. The problem, I suspect, is that these alternatives aren’t mutually exclusive in the minds of most people.
Deciding to marry is not the same thing as actually having that marriage recognized by the state. Opponents of marriage equality might agree that a decision by two women or two men to marry is a private one, even as they oppose State recognition of that marriage. Their likelihood of endorsing the “private matter” option might have been increased by their responses to the preceding questions about interfaith and interracial marriages, which could have made salient their belief that adults’ marital decisions are private.
USA Today probably included the phrase “strictly a private decision” to clearly distinguish that option from the “pass laws” alternative. But it apparently didn’t work for many people.
To be sure, more respondents chose the “private matter” option for interfaith and interracial marriages (97% and 95%, respectively) than for same-sex relationships (63%). So respondents weren’t automatically selecting the “private matter” option for every question. Perhaps the first two questions were easier to answer — respondents knew that they considered those types of marriage decisions to be private and that the government has no legal right to prohibit them. Most respondents probably felt that same-sex coupling is also a private decision but many also believed the government can refuse to recognize them. Faced with the question’s ambiguities (e.g., was it asking whether the government could prevent the decision to marry or the marriage itself?), a large number of respondents selected the privacy option.
In two subsequent questions, relatively few said that polygamous marriages or marriages between people under 16 are strictly private (30% and 18%, respectively). This probably reflects a view among many respondents that such marriages aren’t simply a private decision (e.g., that young minors aren’t capable of making a decision to marry) and that the State has a right to prohibit them. Such reactions were likely reinforced by news coverage during recent months of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which included allegations of forced marriages and physical abuse of young girls.
Whatever the reason, the USA Today poll results just don’t fit with what we know about current opinion on marriage equality.
The lessons: Be a critical consumer of empirical research. Always read the wording of a survey’s questions and, whenever possible, compare the findings to other available data.
May 29, 2008
A single photograph provides a static view of its subject. But when we connect a series of images together and shuffle through them, as with a flip-book or the frames of a movie, what we see corresponds more closely to the real world.
The same is true of opinion polls. One poll gives us a snapshot of the public at a particular moment in time. Having two, three, or more polls on the same topic reveals the range of public opinion, its consistencies and its volatilities.
Thus, Wednesday’s new California Field Poll on marriage equality attitudes — the second poll to be publicly released on this topic since the state Supreme Court’s May 15 marriage decision — expands our knowledge about Californians’ reactions to the ruling and their views about overturning it in November.
For supporters of marriage equality, the news is good. The Field Poll results may mean that last week’s LA Times poll — which itself provided hopeful signs for the November election — actually painted too pessimistic a picture.
Field Poll Findings
The new poll included two questions about general attitudes toward marriage equality. First, repeating a question that has been included in the Field Poll since 1977, respondents were asked:
“Do you approve or disapprove of California allowing homosexuals to marry members of their own sex and have regular marriage laws apply to them?”
- 51% Approved
- 42% Disapproved
- 7% had no opinion
This marks the first time ever that a majority of Field Poll respondents has supported marriage equality. In a 2006 survey, by comparison, 44% approved while 50% disapproved.
The poll also included a question — similar to the one asked in last week’s LA Times poll — to which respondents indicated which of three different statements about legal recognition of same-sex relationships most closely resembles their own view:
- 45% selected “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry”
- 32% selected “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to form civil unions or domestic partnerships, but not legally marry”
- 19% selected “there should be no legal recognition of a gay or lesbian couple’s relationship”
- 4% had no opinion.
Regarding the pending state ballot initiative, the poll randomly divided the sample and asked each group of respondents a slightly different version of the question.
VERSION A: “Do you favor or oppose changing the California State Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman, thus barring marriage between gay and lesbian couples?”
- 40% Favor
- 54% Oppose
- 6% DK
VERSION B: “There may be a vote on this issue in the November election. Would you favor or oppose having the State Constitution prohibit same-sex marriage, by defining marriage as only between a man and a woman?”
- 43% Favor
- 51% Oppose
- 6% DK
The Margin of Error
When considering the results of this (or any) poll, it’s important to keep in mind that the percentages reported above are estimates of how many people in the entire population hold these opinions. Although the specific percentage is the best guess that can be derived from the data, the poll actually provides a range of percentages within which the correct value for the population probably lies. This range is described by the poll’s margin of error.
For most of the Field Poll marriage questions, the margin of error is about 3 percentage points. Thus, what the poll really tells us is that there’s a high likelihood that somewhere between 48% and 54% of California voters currently approve of marriage equality, while somewhere between 39% and 45% disapprove.
For the two versions of the question about amending the California constitution, the margin of error is slightly larger (because each question was asked of only a portion of the sample). Between 50% and 58% of voters oppose the ballot measure as it was described in Version A, while 36% – 44% favor it. And between 47% and 55% oppose the B Version, while 38% – 48% favor Version B.
Note that the ranges of those favoring and opposing Version B overlap. This is what’s meant by a virtual tie or a statistical dead heat.
The results for both versions indicate that the anti-marriage initiative may be in trouble before it even qualifies for the ballot. To quote from a previous post:
The LA Times article noted that “ballot measures on controversial topics often lose support during the course of a campaign” and, for this reason, “strategists typically want to start out well above the 50% support level.” According to Susan Pinkus, the Times Poll Director, “Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure.”
To get a better sense of the California electorate’s current views, it’s useful to compare the Field Poll results with last week’s Los Angeles Times survey on the same topic.
Both polls found that attitudes toward marriage equality and toward the ballot initiative differed substantially according to age, party affiliation, political ideology, and geographic region. Younger respondents, Democrats, liberals, and residents of Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area were more likely to support marriage equality, while older respondents, Republicans, conservatives, and residents of the Central Valley and other rural areas tended to oppose it. In both polls, the attitudes of moderates and independents were closer to those of Democrats and liberals than to those of Republicans and conservatives.
The polls differed, however, in their findings about gender. The Field Poll didn’t report men’s and women’s attitudes toward the ballot measure separately, suggesting that they didn’t differ. But in the Times poll, likely women voters overwhelmingly said they would support the initiative — 62% to 29%. (Men were evenly split — 44% to 44%.) As I explained in another post, this pattern puzzles me. Past research on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities and policies affecting them has revealed a fairly consistent gender gap, with heterosexual women less prejudiced and more supportive of gay civil rights than heterosexual men. And previous polling in California has found that marriage equality receives more support from women than men.
In addition to the gender difference, the polls differed in many of their key numbers, even when we take their respective margins of error into account. In the LA Times poll, between 32% and 38% favored marriage equality (compared to 42% – 48% in the Field poll) and 26% – 32% opposed all legal recognition of same-sex couples (compared to 16% – 22% in the Field Poll). And the Times estimate of voters who would support the November ballot initiative is between 50% and 58% — nowhere near the ranges for the Field Poll’s Version A (36% – 44% favored it) or Version B (38% – 48% favored it).
Such differences can be caused by a variety of factors. For example, data collection for the Field poll spanned a considerably longer period – 10 days, compared to 2 days for the Times poll. This may mean that its sample was ultimately more representative because having more time means more opportunities to reach sample members who initially weren’t at home.
The wording of poll questions can also affect response patterns, especially among those who don’t hold strong opinions or haven’t thought about the issue extensively. In this regard, perhaps some differences resulted from the fact that the Field Poll asked about general attitudes toward amending the California constitution, while the LA Times poll asked about respondents’ actual intention to vote for or against the measure.
What Does It Mean?
As new data become available, we’ll get a better sense of whether the LA Times or the Field Poll better describes the California electorate. It will be especially interesting to see new results from polling by the Public Policy Institute of California, which has tracked Californians’ attitudes on this issue throughout the decade and found increasing support for marriage equality. In their 2007 survey, the PPIC found that likely voters were evenly divided, with 46% supporting marriage equality and 48% opposing it.
For now, the results from the two available polls suggest the November ballot initiative is currently in trouble — capturing only a slight majority (LA Times), losing outright (Field Poll Version A), or being too close to call (Field Poll Version B).
This doesn’t mean supporters of marriage equality should be complacent. Elections are decided by actual ballots, not survey responses, and backers of the initiative will be working hard to get out the vote among those most likely to endorse the amendment in November.
Indeed, as an antidote to overconfidence, it’s instructive to consider the Field Poll’s batting average in predicting the outcomes of California ballot initiative contests. In 2000, Field correctly predicted that Proposition 22 (the antigay Knight Initiative) would pass. However, it seriously underestimated the extent of support for that initiative. The last Field Poll before election day found that 53% of voters supported Prop 22, but it ultimately passed with 61% of the vote.
Needless to say, a similar undercount could be occurring in this year’s polling.
May 25, 2008
Survey researchers are quick to point out that every poll is a snapshot of a portion of the population at a particular moment in time. Because samples vary in how representative they are, and because attitudes and beliefs change over time, it’s always advisable to examine multiple surveys before drawing conclusions about public opinion.
These caveats are important to remember when considering the recent LA Times poll about Californians’ views on marriage equality, which I discussed in a previous posting. Many more opinion surveys will be conducted in California between now and November 4th, and it will be interesting to see if those polls replicate the LA Times findings, especially in one key area.
In the Times poll, women were much more likely than men to say they would vote for the anti-equality constitutional amendment. Among likely voters, men were evenly split on the ballot measure — 44% would vote for it and 44% would vote against it. But likely women voters overwhelmingly said they would support the initiative — 62% to 29%. Women were also more likely than men to say that same-sex relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong — 42% of women agreed, compared to 37% of men — while men were more likely than women to say it’s not a moral issue (58% versus 50% of women).
These patterns are surprising. Past research on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities and policies affecting them has revealed a fairly consistent gender gap, with heterosexual women less prejudiced and more supportive of gay civil rights than heterosexual men.
And in a 2004 LA Times survey that asked Californians the same “morality” question as in the recent poll, 53% of women said same-sex relationships aren’t a moral issue, while 38% said they are morally wrong. (For men respondents, the numbers were 53% and 42%, respectively.)
Thus, compared to the 2004 survey, the new poll suggests that California women have become slightly more likely to view same-sex relationships in moral terms (from 38% then to 42% now), while men have become less likely to do so (from 42% then to 37% now). These are fairly small differences and, because they fall within the poll’s margin of error, may simply reflect random variations across samples. For example, the sample for the newer poll may have included more women with conservative religious beliefs than did the 2004 sample.
My personal hunch is that this is the case, and that subsequent polls will show that California women are at least as likely as men to oppose the November ballot initiative.
If this week’s results are replicated in future statewide surveys, however, it may indicate a shift in public opinion patterns, one with potentially important implications for efforts to retain marriage equality in California.
May 24, 2008
A new Los Angeles Times/KTLA poll reveals some of the challenges facing supporters of marriage equality in California during the next 5 months. But it also suggests that passage of a state constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples is hardly a certainty.
The Bad News
At first glance, the poll results are likely to be disheartening to marriage equality supporters. A majority of participants said they disapprove of last week’s California Supreme Court decision that denying marriage rights to same-sex couples is unconstitutional. Here’s the relevant question:
“As you may know, last week the California Supreme Court ruled that the California Constitution requires that same-sex couples be given the same right to marry that opposite-sex couples have. Based on what you know, do you approve or disapprove of the Court’s decision to allow same-sex marriage in California?”
- 41% Approve
- 52% Disapprove
- 7% Don’t know
The depth of public opposition to the Court’s ruling is indicated by the fact that 42% of those polled strongly disapproved of it, compared to only 29% who strongly approved.
These opinions generally translated into support for the proposed ballot initiative:
“As you may also know, a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution may appear on the November ballot which would reverse the Supreme Court’s decision and reinstate a ban on same-sex marriage. The amendment would state that marriage is only between a man and a woman. If the November election were held today, would you vote for or against the amendment to make marriage only between a man and a woman?”
- 54% of registered voters would vote FOR it
- 35% of registered voters would vote AGAINST it
- 9% don’t know
A question about general attitudes toward legal recognition of relationships between two people of the same sex revealed that nearly two-thirds of California adults believe the state should recognize same-sex couples through marriage or civil unions:
- 35% said “Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally marry.”
- 30% said “Same-sex couples should be allowed to legally form civil unions, but not marry.”
- 29% said “Same -sex couples should not be allowed to either marry or form civil unions.”
- 6% were undecided.
These numbers indicate a small increase in support for marriage equality since April of 2004, when 31% of Californians said same-sex couples should be able to marry. They also indicate a similar rise in the proportion of Californians opposing any recognition of same-sex relationships, from 25% in 2004 to 29% now. The proportion endorsing civil unions but not marriage (effectively, the situation before last week’s Court ruling) decreased from 40% in 2004 to 30% now.
Respondents’ opinions about same-sex relationships didn’t perfectly predict their stated voting intentions. The LA Times‘ extended report on the poll includes the following breakdown of poll respondents:
- 27% support marriage equality and plan to vote against the November initiative.
- 21% oppose any legal recognition and plan to vote for the initiative.
- 21% support civil unions but not marriage and plan to vote for the initiative.
These patterns are somewhat predictable. In addition, however:
- 10% oppose marriage equality but plan to vote against the initiative.
- 7% support marriage equality but plan to vote for the initiative.
Another 14% of respondents gave other combinations of answers to the two questions. Thus, a person’s stated attitudes toward marriage equality don’t necessarily reveal her or his voting intentions. In addition, some voters may be confused about the meaning of voting for the initiative versus opposing it.
Cause for Hope
At first glance, the polling numbers are likely to be disheartening to supporters of marriage equality. Some additional findings, however, offer hope for the fall election and suggest potential strategies for combating the ballot initiative.
First, whether or not the initiative passes will depend on who votes in the fall election. The Times‘ extended report on the poll noted that partisan affiliation and political ideology are key predictors of opinion about the initiative. And, compared to the voters who enacted the anti-marriage Proposition 22 in the March 2000 primary, historical turnout patterns suggest that those who vote this November will be more likely to be Democratic and liberal. When the LA Times analysts constructed a statistical model that factored in the likely characteristics of November voters, they found that “the amendment would still be ahead, but by half the margin found in the survey today.”
Second, although many California voters are currently opposed to marriage equality per se, their views of same-sex relationships are fairly positive. Consider the following results:
- 59% agreed with the statement “As long as two people are in love and are committed to each other it doesn’t matter if they are a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple.”
- 54% disagreed with the statement, “If gays are allowed to marry, the institution of marriage will be degraded,” while 41% agreed. At the extremes, 38% strongly disagreed and 31% strongly agreed.
- Overall, only 39% said they “personally believe that same-sex relationships between consenting adults are morally wrong,” compared to 54% who said such relationships are “not a moral issue.”
Third, the poll reflects voters’ intentions “if the November election were held today.” More than 5 months remain until the actual vote, however, and the fact that only a small majority supports the initiative at this point may be a sign that its passage is in doubt. The LA Times article noted that “ballot measures on controversial topics often lose support during the course of a campaign” and, for this reason, “strategists typically want to start out well above the 50% support level.” According to Susan Pinkus, the Times Poll Director, “Although the amendment to reinstate the ban on same-sex marriage is winning by a small majority, this may not bode well for the measure.”
Thus, California voters don’t overwhelmingly favor the initiative and, based on historical patterns, their support is likely to erode in the months ahead. Nor do most of them hold exceedingly hostile attitudes toward same-sex relationships. Moreover, those who will turn out to vote in November may be more supportive of marriage equality than the California population as a whole.
Strategies for Winning in November
Nevertheless, supporters of marriage rights in California clearly have a big job ahead of them. In that regard, the poll also highlights some key correlates of attitudes toward the ballot initiative, and thereby suggests approaches to confronting this challenge. In upcoming postings, I’ll discuss several such strategies. For now, I’ll focus on one.
For sexual minority Californians who want to rally opposition to the ballot measure, the poll highlights the importance of reaching out to heterosexual relatives, friends, and colleagues. Among survey respondents who said they don’t have a friend, family member or co-worker whom they know to be gay or lesbian, the ballot initiative was supported by a huge margin — 63% to 25%. But among those who said they know a gay or lesbian person, the initiative was supported by only a plurality — 47% to 41%.
Based on other empirical research about the effects of personal contact on heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities, my guess is that these differences would have been even more pronounced if the poll had distinguished between participants who have a close relationship with a sexual minority individual and those who simply are acquainted with someone who isn’t heterosexual.
Interestingly, the benefits of having personal relationships were most pronounced among Democrats and independents. Support for marriage equality was 7 points higher among Democrats who know someone who is gay or lesbian than among Democrats who don’t. Among independents, the difference was 6 points.
Similarly, support for marriage equality was 9 points higher among liberals who know someone who is gay or lesbian, and 5 points higher among moderates. Among Republicans and conservatives, however, knowing a gay person added only a few percentage points.
This pattern could mean that political ideology and partisanship trump personal relationships in shaping attitudes toward marriage equality. Or it could mean that conservatives and Republicans have different kinds of relationships with sexual minorities than do moderates, liberals, Democrats, and independents. My own research, for example, indicates that personal relationships are more likely to reduce heterosexuals’ prejudices when they include open discussion of what it’s like to be gay or lesbian. Maybe conservative Republicans are less likely than others to have those conversations with their sexual minority acquaintances.
At any rate, this pattern — considered in conjunction with other research on sexual prejudice — suggests some actions that sexual minority Californians can start taking today:
- Come out to your relatives and friends. Talk with them about what it’s like to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
- If you’re in a committed relationship, introduce your partner to your heterosexual friends and family.
- Talk with them about the initiative. Explain how it will adversely affect you and other people they care about.
- Enlist them as allies; encourage them to persuade their friends to vote against the initiative.
- If you’re planning a wedding, help your heterosexual guests to understand that your marriage may be rendered invalid if the initiative passes.
During the coming months, millions of dollars will be spent on advertising and mass media by both sides in the marriage debate. Those expensive campaigns, however, won’t have nearly as much impact on the vote as will California’s millions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual residents personally reaching out to their heterosexual friends and family members, and urging them to embrace marriage equality.
* * * * *
The Los Angeles Times/KTLA Poll contacted 834 adults (including 705 registered voters) in the state of California by telephone May 20 –21, 2008. An extended report on the poll results is available from the Times website.
December 20, 2006
In an interview with the Washington Post yesterday, President Bush disclosed his plans to increase the US military’s troop strength “to meet the challenges of a long-term global struggle against terrorists.”
In light of this proposal, it’s appropriate to ask (yet again) whether excluding sexual minorities from the US armed forces makes any sense.
The Pentagon has repeatedly predicted that the presence of openly gay and lesbian personnel would reduce the military’s morale and effectiveness and would deter heterosexuals from enlisting. As I’ve detailed in previous postings, empirical support for those claims has always been lacking. Now data from a new survey cast fresh doubts on their validity.
The survey was conducted by Zogby International for the Michael D. Palm Center (formerly the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military), located at the University of California, Santa Barbara. It measured the opinions of 545 current and former military personnel, all of whom served in Iraq or Afghanistan or in combat support roles directly related to those operations.
A detailed report of the survey results can be downloaded from the Michael D. Palm Center. Here are four key findings.
1. The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is not strongly supported by combat personnel and veterans.
Only a minority (37%) supported DADT, saying they disagree “with allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.” The remainder agreed with allowing openly gay service members (26%), were neutral (32%), or weren’t sure (5%).
2. Many military personnel know or suspect that their unit includes gay or lesbian members.
Nearly one fourth (23%) of the respondents knew for certain that at least one member of their unit was gay or lesbian. A larger proportion (45%) suspected their unit included a gay or lesbian member. Of those who knew for certain, 55% said the presence of homosexual personnel in the unit was well known by others. Most of them (59%) had been told directly by the gay or lesbian individual.
3. Personnel who know their unit includes gay or lesbian members generally don’t perceive damage to morale.
About two thirds of those who knew for certain that their unit included one or more gay members did not believe that the latter’s presence affected either the respondent’s personal morale (66%) or the morale of the unit (64%). Only 28% believed it had a negative effect on their own morale, and 27% perceived a negative effect on their unit’s morale. By contrast, among respondents who neither knew nor suspected that a member of their unit was gay or lesbian, 58% expected that an openly gay or lesbian member would have a negative impact on their unit’s morale.
4. Allowing openly gay and lesbian personnel to serve is unlikely to reduce reenlistment or impair future recruitment.
The vast majority of respondents (78%) said their decision to join the military was based on their sense of duty and a desire to serve their country. A substantial proportion also said their decision was influenced by non-wage benefits, such as retirement or health care (62%), and by the prospect of receiving funds for college tuition (54%). Only 2% acknowledged “knowing that gays are not allowed to serve openly” as a factor in their decision. In a separate question, only 10% of respondents said they would not have joined the military if gay and lesbian personnel were allowed to serve openly.
* * * * *
In recent years, opinion polls of US civilian samples have shown strong support for allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military. The new Palm Center poll indicates that DADT isn’t strongly supported by combat personnel and doesn’t appear to play a significant role in enlistment decisions. Moreover, fears that the presence of openly gay personnel will damage morale are much greater among those who haven’t actually had any lesbians or gay men in their unit (insofar as they know) than among those who knew their unit included at least one sexual minority member.
In response to the survey, Congressman Marty Meehan (D-MA) said, “It is long past time to strike down ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and create a new policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve openly.”
Let’s hope the new Congress will consider data such as these and follow Mr. Meehan’s lead.
November 14, 2006
If we could convince Rev. Louis Sheldon that being gay isn’t a choice, would he stop attacking sexual minorities?
In an interview with The Jewish Week, the Christian Right leader recently acknowledged that he’d known about Rev. Ted Haggard’s homosexual behavior months before it was publicly disclosed:
” ‘Ted and I had a discussion,’ explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal [of his sexual attraction to men] then: ‘He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that.’ “
Apart from raising questions about his complicity with Rev. Haggard’s ongoing deception, Rev. Sheldon’s comments illustrate a pattern that has been well-documented in the United States: In general, antigay heterosexuals assert that homosexuality is a choice. By contrast, unprejudiced heterosexuals are likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn or otherwise not chosen.
What, if anything, does this pattern mean for efforts to eliminate sexual prejudice?
It’s often assumed that a cause-and-effect relationship is operating here — that heterosexuals will become less prejudiced if they can be convinced that being gay isn’t a choice.
In fact, most gay people in the US don’t experience their sexual orientation as a choice. In my own empirical studies, I’ve found that the vast majority of gay men and most lesbians report having little or no choice in this regard. (I’ll discuss these data further in a future posting.)
Yet, the notion of organizing anti-prejudice campaigns around a “we-didn’t-choose-to-be-gay” theme sparks philosophical and political debate. Such arguments are outside my purview as a social scientist. Based solely on empirical research, however, this plan is problematic for several reasons.
First, many heterosexuals’ beliefs in this realm aren’t internally consistent. If someone regards homosexuality as a choice, you’d expect them also to believe gay people can change their sexual orientation. Conversely, those who think it isn’t a choice should believe that people can’t change. But the data only partly conform to these patterns.
In a 1999 national telephone survey I conducted, more than 1200 heterosexual adults were asked whether they believed being homosexual is something people choose for themselves or something over which they have no control. A bit later in the survey, they were asked their opinion about what proportion of gay people can stop being homosexual if they want to do so. Half were asked these questions about gay men, the other half were asked about lesbians.
Overall, 47% said homosexuality is something men choose for themselves, and 57% expressed this belief about female homosexuality.
As expected, most respondents who said being gay is not a choice also believed that few (if any) gay people can stop being homosexual — roughly 72% expressed this opinion about gay men, and 76% about lesbians.
But it was a different story for those who said homosexuality is a choice. Only 50% of them believed most or all gay men can become straight, and only 43% expressed this opinion about lesbians. Many believed that fewer than half of homosexuals can change (27% said this about gay men, 34% about lesbians).
I’ve asked similar questions in subsequent surveys, with the same results: Many heterosexuals who believe being gay is a choice nevertheless say most gay people can’t choose to stop being homosexual. This contradictory pattern suggests that believing homosexuality is chosen might not be about facts or logic, at least for some people.
There’s another problem with the idea that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality isn’t chosen will reduce their sexual prejudice. Such a plan will only work if beliefs about choice are actually the basis for heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. However, the data about choice beliefs and sexual prejudice are largely correlational, which means they don’t necessarily reveal a causal relationship. Even if one factor does cause the other, we can’t be certain which comes first — beliefs about choice or prejudice.
The chain might actually begin with prejudice. After all, conservative Christians base their attitudes on the argument that homosexuality is sinful. To be a sin, homosexuality has to be a choice. Otherwise their antigay hostility looks less like moral rectitude and more like bigotry. So perhaps many heterosexuals with antigay attitudes say homosexuality is chosen as a way of justifying their preexisting prejudice.
Research relevant to this hypothesis has been conducted by Dr. Peter Hegarty, a Stanford-trained social psychologist who is on the faculty at the University of Surrey in England.
Dr. Hegarty observed that beliefs about choice and the immutability of sexual orientation weren’t as closely linked with public attitudes toward sexual minorities in England as in the USA. In a series of studies, he found that beliefs about choice were strongly correlated with sexual prejudice among American students, but not among English students.
In further data analyses, he divided the participants into two groups: (1) those who perceived statements that homosexuality is unchosen and unchangeable to signify tolerant attitudes toward sexual minorities, and (2) those who didn’t perceive such a connection. He found that choice beliefs were correlated with prejudice only in the first group.
Dr. Hegarty interpreted his findings as indicating that heterosexuals may construct their beliefs about choice “to fit their sexual politics rather than the reverse.” Insofar as they understand beliefs about choice to express a particular political viewpoint (no choice = progay; choice = antigay), they use them for just that purpose. Some say homosexuality is chosen to express an antigay stance while others express a progay position by saying it’s not chosen.
Yet another possibility is that the choice-prejudice linkage might result from the causal influence of some third factor, such as heterosexuals’ personal contact with sexual minority people. In another survey I conducted in the early 1990s, I found that Whites (but, interestingly, not Blacks) harbored much less sexual prejudice and were much less likely to regard homosexuality as a choice if they personally knew one or more gay people. Presumably, those relationships reduced their prejudice and gave them an opportunity to learn their friend or relative’s ideas about the origins of her or his own sexual orientation.
In summary, we don’t yet know why beliefs about choice are correlated with sexual prejudice. One may cause the other, or perhaps both result from a third factor, such as personal contact with gay people. The data we have don’t support the notion that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality is inborn or otherwise not a choice will cause them to be less prejudiced. If anything, it appears that stating a particular belief about choice may be a way of justifying one’s preexisting antigay or progay attitudes.
This is essentially the position that Rev. Sheldon took when he dismissed Rev. Haggard’s private comments about the genetic roots of sexual orientation as something “they need to say.” What he didn’t note is that, just as much and perhaps more, he and his followers “need to say” that homosexuality is a choice.
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Dr. Hegarty’s article, ” ‘It’s Not a Choice, It’s the Way We’re Built’: Symbolic Beliefs About Sexual Orientation In the US and Britain,” was published in 2002 in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 12, pp. 153-166.
For further discussion of Revs. Sheldon and Haggard, see Timothy Kincaid’s posting on ExGayWatch.com
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