June 21, 2008
On Thursday, President Bush awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to General Peter Pace, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “for his steadfast leadership, his selfless devotion to keeping Americans safe, and his great courage.”
The award was greeted with widespread criticism because of remarks made by Gen. Pace last year about homosexuality and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy.
In a March 12, 2007, interview with the Chicago Tribune, he likened homosexuality to adultery and asserted, “I believe homosexual acts between two individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts…. I do not believe the United States is well served by a policy that says it is okay to be immoral in any way.”
His remarks sparked outrage among congressional Democrats and gay advocacy groups. According to a National Public Radio report, senior Pentagon officials privately disclosed that the Secretary of Defense summoned Pace to his office after the comments were made public and demanded that he issue a statement. The following day, the Pentagon released the General’s statement, in which he downplayed the importance of his own moral views, but did not apologize for his remarks:
I made two points in support of the policy during the interview. One, “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” allows individuals to serve this nation; and two, it does not make a judgment about the morality of individual acts. In expressing my support for the current policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct. I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral views.
Six months later, shortly before retiring, Gen. Pace reiterated his sentiments at a September Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. Saying he sought to clarify his earlier remarks, Pace noted that there are “wonderful Americans who happen to be homosexual serving in the military.” He continued:
We need to be very precise then, about what I said wearing my stars and being very conscious of it…. And that is, very simply, that we should respect those who want to serve the nation but not through the law of the land, condone activity that, in my upbringing, is counter to God’s law.
* * * * *
In response to Pres. Bush’s decision to award Gen. Pace with Presidential Medal of Freedom this week, Aubrey Sarvis, Executive Director of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN) said:
Honoring General Pace with the country’s highest civilian award is outrageous, insensitive and disrespectful to the 65,000 lesbian and gay troops currently serving on active duty in the armed forces. Our men and women in uniform are making tremendous sacrifices for our country and are looking for the President to recognize leaders who offer them praise and vision, not condemnation and scorn.
Mr. Sarvis makes a valid point, but perhaps we should actually be grateful to Gen. Pace. After all, most previous attempts to defend DADT have tried to justify the policy with spurious claims — for example:
- that the presence of openly gay and lesbian military personnel would damage unit cohesion and impair the military’s ability to complete its mission
- that sharing living quarters with gay and lesbian personnel would intrude unacceptably on the privacy of heterosexual personnel
- that allowing sexual minority personnel to serve openly would damage the military’s reputation and reduce reenlistment rates.
However, empirical research has consistently failed to support these assertions. A few examples:
- A 2006 Zogby poll conducted with active-duty personnel and veterans indicated that DADT isn’t strongly supported by combat personnel and veterans, and that allowing openly gay and lesbian personnel to serve is unlikely to reduce reenlistment or impair future recruitment. In addition, the poll showed that many military personnel know or suspect that their unit includes gay or lesbian members, and that most 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 or the morale of the unit. Based on these and other data, Prof. Belkin argues in a paper recently published in Armed Forces & Society that the policy actually harms the military’s reputation.
* * * * *
Rather than trying to justify DADT on bogus factual grounds, Gen. Pace gave the world a refreshingly honest account of the real reasons why the US government still clings to the policy. By highlighting the moral worldview on which it is based, he showed that the policy is mainly about religious beliefs and longstanding prejudices, not the laundry list of concerns about the practical impact of a policy change that are routinely cited by DADT defenders.
Of course, it may not have been Gen. Pace’s intention to provide such clarity about the real roots of DADT. But perhaps he nevertheless deserves recognition for it.
And, since past Medal of Freedom awardees from within the Bush administration have included former CIA Director George Tenet, former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer, and Gen. Tommy Franks — all of whom have been strongly criticized for their roles in the current Administration’s early Iraq decisionmaking and policies — perhaps Gen. Pace is in the right company.
* * * * *
For further discussions of social science research relevant to DADT, consult the “Publications” page on the Michael D. Palm Center website at the University of California, Santa Barbara
For more information about DADT, consult the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network website.
June 17, 2008
Monday evening, at 5:01 pm, California became the second state to legally recognize marriages between same-sex couples.
Some Biblical literalists may be disappointed that no natural disasters befell the state in the hours immediately following the implementation of the state Supreme Court’s May 15th decision. Indeed, in this quake-prone land where seismologists warn that the next Big One can happen at any time, the first notable earthquake that occurred after 5 pm had a relatively small magnitude — 3.1 on the Richter Scale.
Ironically, the epicenter of that quake was in Kern County, one of only two counties where the Clerk announced that, once marriage equality becomes the law, she will stop performing marriages for any couple — different-sex or same-sex. (In a few other California counties, Clerks didn’t perform marriages prior to the Court ruling and won’t begin to do so now that the law has changed.) The Kern County Clerk reportedly made her decision after consulting with the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian Right legal organization that opposes gay rights.
Marriage equality opponents who are inclined to seek omens in natural occurrences may be scratching their heads about this one.
Supporting Marriage Equality versus Endorsing Discrimination
Despite the general absence of literal temblors (so far), the next five months promise plenty of figurative groundshaking as religious and political conservatives try to convince Californians to undo the Supreme Court ruling by amending the state’s constitution on November 4.
Statewide opinion polls will be a major source of information about the attitudes of California voters during that time, and many of them will focus on the percentages of Californians who endorse marriage equality versus those who don’t.
However, it’s probably inaccurate to assume that the NO votes on the proposed constitutional amendment will come solely from voters who support marriage equality. Although that bloc constitutes a reliable foundation for the NO vote, they will also be joined by other Californians who, while not ready to endorse marriage equality, aren’t willing to write discrimination into the state constitution.
Interestingly, some data relevant to this point come from two recent polls that sampled residents of New York State. Both surveys included questions about general attitudes toward marriage equality and about New York Governer David Paterson’s recent announcement that he has directed state agencies to implement a February ruling by a State Appellate Court and recognize the marriages of same-sex couples performed outside New York. Paterson issued the order on May 14, the day before the California marriage decision was announced. New York does not currently issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The polls — conducted by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute from June 3-8, and the New York Times from June 6-11 — differed slightly in their findings. The Quinnipiac poll found a bit more support for marriage equality among New Yorkers than the Times poll (42% vs. 38%), and somewhat greater approval for Gov. Paterson’s order to state agencies (53% approved, compared to 48% in the Times poll). These differences are within the polls’ margins of error.
What’s interesting, however, is that both polls revealed a (roughly) 10-point gap between general support for marriage equality and support for the Governor’s order. If we assume that Gov. Paterson’s action was endorsed by all New Yorkers who support marriage equality, we still must account for another 10 percentage points in support for it. That support had to come from survey respondents who said they don’t favor marriage equality.
In other words, some members of the public don’t endorse full marriage rights for same-sex couples, but nevertheless are supportive of government actions that will effectively provide those rights.
We can see a similar pattern in the recent California Field Poll. When presented with a choice between (A) full marriage, (B) civil unions or domestic partnerships, and (C) no legal recognition for same-sex couples, 45% of Californians chose Option A, that “gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally marry.” The interviewers subsequently asked one of two versions of a question about a ballot initiative. For both versions, majorities of respondents (51% and 54%) said they opposed changing the California Constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage. Here again, there’s a gap — 6 or 9 points, depending on how the ballot measure was described. Thus, some Californians who don’t fully support marriage equality are nevertheless unwilling to vote to ban it.
This pattern highlights the strategic importance of distinguishing between opposition to marriage equality and support for an anti-gay ballot measure that tampers with the state constitution. We shouldn’t assume that Californians will vote for the anti-equality amendment simply because they aren’t personally ready to embrace marriages between same-sex couples.
Minding the Gap
One colleague suggested to me that the gap might reflect the fact that many adults believe legal recognition of same-sex marriages is inevitable, and thus see recent events as part of an inexorable trend, one that they don’t wish to resist. There are data to back up this idea. For example, a 2004 LA Times poll found that 59% of adults in a national sample believed that “recognition of same-sex marriage is inevitable.”
In addition, the patterns are reminiscent of a consistent finding in public opinion research. Although not allowing something would appear to be equivalent to forbidding it, people are generally more reluctant to “forbid” than to “not allow.”
In 1941, on the eve of World War II, Donald Rugg published a now classic study in which survey respondents were asked their opinion about public speeches against democracy. Roughly half were asked if they believed “the United States should allow public speeches against democracy,” and the other half were asked “Do you think the United States should forbid public speeches against democracy?” While 62% said the US should not allow such speeches, only 46% said they should be forbidden. This finding has been replicated in numerous other surveys in the years since Rugg’s article appeared.
A similar dynamic seems to be operating in the domain of marriage equality. Voters are less willing to endorse banning marriage between same-sex couples than they are to support simply defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
In 2004, for example, researchers at CBS News conducted an experiment. Roughly half of 1545 poll respondents were asked “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. (United States) Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman?” The other half were asked “Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. (United States) Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman, and outlaw marriages between people of the same sex?” (emphasis added by me).
While 59% favored the proposed amendment when it was described simply as allowing only different-sex marriage, only 51% favored it when the language about outlawing same-sex marriage was included.
These differences aren’t huge, but they suggest that voters are less likely to forbid marriage than to simply refrain from allowing it.
Framing the CaMP Act
Thus, it is probably no accident that the proposed constitutional amendment on the November 4 ballot, labeled the “California Marriage Protection Act,” was crafted to avoid explicit references to banning marriage for same-sex couples or denying rights to gay and lesbian Californians. Instead, it is worded to say simply that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”
Opponents of the CaMP Act will do well to stress that voting for the amendment means Californians will be permanently banning (or forbidding or outlawing) all marriages between lesbian and gay couples.
Voters might be reluctant to take the affirmative step of enacting marriage equality through the ballot box. But, now that the Supreme Court has declared the denial of such equality unconstitutional, Californians may also be unwilling to forbid same-sex couples from marrying.
* * * * *
Here are some useful readings about the “forbid/not allow” distinction:
Rugg, D. (1941). Experiments in wording questions: II. Public Opinion Quarterly, 5, 91-92.
Bishop, G. F., Hippler, H.-J., Schwarz, N., & Strack, F. (1988). A comparison of response effects in self-administered and telephone surveys. In R.M. Groves et al. (Eds.), Telephone survey methodology (pp. 321-340). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Hippler, H.-J., & Schwarz, N. (1986). Not forbidding isn’t allowing: The cognitive basis of the forbid-allow asymmetry. Public Opinion Quarterly, 50, 87-96.
Narayan, S., & Krosnick, J. A. (1996). Education moderates some response effects in attitude measurement. Public Opinion Quarterly, 60, 58-88.
June 12, 2008
On Wednesday, Norway’s Parliament voted 84-41 to make that country’s marriage law gender-neutral, thereby granting same-sex couples the right to marry and to adopt children on an equal basis with heterosexual couples. The new law will also allow the Church of Norway to bless same-sex marriages, although each congregation may be permitted to decide for itself whether to conduct weddings for gay and lesbian couples.
Norway thus becomes the world’s sixth nation to grant marriage equality to same-sex couples, joining the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa.
With the exception of South Africa, all of those countries are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Norwegian Parliament’s vote is the most recent sign of the widening gap between the United States and its NATO allies on national policies concerning human rights for sexual minorities, exemplified by laws concerning committed relationships and military service.
In addition to the 5 countries with marriage equality, 9 other NATO member countries allow same-sex couples to register their partnerships and thereby enjoy many of the same rights and obligations as married couples — the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, and Luxembourg. And Portugal recognizes unregistered cohabitation, which gives same-sex couples some of the limited rights (excluding joint adoption) enjoyed by different-sex couples living in a de facto union for more than two years.
Most of the NATO members that recognize marriage or same-sex registered partnerships also permit military service by gay people. In addition, some NATO countries that don’t recognize same-sex relationships nevertheless permit gay personnel to serve in their military. Estonia, Italy, and Lithuania are in this group.
[Note: Greece bans gay officers but permits gay enlisted conscripts, and Portugal has no formal ban on gay personnel but may screen out homosexuals during the induction process. As Profs. Aaron Belkin and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert point out in a recent review of international military policies, “Because of the range of policies, it is, indeed, a complex task to track the status of regulations and customs concerning gays and lesbians in the armed forces around the world.” Thus, “it is incredibly labor intensive to determine with great accuracy what a country permits or prohibits by law and what really happens on a day-to-day basis. Not only do laws change, but the application of the law may vary from one location to another.”]
Some NATO countries neither recognize same-sex relationships nor permit military service by sexual minorities. They include Bulgaria, Latvia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey.
And, of course, the United States.
Our federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) expressly prohibits the federal government from recognizing legal marriages or civil unions between same-sex couples. And our military policy (known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or DADT), while ostensibly allowing gay and lesbian personnel to serve in secrecy, has resulted in widespread antigay harassment and discharge of sexual minorities. This has continued even as the military has lowered its standards in order to meet enlistment goals — for example, by granting “moral waivers” to convicted felons and recruiting individuals lacking a high school diploma.
Social science research has failed to support the premises on which DADT is based, and opinion polls generally indicate that the US public favors allowing sexual minority military personnel to serve openly. Even onetime supporters of DADT have recognized that it hasn’t worked. Former Senator Sam Nunn and the late Charles Moskos both expressed second thoughts about the policy’s implementation. Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when DADT was adopted, now argues for its repeal.
And, while a majority of the US public still opposes marriage equality, most American adults favor some form of legal recognition for same-sex couples.
Yet, Congress has shown little willingness to change current laws. In an Associated Press story today, Anne Flaherty reported that congressional Democrats have been reluctant to push a legislative repeal of the DADT law, citing resistance from their more conservative members and the inevitability of a veto by President Bush. There are no immediate prospects for Congress to repeal DOMA.
All of this might change if Barack Obama is elected and the Democrats gain a significant number of new congressional seats in November. Whereas presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has endorsed DADT, Sen. Obama has called for its repeal. Nevertheless, Sen. Obama hasn’t made DADT a major talking point in his campaign, probably because he wants to avoid repeating President Bill Clinton’s missteps in 1993 when DADT was enacted into law. (Prior to that time, the military’s ban on service by gay personnel was a matter of Executive Branch policy, not federal law.) Sen. Obama has also expressed support for limited recognition of same-sex couples and the repeal of DOMA, although he opposes marriage equality. Sen. McCain opposes marriage equality and, apparently, civil unions and similar legal recognition for same-sex couples.
For now, the gay citizens of Norway — including those in the military — can look forward to marrying. Meanwhile, in the US, marriage equality exists in only two states, with its status in California threatened by a major ballot initiative. And the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network (SLDN) has had to warn active-duty military personnel that marrying someone of the same sex in California or Massachusetts means risking their military careers, noting that the federal statute enacting Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell clearly states “A member of the armed forces shall be separated from the armed forces” if “the member has married or attempted to marry a person known to be of the same biological sex.”
June 11, 2008
Last February 12, Lawrence King, a 15-year old 8th grader, was murdered at his middle school in Oxnard.
He was in the school’s computer lab when 14-year old Brandon McInerney walked in and shot him at least twice in the head. King was unconscious when he was brought to the hospital and was declared brain dead the next day. He was taken off life support on February 14.
King had publicly come out as gay in the weeks before his murder, and he frequently violated gender roles by wearing make-up and jewelry to school. He was regularly teased by a group of male students that included McInerney. By some accounts, King teased and flirted with McInerney and some of his other tormentors.
McInerney is scheduled to be arraigned tomorrow in Ventura County on a charge of premeditated murder. The charge includes a penalty enhancement because the murder has been classified as a hate crime.
Among the issues likely to be raised in McInerney’s arraignment and trial are:
- Whether he should be tried as a juvenile or, as Ventura County prosecutors intend, as an adult. He turned 14 — the minimum age at which a juvenile in California can be tried as an adult — on January 24, just weeks before the murder. In April, a coalition of 27 sexual minority and transgender rights groups urged that McInerney be tried in juvenile court.
- Whether the Court will consider neuroscience data suggesting that adolescents engage in impulsive behavior because their brains have not completely matured. According to the Ventura County Star, McInerney’s defense attorney hopes to use such research to argue that he should be tried as a juvenile.
- Whether school officials are partially to blame for not having dealt more proactively with the tensions between the two boys. This argument will almost certainly include assertions that Lawrence King should have been deterred from violating gender norms and being openly gay. This, in turn, is likely to spark discussion about the rights of sexual minority and gender-nonconforming youth to be safe in their schools.
It seems less likely that the trial will address broader questions about sexual stigma, which creates a cultural climate in which children, adolescents, and adults are routinely subjected to harassment and bullying if they violate conventions of gender and sexuality. That climate affects everyone, regardless of their own sexual orientation, because anyone can potentially be perceived as nonheterosexual. The wish to avoid being labeled as gay can lead individuals to enact sexual stigma against others through ostracism, ridicule, discrimination, and even violence.
Dr. Karen Franklin, one of the few researchers to have published original data on antigay behaviors and the perpetrators of antigay crimes, has posted an excellent discussion of these and other aspects of the case on her forensic psychology blog.
June 10, 2008
The full-page Macy’s ad in the May 28th San Francisco Chronicle is evidence that the debate about marriage equality in California during the next 5 months won’t be limited to the domains of civil rights and religious doctrine. It will also be about economics.
The ad was dominated by a grayscale photo of two wedding bands, followed by a red headline. Something like this:
First comes love.
Then comes marriage.
Just another ad for a wedding registry, right? But then came the copy. It began:
And now it’s a milestone every couple in California can celebrate.
Let Macy’s Wedding Gift & Registry help you start your new life together.
* * * * *
Macy’s shrewd decision to celebrate the May 15th Supreme Court ruling reflects their judgment that marriage equality in California will mean a lot of new business. And they’re not alone. According to various news reports, wedding planners, caterers, florists, DJs, and hoteliers, just to mention a few, are anticipating a sudden influx of customers as same-sex couples plan what many never dreamed they’d have — a legal wedding.
It’s not only retailers and entrepreneurs who anticipate a windfall. The San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau web site now features a welcome letter from CEO Joe D’Alessandro, stating that the Bureau “wants to be among the first to wish all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender couples the warmest of congratulations on securing marriage rights in this hard-fought battle.” It goes on to promote San Francisco as the place to marry:
We hope you will think of San Francisco as the ideal spot to plan your perfect wedding and/or honeymoon…. [W]e want to encourage everyone to “Come Out Here” and visit the first city in the United States to perform same-sex marriages and the only state where everyone, including visitors, has the constitutional right to marry.
Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who twice vetoed marriage equality bills passed by the legislature, saying it was up to the California courts to decide whether the freedom to marry is a constitutional right, now sees dollar signs in the future. Speaking at a May 20 Environmental Defense Fund event in San Francisco, Schwarzenegger responded to a question about the California Supreme Court’s marriage decision by quipping, “You know, I’m wishing everyone good luck with their marriages and I hope that California’s economy is booming because everyone is going to come here and get married.”
Calculating California’s Windfall
Just how much money will weddings between same-sex partners bring to California? A new report, The Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples on the California Budget, offers some informed estimates. Authored by Profs. Brad Sears and Lee Badgett from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at UCLA’s School of Law, the report projects the economic fallout of marriage equality in California over the next 3 years.
The report considers likely spending both by California couples and by non-California couples who come to the Golden State to wed. (There will probably be many such couples because, unlike Massachusetts, California has no residency requirement for marrying.)
Using data on civil unions in Vermont, marriages in Massachusetts, and domestic partnerships in California, the Williams Institute researchers estimate that roughly half of California’s same-sex couples will marry in the next 3 years. Based on Census data estimates, this translates into about 51,000 couples. The average wedding expenditure for heterosexual couples in California during the next 3 years will be about $30,500. If same-sex couples each spend one fourth of this amount (about $7,600), the total will be about $392 million, plus another $31.4 million in sales taxes.
In addition to California residents, the researchers project that about 67,500 couples from other states will travel to California to marry. This estimate includes about one fourth of the same-sex couples currently living in New York and New Mexico, states where a California marriage will be recognized. It also includes one fourth of the same-sex couples living in the states that currently are the main sources of tourism for California — Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and North Carolina.
The average tourist visiting California stays 4 days and spends $163 per day. If, in addition to these routine expenses, non-resident couples (and their friends and family) spend an additional $3,000 in the state on wedding expenses (special accommodations, meals, clothing, flowers, gifts, etc.), the average will be about $4,300 per couple, or a total of $291 million over the next 3 years. Sales and hotel taxes will add another $23.7 million to state and local government revenues.
Add in another $8.8 million in marriage license fees to county governments, and the Williams Institute researchers conclude:
[W]e estimate that allowing same-sex couples to wed in California could result in approximately $683.6 million in additional spending on weddings and tourism in the State over the next three years, creating approximately 2,178 new jobs and resulting in additional state and local tax revenues of $63.8 million.
Granted, given the size of California’s economy, these are modest amounts. But in the midst of a downturn that many believe is a recession, even a relatively small economic stimulus is welcome news.
Of course, California’s voters may decide in November to amend the state constitution so as to eliminate marriage equality. But the Williams Institute report makes it clear that passing the ballot proposition will not only deny many Californians their right to marry the person they love. It also will effectively kill the goose that will be laying golden eggs for the state’s economy.
* * * * *
The report by Profs. Sears and Badgett is titled The Impact of Extending Marriage to Same-Sex Couples on the California Budget and is available from the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy website.
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.
June 4, 2008
According to a news article this morning by Howard Mintz of the San Jose Mercury News:
The California Supreme Court today rejected a bid to freeze last month’s ruling legalizing gay marriage, paving the way for same-sex couples to begin walking down the aisle as soon as June 17.
Moving swiftly to remove legal uncertainty, the court turned away a request from gay marriage foes to stay the ruling until after the November election, when voters will consider a ballot measure that would change the state Constitution to again outlaw same-sex weddings. The secretary of state earlier this week qualified the initiative for the November ballot.
The justices were divided 4-3 on whether to rehear their earlier decision, the same split that unfolded when the gay marriage case was decided in May. Conservative organizations, joined by 11 other states, asked the court to reopen the case, a move opposed by civil rights groups, San Francisco city officials and Attorney General Jerry Brown.
The Court’s action may have important consequences for public opinion in California which, according to a recent Field Poll, already supports marriage equality.
A considerable body of research shows that heterosexuals are more likely to have positive feelings toward lesbians and gay men when they have close personal relationships with sexual minorities. It is also likely that knowing a friend or family member’s same-sex partner further enhances positive attitudes. And those favorable attitudes may well translate into a commitment to support policies that favor equality.
Thus, attending a friend or relative’s wedding to a same-sex partner this summer may lead many heterosexual Californians to decide to vote against the constitutional amendment in November.
I’ll discuss this idea at greater length in a future post.
UPDATE (June 6): In response to a request from the City of San Francisco, the California Office of Vital Records today announced that all California counties may begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples at 5 pm on Monday, June 16.
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