people are changing their minds about homosexuality

Shamus’s post on attitudes toward same-sex marriage couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, as I have been working with Bob Andersen at the University of Toronto to analyze attitudes toward homosexuality, and the first of our two forthcoming articles has just been made available on the Public Opinion Quarterly website. It should be out in print soon. We find that people have been changing their minds about homosexuality.

This might not seem so surprising on the face of it, but people have been studying changes in public opinion for a long time, and there is a good deal of consistency to the pattern of how attitudes about any given issue change over time. It is almost always the case that people form their opinions by young adulthood and more or less keep those same opinions for the rest of their lives (or at least changes go both ways to more or less even out). The changes in attitudes that are measured over time are much less a function of individuals changing their minds than of demographics: as older folks die and youth become adults, average levels for attitudes change. This is called the age-stability hypothesis (JSTOR – subscription required).

This age-stability pattern has been documented for a number of issues, including controversial ones, but our analysis shows that attitudes to homosexuality prove to be an exception to this rule: people of all age groups have changed their minds about homosexuality to about the same degree over a recent 20-year period.

Why would this issue be the one that provokes people to change their minds? Our analysis allows us to rule out a few common cultural explanations. We analyze data from both the United States and Canada, and the differences in timing of this attitudinal shift are revealing. Canadians were more tolerant than Americans in the 1981 survey, and continued to become steadily more tolerant over the next 20 years. Americans were quite intolerant in 1981 through 1990, but had grown much more tolerant by 2000, making up considerable ground toward their still more tolerant neighbors to the north.

Taking this into consideration, we argue that cultural explanations, such as increased visibility in politics, more common representations of gay men and lesbians in media, or even news coverage of the HIV epidemic, cannot explain the shift. If these were the underlying causes of attitudinal change, wouldn’t the timing be more similar in the two countries?

Instead, we interpret the data as suggesting that social policy differences between the United States and Canada are the root of this change. In particular, we point to the steady liberalization of policies governing sex and sexuality in Canada, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1969 and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, implemented in 1982, has been consistently interpreted to guarantee equal rights to lesbians, gay men, and same-sex couples. In the United States, by contrast, policies governing sexuality are much less consistent. Challenges to discriminatory policies have been numerous, but not always successful. The constitutionality of laws criminalizing homosexual sex was upheld in 1986 and then struck down in 2003. Anti-discrimination laws cover sexual orientation in some cities and states, but not others. It seems that these differences in policies have pushed people in Canada to become more accepting of homosexuality earlier than in the United States.

In terms of explaining why Americans experienced a shift after 1990, we turn to social movements. Both Canada and the United States have LGBT movements. However, in the United States, activists in the religious right have produced a strong push against lesbian and gay rights. In Canada, the religious right is much weaker. In the U.S. in the 1990s, religious right groups proposed a series of ballot initiatives, introduced sexual conversion (“ex-gay”) therapy as a cure for homosexuality, and re-wrote sodomy laws to target only same-sex couples. Further, the religious right’s activism to exclude same-sex couples from the institution of marriage has produced not only a federal policy prohibiting gay marriage, but similar policies in 2/3 of the states. As we discussed in Shamus’s post, however, this activism has not had an overall negative impact on attitudes. While it has caused some people to hold more strongly negative attitudes, many more people have expressed more positive attitudes. Indeed, the attitudinal scale in Canada leans much more to the middle, which is not exactly neutral according to the question wording, but can reasonably be interpreted that way. The U.S. responses, however, have a much higher proportion responding with stronger opinions on both the positive and negative sides.

To sum up, then, we find that people of all age groups have changed their minds about homosexuality, and we argue that social policies and activism have driven these shifts in attitudes. Social policies have pushed attitudes in the expected direction, but anti-gay activism has also pushed attitudes in a positive (though bifurcated) direction.

11 thoughts on “people are changing their minds about homosexuality”

  1. Maybe this isn’t relevant, but in my opinion the shift in attitudes is driven by people becoming personally acquainted with homosexuals rather than being due to public policy changes, media depctions, or the influence of religious fundamentalists. I’m sure my parents weren’t homophobic (or homophilic either) years ago when I was growing up, but beginning in the 1980s they formed their first friendships with several gay neighbors. This allowed my parents to view gay people as slightly different versions of themselves – a core component of sympathy. I can’t prove it one way or another, but I bet that my parents’ change in acceptance of homosexuality was driven primarily by their own interactions with homosexuals. A primary motive force in this change was the willingness (and ability) of homosexuals to adopt a transparent public identity with regard to their sexuality (instead of the covert homosexuality of the past). Again, I can’t provide compelling evidence, but I think this transformation of my parents’ acceptance of homosexuality would have been the same whether they were living in Canada or the U.S., because it was driven by personal experience – the most powerful agent of social relationships.

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  2. ballytyrone –

    I’m always surprised how willing people are to live with contradictions in their lives (and their opinions). Folks are rarely, if ever, logically consistent. And one of the ways in which they’re likely to deal with inconsistencies is to label them “exceptional cases”. One of my favorite examples of this is:

    Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn M. Neckerman, “‘We’d Love to Hire Them, But . . .’: The Meaning of Race for Employers,” in The Urban Underclass, ed. Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson (Washington, DC: Brookings, 1991), pp. 203-32.

    It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but basically what Kirschenman and Neckerman did was interview employers in Chicago and ask them how they decided who to hire. The employers openly told them that Blacks were less reliable and lazier. However, they quickly noted that THEIR black employees were not; that they were exceptional (to the rule). And so actual experiences with Black employees who were not in fact lazy or unreliable did not cause employers to amend their opinion.

    I suspect a lot of this is the same with attitudes about lots of things (though the social psych people here can tell me if this is right or wrong). I just had a conversation about this very thing with Colin Jerolmack. We were marveling at how in our work people will note inconsistencies, not in our arguments, but in what people are doing and suggest that we’ve “gotten it wrong.” But instead the people themselves are in fact completely inconsistent. Colin’s example was no racial attitudes: men who had quite intimate relationships across racial lines yet still held quite racist general attitudes.

    Tina: I can’t wait to read the article! But not until my “hard deadline” of Friday… Thanks for the post. Back to work!

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  3. I tend to agree with Ballytyrone – all I have is anecdotal evidence (being gay myself) but public policy changes in this country have little if anything to do with the cultural changes. Cultural changes tend to drive public policy. I frequently bring up the issue that my brother paid 3k to get married on the deck of the star trek enterprise in vegas and when I signed my name to the marriage certificate as witness 1000s of federal and 100s of state laws (515 in my state to be exact) took effect. That tidbit opened up some of the more conservative members of my family about how important the ‘marriage’ issue is to us. Its not about the word. Its about what the state has turned the word into. They have since been educating their friends because they see this as unfair to their successful stable and happily coupled sibling.

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  4. There is substantial evidence that people who have lesbian, gay, and bisexual acquaintances are more accepting of homosexuality in general, so I’m not disagreeing with that point. However, public policy is indeed related to the percentage of people who are acquainted with LGB people. Anti-discrimination policies, for example, make it safer for LGB people to come out of the closet without risk of losing jobs or being evicted. Each of these people increases the percentage of people who have LGB acquaintances. Or, when LGB people can serve openly in the military, it opens not only an avenue of acquaintance building but a respected social status that may also contribute to positive attitudes toward homosexuality in general.

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  5. Doesn’t this sort of revisit the “contact vs. threat” debate vis-a-vis racial attitudes? I don’t know that much about the field, but it seems like two reasonably opposing hypotheses.
    @5.tina: I assume there’s a network effect here too, no? In other words, that there’s a greater likelihood of selecting into acquaintances with (openly) LGB alters if one is more accepting of homosexuality in general?

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  6. @andrew.6: It certainly would seem that way. The studies I’ve seen correlate attitudes with other personality characteristics and a few demographic variables, not paying much attention to time order of one factor relative to another, but I think that these results are widely interpreted as operating in two directions.

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