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.