Sea change: Americans revising opinions on gays, poll finds

08/14/2014 3:01 PM

08/15/2014 3:13 PM

Americans are changing their minds about gays at a startling pace, driven by young people coming of age in a new era and by people of all ages increasingly familiar with gays and lesbians in their families and their lives, according to a new McClatchy-Marist Poll.

A solid majority support same-sex marriage, confirming the fast-turning tide that’s started appearing over the last three years. A majority say they wouldn’t be upset or very upset if a child were gay, up dramatically from a generation ago. And an overwhelming majority say it would make no difference to them if a candidate for Congress were gay, up sharply.

The sea change in attitudes is being propelled by two major forces, the poll found. First, people aged 18-29 overwhelmingly favor same-sex marriage. Second, the ranks of Americans who say they know someone who’s gay has skyrocketed over the last decade and a half. And those who know someone who’s gay are almost twice as likely to support same-sex marriage, the survey found.

“It is a sea change in attitude,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the survey. “You’d be hard-pressed to find an issue that has had a bigger shift in public opinion.”

There are still opponents. Republicans oppose same-sex marriage by better than 2-1. Tea party supporters oppose it by nearly 3-1. Those 60 and older are on the cusp, with 50 percent opposed.

Miringoff said he expected to see increases in acceptance but that the poll showed that this topic transcended other political issues that came and went. “This is really an attitudinal shift,” he said.

While gays and lesbians have pushed for decades for equal rights, public opinion has changed only in the last few years and now is changing rapidly.

Adults now support same-sex marriage by 54-38 percent. For more than a decade, only about a third of Americans supported the idea, ranging from 27 percent in 1996, as measured by the Pew Research Center, to 35 percent in 2009. Support has increased steadily since then, however. In 2011, a plurality supported same-sex marriage for the first time. And in 2013, a majority of adults said for the first time that they favored it.

The most glaring sign of changing attitudes is generational:

– Those aged 18-29 favor same-sex marriage by 75-18 percent.

– Those aged 30-44 favor it 55-38 percent.

– Those aged 45-59 favor it 49-40.

– Those aged 60 and older oppose it 50-39.

Familiarity also is changing the way people think.

By 71-27 percent, American adults say they know someone who’s gay. That’s a dramatic change from a generation ago, when a 1999 Pew poll found that Americans said by 60-39 percent that they didn’t know anyone who was gay.

In the McClatchy-Marist Poll, 52 percent said they knew more gay people now than they did a decade ago.

How people react to gays in their family also has changed.

Nearly half – 48 percent – said they wouldn’t be upset if one of their children told them they were gay, and 14 percent said they wouldn’t be very upset. Thirty-five percent said they’d be somewhat upset or very upset.

It was the opposite three decades ago. Sixty-four percent said they’d be very upset and 25 percent somewhat upset if one of their children told them they were gay, according to a Los Angeles Times survey in 1985. Five percent said they wouldn’t be very upset, and just 4 percent said they wouldn’t be upset at all.

The personal experience makes a big difference. Those who know someone who’s gay support same-sex marriage by 61-31 percent. Those who say they don’t know anyone who’s gay oppose same-sex marriage by 57-36 percent.

And while there’s been vocal opposition, the poll found that virtually any movement in public opinion has been in favor of same-sex marriage. Twelve percent of adults have switched from opposition to support; just 1 percent changed from support to opposition.

The changes also mean that Americans are much more open to voting for a gay candidate for Congress.

Eighty-three percent of adults said that whether someone was gay wouldn’t make a difference in whether they voted for that candidate. In December 1985, just 49 percent said it would make no difference, while 47 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who was gay, according to the Los Angeles Times survey.

The changes in public opinion are changing Washington.

In 2012, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to publicly declare support for same-sex marriage. A slew of politicians have followed suit, including nearly every Democratic senator. At least three Republican senators have indicated their support, including Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who said he reversed his longtime opposition because his son is gay.

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that married same-sex couples are entitled to federal benefits and, by declining to decide a case from California, cleared the way for gays and lesbians to marry in that state.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage either through ballot initiatives, legislation or court rulings. Just this week, a federal appeals court refused to delay a ruling that struck down Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage, which means couples could begin marrying there as early as next week. But at the same time, Tennessee’s same-sex marriage ban survived a court challenge, the first such ruling in more than a year.

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