Although sharply divided, public attitudes toward gays and lesbians are rapidly changing to reflect greater acceptance, with younger generations leading the way, research by NORC at the University of Chicago  shows.
In addition to a plurality who now approve of same-sex marriage, Americans overwhelmingly support basic civil liberties and freedom of expression for gays and lesbians, in contrast to sharp division on such issues in the 1970s. Taken together, the results show a clear “trend toward greater tolerance regarding homosexuality,” said Tom W. Smith , director of the General Social Survey at NORC and author of the NORC report, “Public Attitudes Toward Homosexuality.”
The rise in support for same-sex marriage has been especially dramatic over the last two decades. It went from 11 percent approval in 1988 to 46 percent in 2010, compared to 40 percent who were opposed, producing a narrow plurality in favor for the first time. The report is based on findings of the latest General Social Survey, conducted in 2010 with a cross sample of more than 2,000 people.
“There is a large generation gap on the issue [of same-sex marriage],” Smith said. While 64 percent of those under 30 back same-sex marriage, only 27 percent of those 70 and older support it.
Acceptance of homosexuality in general also reflects the generational difference in opinion. In 2010, 26 percent of the people surveyed who were under 30 said they felt homosexual behavior is “always wrong,” while 63 percent of the people aged 70 and older held that opinion.
As a result of the generational division, public attitudes are sharply divided on the issue. Although 44 percent of the people surveyed felt that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always wrong, another 41 percent thought such relations were “not wrong at all.”
“Just 11 percent were in the middle, saying it was either ‘almost always wrong’ or ‘wrong only sometimes,'" Smith said. "Public opinion is thus highly polarized on this issue, with few people sharing the middle ground."
The GSS, which has been conducted biennially for 40 years, showed a marked increase in support of many civil liberties for gays and lesbians. Support for a person's right to speak before a public audience increased from 62 percent in 1972 to 86 percent in 2010; support for allowing gays and lesbians to teach at colleges or universities rose from 48 percent in 1973 to 84 percent in 2010; and approval for having a library keep a book that favors homosexuality rose from 54 percent in 1973 to 78 percent in 2010.
The change toward acceptance of homosexuality began in the late 1980s after years of remaining relatively constant. In 1973, 70 percent of people felt same-sex relations are “always wrong,” and in 1987, 75 percent held that view. By 2000, however, that number dropped to 54 percent and by 2010 was down to 43.5 percent.
Supported by the National Science Foundation, the General Social Survey monitors societal change and the growing complexity of American society. With the exception of the U.S. Census, the GSS is the most widely used source of information about social trends and attitudes.
NORC at the University of Chicago is an independent research organization headquartered in downtown Chicago, with offices on the University campus and in the Washington, D.C. area. NORC has a nationwide field staff as well as international research operations.