Sexual Prejudice:
Prevalence
   
    Sexual prejudice remains widespread in the United States. However, heterosexuals' attitudes toward lesbians and gay men have become more accepting in recent decades. This page summarizes public opinion trends in responses to some key questions about homosexuality and sexual minority rights.
 
Rights of Free Expression   Since the early 1970s, the ongoing General Social Survey (GSS), conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, has regularly included three questions about respondents' willingness to grant basic free speech rights to "a man who admits that he is a homosexual." Respondents are aked whether they would allow such a man to "make a speech in your community" or "teach in a college or university," and whether they would favor removing "a book he wrote in favor of homosexuality" from the public library.
 
View Graphs   Even in 1973, responses to these items showed relatively strong support for First Amendment rights in connection with homosexuality. In that year, 61% would have allowed a homosexual man to speak, 47% would have allowed him to teach in a college, and 54% would have opposed censoring a book that he wrote in favor of homosexuality.

Since then, support has steadily increased. By 2010, the proportions endorsing First Amendment rights regarding homosexuality had grown to 86% for speech, 84% for teaching, and 78% against censorship.
 

Judgments of Wrong and Right

 

 

 

 

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Another GSS item administered since the early 1970s asks whether sexual relations between two adults of the same sex are "always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all." Between 1973 and 1993, more than two-thirds of the public considered homosexuality to be "always wrong." The proportion responding "never" or "only sometimes" wrong ranged around 20%.

Since 1993, however, responses to this item have shifted dramatically. The proportion saying homosexual behavior is "always wrong" began to decline, dropping to 54% in 1998 and 53% in 2002, rising slightly to 57% in 2004, but subsequently continuing to drop. In 2010, for the first time, a plurality of respondents said same-sex sexual relations are never wrong or wrong only sometimes.

Any interpretation of responses to this item must acknowledge the response bias invited by its wording: The question's phrasing strongly suggests that homosexual relations are wrong to at least some extent. Data from other surveys (e.g., the Gallup poll) with differently worded items assessing the morality of homosexual behavior, however, are consistent with responses to the GSS item.
 

Acceptable Lifestyle

 

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  Several Gallup polls have assessed respondents' opinions about whether homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Responses to this item suggested a roughly constant 3-to-2 ratio of "no" to "yes" responses between 1982 and 1992. By a margin of 17 points (51% to 34%), respondents did not consider homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle in 1982. In 1992, the margin was 19 points (57% to 38%), with roughly equal numbers of undecided respondents having shifted to a positive or negative response.

By 1996, however, the gap had closed to only 6 percentage points. In that year, the proportion of respondents who did not consider homosexuality an acceptable alternative lifestyle dropped to 50% – approximately the same as in 1982. By contrast, the proportion regarding homosexuality as an acceptable alternative lifestyle increased substantially to 44%.

The trend continued. By May of 2003, 54% considered homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle, compared to 43% who regarded it as unacceptable.

A few months later, however, the proportion of Gallup respondents who did not consider homosexuality an acceptable lifestyle increased for the first time in a decade. In a survey conducted in late July of 2003, 49% of those surveyed felt that homosexuality was unacceptable, compared to 46% who felt it was acceptable. That survey was conducted shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state sodomy laws unconstitutional in the case of Lawrence v. Texas.

The reversal was temporary. In 2007, and again in 2008, a solid majority (57%) considered homosexuality acceptable.
 

Employment Rights

 

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  Gallup polls have also assessed attitudes toward equal employment opportunities. Support for equal rights in job opportunities has increased dramatically – from 56% in 1977, to 74% in 1992, to 89% in 2008. The proportion opposing employment rights was initially a minority (33% in 1977), and has decreased even further over time: to 18% in 1992 and to 8% in 2008.
 
View Graph   The public's support for employment equality has been somewhat less enthusiastic when questions are asked about specific occupations. Nevertheless, the trend has been toward steadily increasing support.

One of the most remarkable changes has been in the proportion of Americans who feel homosexuals should be hired as elementary school teachers: It grew from 27% in 1977, to 41% in 1992, to 54% in 2005.
 

View Graph   This trend has also been documented by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Their national polls show that the proportion of US adults who believe that school boards should be able to fire "teachers who are known homosexuals" dropped from 51% in 1987, to 33% in 2003, to 28% in 2009, and to 21% in 2012. The proportion that disagreed rose from 42% to 75% in that period.
 
Sodomy Laws   The Gallup poll asked whether homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal. This issue has displayed greater volatility than any of those considered above. In 1977, respondents were evenly split, with 43% favoring legalization and 43% opposing it. By 1982, a plurality favored legalization (45% to 39% opposed).
 

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In the mid-1980s, however, the trend sharply reversed, probably due in part to public concerns about the new epidemic of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) which, in the United States, disproportionately affected gay and bisexual men. (Most AIDS cases reported worldwide, however, were traced to heterosexual intercourse.) In 1986, for example, only 32% supported legalizing homosexual relations whereas 57% opposed it. 1986 was also the year in which the United States Supreme Court's Bowers v. Hardwick ruling upheld the right of states to enact sodomy laws. (The American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, and American Public Health Association jointly filed an amicus brief opposing such laws and explaining that they would be likely to impede AIDS prevention efforts.)
 

 

In the 1990s, public opinion about consensual same-sex relations fluctuated, with a plurality of Americans favoring legalization in 1992 (48% to 44%), but a a plurality opposing it in 1996 (47% to 44%). In 1999, 50% of Gallup respondents favored legalization, compared to 43% who opposed it. By 2001, 54% favored legalization while 42% opposed it.

In June of 2003, in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court overturned its 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision and ruled that the Texas sodomy law was unconstitutional. Around the time of that ruling, a Gallup poll found that 60% favored legalization of same-sex relations, compared to 35% who opposed legalization.

Subsequent polls, however, suggested that attitudes in this area were in flux; several showed increased opposition to legalizing same-sex relations. Interpreting the polls is difficult, in part, because the national debate about same-sex marriage grew in intensity during this period. Interpretation of terms like "same-sex relations" and "homosexual relations" may have been influenced by this debate. Instead of understanding them to refer to sexual behavior, some respondents may have begun to equate these terms with committed same-sex relationships.

In the last half of 2003, it appeared that the public was closely divided in its response to poll questions about whether "homosexual relations between consenting adults" should or should not be legal. By the spring of 2004, however, a clear majority favoring legalization was observed once again, and that majority has subsequently grown. By 2013, about two-thirds of respondents believed consenting homosexual conduct should be legal.
 

Technical Note
  All of the polls described here were national surveys with large samples (usually at least 1000 respondents) drawn from the 48 contiguous states. The Gallup poll was conducted by telephone, whereas the GSS involved face-to-face interviews. The wording of the poll questions is available.

 

Definitions
 
  How widespread is sexual prejudice?
 
  Are some groups of people more prejudiced than others?
 
  What are the motivations for sexual prejudice?
 
  Does coming out reduce sexual prejudice?
 
  Read Dr. Herek's article, Gender Gaps in Public Opinion About Lesbians and Gay Men, published in Public Opinion Quarterly in 2002. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, version 5, which can be downloaded free of charge.)
 
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