Results of Gallup’s annual Values and Beliefs survey have been released and the data shows a milestone has been reached in the acceptance of gay and lesbian people in America. For the first time in the poll’s ten year history, “the moral acceptability of gay and lesbian relations” has crossed the 50 percent threshold with 52 percent of respondents finding gay relationships morally acceptable while only 43 percent took issue, a new low. Perhaps even more noteworthy, the Gallup poll suggests that the largest change in attitudes over the last four years has come from men, and in particular younger men.
Conducted each May, the survey has also documented a slight decrease in opposition to gay marriage this year, though a 53 percent majority are still opposed, while support for the legality of gay consensual relations has again gone up this year but still hovers at a slightly depressing 58 percent.
From the Gallup poll summary:
There is a gradual cultural shift under way in Americans’ views toward gay individuals and gay rights. While public attitudes haven’t moved consistently in gays’ and lesbians’ favor every year, the general trend is clearly in that direction. This year, the shift is apparent in a record-high level of the public seeing gay and lesbian relations as morally acceptable. Meanwhile, support for legalizing gay marriage, and for the legality of gay and lesbian relations more generally, is near record highs.
As to the issue of the “moral acceptability” of gay and lesbian relations, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow has summarized the key findings in an interesting opinion piece:
1. For the first time, the percentage of Americans who perceive “gay and lesbian relations” as morally acceptable has crossed the 50 percent mark. (You have to love the fact that they still use the word “relations.” So quaint.)
2. Also for the first time, the percentage of men who hold that view is greater than the percentage of women who do.
3. This new alignment is being led by a dramatic change in attitudes among younger men, but older men’s perceptions also have eclipsed older women’s. While women’s views have stayed about the same over the past four years, the percentage of men ages 18 to 49 who perceived these “relations” as morally acceptable rose by 48 percent, and among men over 50, it rose by 26 percent.
Why the changes? With the help of Professor Ritch Savin-Williams, writer Blow speculates that acceptance among women may have stalled because, of the two genders, women have always tended to demonstrate higher levels of tolerance in such surveys. Now we see a slowdown as a certain “ceiling effect” occurs while male attitudes that languished behind those of women for several years are now undergoing a dramatic shift and have now started to catch up.
The reason for this? Blow outlines several theories, including the contact hypothesis. Briefly, it is suggested that as gay and lesbian people come out and are seen in all walks of life and in a range of professions (for instance their inclusion in the Armed Forces and the continued high profile that is being given), the veil of “otherness” that was once perceived to separate them from mainstream society is now being stripped away and therein they are being accepted more readily and at an earlier age, particularly among men.
The article also suggests that scandals surrounding those most outspoken against gay rights – the recent George Rekers case for instance – makes people, especially younger males, less inclined to want to identify as being anti-gay because of the commonly held notion, whatever its base in fact, that being vehemently opposed to gays and lesbians is perhaps an indication of latent same-sex attraction in itself. Thus, males wanting to express confidence in their own sexuality are led to reconsider homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric, perhaps leading them to exhibit a more tolerant attitude because of this.
One opinion that Professor Savin-Williams offers based on his own research is particularly interesting though:
As for the aversion among men, it may be softening a bit. Professor Savin-Williams says that his current research reveals that the fastest-growing group along the sexuality continuum are men who self-identify as “mostly straight” as opposed to labels like “straight,” “gay” or “bisexual.” They acknowledge some level of attraction to other men even as they say that they probably wouldn’t act on it, but … the right guy, the right day, a few beers and who knows. As the professor points out, you would never have heard that in years past.
You may recall a previous Gallup poll released in February that attempted to quantify how many people supported a repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, the U.S. military’s policy against openly gay service personnel. There was an intriguing element to this poll in that some respondents were asked if they favored “gay people” serving in the military, while others were asked whether they favored “homosexuals” serving. A greater proportion favored gays serving than supported homosexuals, suggesting that the way we describe ourselves and the way we are described by others certainly does matter, especially in this case where the term homosexuality, as adopted by the religious right, has become a clinical sounding word often baring negative connotations. You can read more about that in “Gay and Lesbian or Homosexual: What’s in a Word?”
That, according to Savin-Williams, an increasing proportion of young men are identifying as “mostly straight” rather than just “straight” alone seems to highlight an abandoning of the rigidity we once placed on sexuality and also seems to imply a more tolerant attitude to gay, lesbian and bisexual people as younger men become more amenable to the idea of sexuality being not so fixed and also that same-sex attraction is not necessarily tied to one’s perceived masculinity.
Should we then conclude that one component to furthering equality is to start to try and loosen our grip on binary notions of gender and sexuality and to perhaps even shun, where possible, using self-determining labels?