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Examining 25 years of public opinion data on gay rights and marriage

Over the past decade, the debate over same-sex marriage has dominated the news cycle in the United States and other nations around the world. As public opinion polls have shown, a majority of Americans now support gay marriage. In fact, 55% of Americans support same-sex marriage according to a May 2014 Gallup poll.

Traditionally, framed by the news media as a debate between moral and religious objections vs. equal rights, marriage equality is just one of a range of civil rights issues that remain important to members of the LGBT community. Many of these issues including employment nondiscrimination, second parent adoption, and open service in the military have been eclipsed by the almost singular focus on marriage equality by interest groups, the media, and public opinion pollsters.

As the chart below shows, 51.5% of Americans expressed support for firing known homosexual teachers when Pew first started collecting data in 1987. By 2012, only 21% of Americans still expressed support for the practice.

Graph courtesy of Amy B. Becker, via “Employment Discrimination, Local School Boards, and LGBT Civil Rights: Reviewing 25 Years of Public Opinion Data” in International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

Who are the 21%?

These individuals — the 21% — are what researchers call the hard core, those who retain minority political viewpoints in the face of majority opposition. As the results of the data analysis show, this 21% or the hard core tend to be older males who are less educated, more religious, more conservative in their politics, and more likely to have old-fashioned values when it comes to marriage and family.

The analyses look at what factors explain support for variation in employment discrimination over time. Not surprisingly, the influence of religious and ideological value predispositions matters most. Demographics (e.g., gender, age, and level of education) are also important as are key cultural values like having old-fashioned views on marriage and family. Much like the same-sex marriage debate, the importance of partisanship (e.g., being a Democrat vs. Republican) has waned in importance over time and is no longer a significant factor driving opinions after 2002.

When it comes to change over time, the results show that the influence of year or time matters more between 2002-2012 than between 1987-2002 indicating that, much like the same-sex marriage debate, the rate or pace of change on this issue has shifted more rapidly, more recently.

Thus while we’ve been primarily focusing our attention on marriage equality, opinions have shifted on other LGBT civil rights issues as well.

In July 2014, President Obama issued an executive order barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity among federal workers. It is estimated that this action alone extended protections to 20% of the US labor force. Federal legislation, however, still falls short.

At present, the US Congress has yet to add sexual orientation or gender identity to the Employment Nondiscrimination Act. While the US Senate supported the measure this past November, the bill stalled given a lack of support in the US House of Representatives. At the time of the article’s drafting, fully 29 states failed to offer protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

So while opinions may have shifted just like with the case of marriage equality, and while President Obama has continued his “evolution” on issues of gay rights, federal legislation on employment nondiscrimination still lags behind.

Headline image credit: Two women at sunset. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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