From: The Washington Post, February 15, 1993 AMERICAN ATTITUDES TOWARD GAYS REMAIN STEADY By Richard Morin WASHINGTON - More than twenty years after the sexual revolution allegedly rescued America from its hangups about sex, American attitudes toward homosexuals and gay sex remain remarkably unchanged and broadly disapproving. Public opionion polls taken then, as now, show that only about four in 10 Americans believe that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal. And large, remarkably stable majorities have flatly stated that homosexuality is always wrong. "The basic survey finding is that moral approval of homosexuality during the past 20 years has shown very little change, and what little change there is has been a slight hardening of attitudes," says Tom Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. According to the 1977 General Social Survey, the country's most-watched barometer of social trends and attitudes, 67 percent of those questioned said that sex between two adults of the same sex was "always wrong." In the 1991 survey, 71 percent said gay sex was "always" wrong. Smith says two conflicting impulses push and pull public opinion on homosexuality, and these colliding values are responsible for the apparent contradictions found in public attitudes. The first tug on the national psyche is religious values. Homosexuality is a sin or deviant behavior, most religions teach. And Smith says studies in the United States and abroad suggest Americans are far more religious than residents of other Western nations, and those deeply held views undergird the public's negative views of homosexuality. "We're just much more professed in our religion," Smith says. "And the traditional moral/religious teachings are very clear on homosexuality." The second tug is in the opposite direction. "This is the land of freedom, liberty and individual choice," Smith says. "That's the way this country has always thought of itself, and those beliefs would clearly support the right of individuals to chose to live a gay lifestyle." The clash between these conflicting impulses - religious values on the one hand, freedom on the other - are seen at work on a number of issues relating to gays. A Yankelovich Partners survey done for Time Magazine and CNN last month found that two out of three Americans said marriages between gays should not be legalized, reflecting the religious/moral underpinnings of marriage. Likewise, by better than a 2-to-1 margin, Americans disapproved of allowing gay couples to adopt children. But on other kinds of issues, the public expresses great tolerance. Eight in 10 in a CBS News/New York Times survey last summer said gays should have equal rights in terms of jobs. Surveys also suggest that Americans are more tolerant of gays if they can be assured that homosexual behavior will be kept private. Over the years, Gallup has asked three slightly different questions to measure public tolerance of homosexuals. And small differences in question wording - all related to the notion of privacy - produce remarkably different results, Smith says. Two questions that Smith studied were last paired in the same survey by Gallup in July 1986. The first is the standard Gallup question on homosexuality: "Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?" The results: 32 percent said such relations should be legal, while a 57 percent majority said they should not. But another question asked about gay relations in another way: "The Supreme Court recently ruled that the Constitution does not give consenting adults the right to have private homosexual relations. Do you approve or disapprove of this ruling?" When it's asked this way, support for that private right rises to 42 percent. Smith strongly suspects the military knows all this, and that it may have served, at least in part, as the basis for its concerns about gays in the military. "I was particularly struck by one of the serious issues raised by the military - that is, what kind of contact and behavior would be permitted" between gay servicemen and women." "They know they have a nontrivial number of homosexuals now in the armed forces. They know they can live with it if they keep it private. They don't know whether they can live with it if gays don't have to keep it private." Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post.
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