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Some Change Over Time in American Attitudes towards Homosexuality, but Negativity Remains


American attitudes towards homosexuality continue to show change, but in many ways also continue to reflect a lingering reluctance on the part of the public to consider gay and lesbian behavior to be either acceptable or legal.

Two questions Gallup has been asking for a number of years concern the legality of homosexual relations, and the acceptability of homosexual lifestyles. The legal question is worded as follows: "Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?" Despite the enormous social change that has occurred in the intervening time frame, the percentage of Americans that says that such relations should be legal has risen only seven percentage points-from 43% to 50%--in the 22 years between 1977 and 1999. Exactly the same percentage of Americans today say that such relations should not be legal as was the case in 1977-43%. (Those that have no opinion on the issue have dropped from 14% to 7%.)

The trend on this question over the years has been up and down. In some years, such as 1986 and 1987, the percentage saying that such relations should be legal has been above 50%. In 1989, on the other hand, the "legal" percentage dropped to 36%.

There has been slightly greater degree of change on the "acceptable lifestyle" question, which asks Americans: "Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable lifestyle or not?" In 1982, when the question was first asked, only 34% of the public said yes. Now, in Gallup's most recent survey, conducted in early February, half--exactly 50%--answer yes.

At the same time, regardless of the public's opinion about the basic legality of homosexual relations, there is now little question in the eyes of the American public that gays and lesbians should have equal employment rights. More than eight out of ten of those polled in Gallup's February 8-9 poll say that homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities. The trend on this question has been fairly straightforward--the current 83% figure can be contrasted to the 56% who agreed with the equal rights proposition in 1977.

Gallup has asked for a number of years about homosexuals being hired for a series of specific professions. In almost all cases, the percentage of the public saying that homosexuals should be hired for the professions involved in the survey has increased over time, although the range of such acceptability in the most recent survey fluctuates from a high of 90% for salespersons to a low of 54% for elementary school teachers and clergy:

  • Salespersons --90% of Americans say that homosexuals should be hired as salespersons, up from 68% in 1977
  • Doctors-75%, up from 44% in 1977
  • Members of the President's Cabinet-74%, up from 54% just seven years ago in 1992
  • The Armed Forces-70%, up from 51% in 1977, and up from 57% in 1992, the year before President Clinton unveiled his controversial gays in the military plan in 1993
  • High School teachers-61%, up from 36% in 1989
  • Elementary School teachers-54%, up from 27% in 1977
  • Clergy-54%, up from 36% in 1977

The issue of the origins of homosexuality - genetic versus environmental - continues to be controversial. The American public has gradually been changing its mind on this issue over time, but a plurality, 44% still believes that homosexuality is due to "other factors such as upbringing or environment," while 34% say that it reflects "something a person is born with." The rest either don't know or say both genetics and environment are factors. In 1977, when the question was first asked in a Gallup poll, 56% of the public said that homosexuality was environmental, while only 13% said it was genetic.

Finally, the American public remains firmly entrenched against the idea of legalizing gay marriages. Sixty two percent of Americans say that such marriages should not be recognized as valid by law, while about a third say that they should be. This marks only a slight change from two years ago, in 1997, when 68% said that such marriages should not be recognized as valid

Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal?

  Legal Not Legal No Opinion
1999 50% 43% 7%
1996 44 47 9
1992 48 44 8
1989 47 36 17
1987 33 55 12
1986 33 54 13
1985 44 47 9
1982 45 39 16
1977 43 43 14

As you may know, there has been considerable discussion in the news regarding the rights of homosexual men and women. In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?

  Yes, should have equal rights No, should not Depends (Volunteered) No Opinion
1999 83% 13% 2% 2%
1996 84 12 2 2
1993 80 14 NA 6
1992 74 18 NA 8
1989 71 18 NA 11
1982 59 28 NA 13
1977 56 33 NA 11

In your view, is homosexuality something a person is born with or is homosexuality due to other factors such as upbringing or environment?

  Born With Upbringing/
Both (Volunteered) Neither (Volunteered) No Opinion
1999 34% 44% 13% 1% 8%
1996 31 40 13 3 13
1989 19 48 12 2 19
1982 17 52 13 2 16
1977 13 56 14 3 15

Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?

  Acceptable Not Acceptable No Opinion
1999 50% 46% 4%
1997 42 52 6
1996 44 50 6
1992 38 57 5
1982 34 51 15

Survey Methods

The results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,064 adults, 18 years and older, conducted February 8-9 1999. For results based on a total sample of 1,064, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the error attributable to sampling and other random effects could be plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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