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by Frank Newport, Editor in Chief
The Gallup Poll

The Bottom Line

While Americans are becoming increasing liberal regarding homosexual behavior and the legality of homosexuality, there still remains a substantial percentage of the public who consider homosexuality to be unacceptable and who feel it should be illegal.

Key Indicator

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

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


Attitudes have gradually become more liberal over time.


Support for the legal rights of homosexuals and support for non-discrimination against homosexuals is very high, while support for homosexuality as a lifestyle choice or sanctioning is much lower overall.


Age is a major differentiator of attitudes toward homosexuality. Younger Americans are significantly more liberal than older Americans. Women are more accepting of homosexuality than are men. Republicans and conservatives are substantially less accepting than Democrats and liberals.


The overall sense of urgency to change laws or policies surrounding homosexuality is not strong from either direction.


Homosexuality continues to be one of the more complex and in some ways paradoxical areas of public opinion measured by Gallup. The issue is not only one of significant concern because of its traditional moral and religious overtones, but in recent years has been at the center of state and federal legislative battles, highly publicized court challenges and political debate.

A review of survey research on the topic suggests that there is still significant ambivalence about the overall acceptability of homosexual relations in American society today. Substantial numbers of Americans continue to say - as they have for the past quarter century -- that homosexual relations should be neither acceptable nor legal. There have been some changes in these attitudes, but not enough to signal wholesale shift in societal norms. Gallup has recorded a gradual increase in the belief that homosexuality is an acceptable orientation or lifestyle, but this perception has only risen from 34% in 1977 to 51% today. At the same time, there has been even less long term change in attitudes about the legality of homosexuality, with Americans continuing to be closely divided on the question; 52% think it should be legal today compared to 43% in 1977.

In terms of specific issues, a majority of Americans remain opposed to gay marriage, and about half are opposed to the extension of the same types of benefits married couples receive to gay and lesbian partners joined in civil unions. About four out of ten Americans think that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to work as members of the clergy or as elementary school teachers.

But, perhaps paradoxically, over eighty-five percent of Americans accept the idea of including homosexuals under the protection of equal opportunity provisions in the workplace, and almost as many favor the inclusion of gays and lesbians as protected categories under hate laws. A majority support gays and lesbians servicing in the military, even openly, and a majority think that being gay should not be a disqualifier for an individual to serve as an ambassador. And, although the public agrees with a Supreme Court decision allowing the Boy Scout organization to prohibit gays from becoming Scout leaders, they disagree with removing from their posts "model Boy Scout leaders" who happen to be gay.

Should Homosexuality be Legal?

Gallup first asked about the legality of homosexuality in 1977, with a basic question worded as follows: "Do you think homosexual relations between consenting adults should or should not be legal." At that point, Americans were evenly divided on the issue, as 43% said yes, 43% said no, and 14% were not sure. The question has been asked numerous times since. In the last asking in May 2002, the public had become somewhat, but not dramatically more liberal than was the case two decades earlier: 52% of those interviewed said that homosexual relations should be legal, 43% not legal, with 5% unsure. During the mid 1980s, the percentage saying that homosexual relations should be legal dropped to as low as 33% in 1985 and 1986, perhaps due to either the conservative environment ushered in by the Reagan administration, or the beginning of widespread publicity surrounding AIDS and its prevalence in the homosexual community.

Over the same period of time, there has been greater change in attitudes about the employment rights for homosexuals. The specific Gallup question asks: "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?" The percentage saying yes has risen from 56% in 1977 to a significantly higher 86% in 2002.

Here is a graphic representation:

In short, while just slightly more than 50% of the public says that homosexual relations should be legal, well over eight out of ten say that homosexuals should have equal rights. These two questions may play to different norms that exist in contemporary America. The legal question may tap into a general sense of morality, and a reluctance of a more conservative segment of society to sanction what they consider to be deviant behavior. The question about equal opportunity, on the other hand, may invoke the public's attitudes about discrimination, fair play and equal treatment.

The widespread acceptance of equal opportunity for homosexuals in general is contradicted to a degree when Americans are asked whether or not homosexuals should be hired for a number of specific positions. Although the significant majority of Americans have no problem with gays and lesbians being hired as salespeople, doctors, presidential cabinet members, or in the armed forces, the number accepting homosexuals in the clergy or as elementary teachers is just above the 50% level.

Here, from 2001, is the list of occupations and Americans' willingness to sanction hiring homosexuals in each:


"Do you think homosexuals should or should not be hired for
each of the following occupations?"
May 10-14, 2001

Should be hired

Should not be hired






Armed Forces









Elementary school teachers



High School teachers



In the president's cabinet



It should be pointed out that this question does not ask about the legality of refusing to hire an individual for these professions because of his or her sexual orientation. Instead, the question just asks more generally whether or not they "should" be hired – perhaps tapping into the public's basic, underlying attitudes about homosexuality.

Homosexuality as a Lifestyle?

In 1982, Gallup distinguished between Americans' personal feelings about homosexuality from their opinion about its legality by asking this question: "Do you feel that homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle or not?" At that time just 34% said yes. Now, as of May 2002, that number is up to 51%, with 44% saying no. In short, over the 20-year period from 1982 to 2002, Americans moved from being against the acceptance of homosexuality to being slightly in favor.

A Newsweek poll conducted in March 2000 asked a variant on the same question: "Do you personally believe that homosexuality is a sin, or not?" and found a similar split, with 46% saying yes, and 45% disagreeing.

Part of the argument about homosexuality through the years has focused on the issue of how much control an individual has over his or her sexual orientation. Many gay and lesbian leaders stress the fact that homosexuality is an inborn trait, and – similar to gender or race – there isn't much that an individual can do about it. Conservatives have argued, on the other hand, that leading a homosexual lifestyle and having homosexual relations is a choice over which the individual does have control.

In 1977, the public was more likely to agree with the argument that homosexuality is due to factors such as one's upbringing and environment rather than the argument that homosexuality is something with which a person is born – by a margin of 56% to 13%. Twenty-five years later, in 2002, the percentage of Americans accepting the genetic argument has more than doubled to 40%, while the percentage that cites upbringing and environment has dropped to 36%. Thus, a slight plurality of Americans now accepts the "nature" argument over the "nurture":

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



Born with





BOTH (vol.)


NEITHER (vol.)


No opinion






2002 May 6-9






2001 May 10-14






1999 Feb 8-9






1996 Nov 21-24






1989 Oct 12-15






1982 Jun 25-28






1977 Jun 17-20






Specific Public Policy Issues

Over the years, there have been a number of specific public policy questions that have arisen regarding homosexuality. The sections below review where the public stands on each.

Legal marriage

Polling consistently shows that at least six out of ten Americans are opposed to the recognition of marriages between homosexuals as legally valid unions, with the same rights as traditional marriages.

If the question is re-phrased to emphasize giving benefits to gay or lesbian partners or couples, but without mentioning marriage, the percentage opposed decreases to the point where sentiment can be characterized as roughly breaking even. In 2001, 45% favored a law that would "allow homosexual couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples", while 46% opposed. In May 2002, 46% favored this proposition, while 51% opposed.

In short, a majority of Americans express opposition to the official sanction of gay partnerships by marriage, while opinion is more narrowly divided on the issue of extending marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples if they form a civil union.


A majority of Americans support the idea of homosexuals serving in the military. A May 2001 Gallup Poll found that 72% said that homosexuals should be hired in the Armed Forces. That number represented a significant change from earlier surveys. In 1992, for example, only 57% said they approved of homosexuals serving in the armed forces. In similar fashion, 69% of the public in a March 2000 Newsweek poll said they approved of gays serving as members of the armed forces. A slightly lower level of support comes when the public is asked about homosexuals "serving openly" in the armed forces (57% in a Fox News poll conducted in January 2000).

This suggests that the issue of whether or not the individual serves "openly" apparently makes a difference, an issue that was at the heart of the Clinton administration's famous "don't ask, don't tell" policy promulgated in 1993. When Americans have been asked specifically about that policy, there has been mixed support, going from 48% support and 49% opposition in July 1993, when it was first proposed, to 60% support by January 1994, and back down to 50% support, 46% opposition in December 1999.

A Gallup poll asked about the policy in January 2000, giving respondents a choice among three alternatives: allowing gays to serve openly, allowing gays to serve in the military as long as they did not reveal that they were homosexual, and not allowing them to serve under any circumstances. Given these choices, 41% said homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly, 38% said they should be allowed to serve under the current ("don't ask, don't tell) policy, and only 17% said that they should not be allowed to serve at all. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll conducted at about the same time found quite similar results.

These results suggest that about eight out of 10 Americans support the policy of homosexuals serving in the military if -- at minimum -- they don't make an outward display of their orientation.

An ABC/Washington Post poll in January 2001 asked about the gays in the military issue in two different ways, once by specifying that the homosexuals would not publicly disclose their sexual orientation and in the other question specifying that their sexual orientation would be made explicit. The results show majority support in both circumstances - 62% support in the "open" scenario, and 75% in the "no public disclosure" scenario.

In December 1999 Gallup followed up those who said opposed to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and asked them for reasons why the opposed the policy. The majority of those opposed said it was because they felt gays should be allowed to serve openly. Thus, when these two responses are combined, up to 85% of Americans either support the policy of don't ask don't tell, or go further and want gays and lesbians to be allowed to serve in the military openly.

Appointment of a U.S. Ambassador

This issue became controversial with Bill Clinton's proposed appointment of James Hormel, who was openly gay, to be Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1999. When asked directly about homosexuals serving as ambassadors in a June 1999 poll, a slight majority of Americans -- 56% -- said yes, while 35% said no.

Covered by Hate Laws?

Just as most Americans today want to see gays granted equal rights, a substantial majority want gay and lesbians to be granted the special protection hate crime laws offer against violent crime. Asked who should be included if hate laws were enacted, 71% in a Gallup Poll conducted in September 2000 said "yes" to the idea of including gays and lesbians. This compares to 81% that said that racial minorities should be included.

Gay Boy Scout Leaders

A Pew poll conducted in July 2000 found that 56% of Americans agreed with "the recent decision by the Supreme Court" that "the Boy Scouts of America have a constitutional right to block gay men from becoming troop leaders" while 36% disagreed. In similar fashion, a June 2000 Gallup Poll sound that two thirds (64%) of Americans said that the Boy Scouts should not be required to allow openly gay adults to serve as Boy Scout leaders.

On the other hand, when a Los Angeles Times poll asked more generally about the issue, without mentioning the Supreme Court decision, they found a different result. Respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: "A Boy Scout leader should be removed from his duties as a troop leader if he is found out to be gay, even if he is considered by the Scout organization to be a model Boy Scout leader". Only 36% of those interviewed agreed with this statement, while 54% disagreed.

Adoption rights for gay spouses

Americans split roughly evenly in an April 2000 Newsweek poll that asked about "adoption rights for gays and lesbians so they can legally adopt children". Forty six percent said they favored such adoption rights, while 44% said they did not. A follow up poll conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Kaiser Family Foundation in Sept. 2000 found about the same thing.

But other questions have found more negative responses. For example, a poll conducted by Harris Interactive in January 2000 found 55% disapproving of "adoption of children by two men or two women who live together as a couple, whether they are married or not."

The Catholic Church

Homosexuality came back into the news in the spring and summer of 2002 as part of the news coverage of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. Reports about past incidences of sexual abuse centered on the priests and young Catholic boys (although there were some reports of sexual abuse relating to older women) and the discussion quickly turned to the role played by the Church's celibacy rule and the possibility that the Catholic priesthood contained disproportionate numbers of homosexuals.

A May 2002 CBS/New York Times poll found that 18% of Americans said that "many" Catholic priests were homosexuals, while another 41% said that "a few" were. (The poll did not ask respondents to make estimates for the percentage of the general population or in other professions that were homosexuals, so the 18% figure is difficult to interpret).

Only about one quarter in the same CBS/New York Times poll said that homosexuality in the Catholic Church had increased the likelihood that priests will sexually abuse children and teenagers.

A Newsweek poll in late April 2002 found that about 31% of respondents thought the number of homosexual men in the priesthood was a major reason for the current sex abuse scandals. About a third said if the Catholic Church were to more effectively screen out homosexuals from the priesthood, it would reduce the sex abuse problem.

A Fox Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in late April and early May gave respondents a choice among three causes for the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal: The church itself, pedophile priests, and homosexual priests. Given these three choices, only 7% said they blamed homosexual priests most. More blamed the church and pedophile priests while many blamed a combination of all three of these.

Still, a 2002 Newsweek poll showed that about half of Catholics interviewed said that they agreed with the Catholic Church position that homosexual acts are contrary to natural law. Thirty eight percent disagreed.

How Much Contact Does The Average American Have With Gays And Lesbians?

Reliable estimates of the percentage of the American population that is homosexual are hard to come by, but several polls have asked Americans about their contact with gay and lesbians. The results indicate that anywhere from half to three quarters of Americans either know someone who is homosexual or have contact with someone who is homosexual through work or elsewhere. Over half, in one poll, said that they had a friend or acquaintance who is gay or lesbian. About a quarter say that someone in their family is gay or lesbian, and about a third say they work with someone who is gay or lesbian.

Here is a review of polls addressing this issue:






"Do you now have contact or not with a person who is gay or lesbian?

Jan 2000


"Have a friend or acquaintance who is gay or lesbian?

March 2000


"Have someone in your family who is gay or lesbian?"

March 2000


"Work with someone who is gay or lesbian:

March 2000


"Do you know anyone who is openly gay?
(Do you know anyone who you think is gay?)"

Los Angeles Times
June 2000

73% openly gay

7% think is gay

What Percent of Americans are Homosexuals?

An August 2002 Gallup Poll asked the public to estimate what percent of American men were gay, and the percent of American women who are lesbians. While the answers ranged widely, the average estimates by the public were that 21.4% of all men are gay, and that 22% of all women are lesbians. About a quarter of the public thinks that more than 25% of Americans are gay or lesbian.

Analysis shows that younger Americans give higher estimates of the number of men and women that are homosexual than do older Americans. Republicans and conservatives estimate lower percentages than do Democrats and liberals.


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