WASHINGTON, D.C. -- While 57% of Americans oppose legalizing gay marriage, Americans who personally know someone who is gay or lesbian are almost evenly divided on the matter, with 49% in favor and 47% opposed. Among those who do not personally know anyone who is gay, 72% oppose legalized gay marriage while just 27% favor it.
The results are from a May 7-10, 2009, USA Today/Gallup poll, which asked Americans their views on a number of issues relating to gays and lesbians. Overall, a majority of Americans (58%) say they have a friend, relative, or coworker who is gay or lesbian -- basically unchanged since Gallup first asked this question in 2003.
Examining personal experience by ideology, 71% of self-identified liberals say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian -- far more than is true among moderates and conservatives, who align more closely with the national average.
Views of gay marriage are strongly related to ideology. But the increase in support among those who personally know someone who is gay or lesbian is not merely a reflection of the fact that liberals are more likely to know someone of same-sex orientation. Further analysis reveals that, when controlling for ideology, those who know someone who is gay or lesbian are significantly more supportive of gay marriage than are those of the same political persuasion who do not personally know someone who is gay or lesbian.
Americans who know someone who is gay or lesbian are about evenly split between saying legalizing gay marriage will change society for the worse (39%) and that it will have no effect on society (40%). Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) who do not personally know a gay or lesbian person believe that legalized gay marriage will change society for the worse -- far greater than the 48% of national adults who say the same. Only a small minority of Americans believe legal gay marriage will change society for the better, but those who personally know someone who is gay or lesbian are three times more likely to say this than are those who do not know anyone who is gay or lesbian.
Experience and Acceptance
In addition to the findings on gay marriage, Gallup similarly finds those with personal experience with gay or lesbian individuals more accepting of same-sex relations in general. While a majority of Americans overall (56%) think same-sex relations should be legal, two-thirds (67%) of those who personally know a gay or lesbian individual say this. A majority (57%) of those who do not personally know anyone who is gay say gay or lesbian relations should not be legal.
Of those who say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian, 88% say they are comfortable around these individuals, compared to 64% of those who do not personally know someone who is gay or lesbian. Among adults overall, fewer than 2 in 10 say they are uncomfortable around someone who is gay or lesbian, but that number increases to 3 in 10 among those who do not personally know anyone who is gay or lesbian.
The Gallup Poll data reviewed above show conclusively that many views toward gay and lesbian issues are related -- in some instances, strongly so -- to personal experience with individuals who are gay or lesbian. There are two plausible explanations for this relationship. One is that exposure to gays and lesbians leads to greater acceptance, regardless of one's ideological leanings. The second is that people who are more accepting of gays and lesbians are more likely to put themselves into situations in which they are exposed to gays and lesbians -- in terms of cities and regions of residence, as well as workplace and social choices. Both of these processes are at work, though it is difficult to say which is more important.
Whatever the direction of causality, the data do make a strong case that knowing someone who is gay or lesbian fosters more accepting attitudes on many of the issues surrounding gay and lesbian relations today.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,015 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 7-10, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
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.