Home / American Public Moving Towards Equal Rights for Same-Sex Couples

American Public Moving Towards Equal Rights for Same-Sex Couples

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Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has just released a comprehensive public opinion survey on America's attitude towards gay and lesbian people and their issues. The polling numbers will leave lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people with a fairly optimistic view of the future, but also reveals a relatively long road towards achieving equality and respect from the American people.

The majority of Americans oppose marriage equality, but a majority also support civil unions for same-sex couples. Americans seem to realize the unfairness of denying benefits to committed partners and their families simply because they are of the same sex, yet the general public is hesitant to repair this inequity through same-sex marriage. Fifty-six percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage and 54 percent support civil unions, which are generally believed to grant the same rights and benefits of marriage if enacted at the federal level. It seems as if Americans are generally supportive of equal rights for same-sex couples, but are opposed to using the word "marriage" to describe those rights.

The number of Americans in support of equal rights for same-sex couples is higher than the media or polling numbers would suggest. Although 42 percent are opposed to civil unions, a portion of those "opposed" likely support same-sex marriage and are opposed to civil unions only because they believe it is a compromise that voids the likelihood of obtaining marriage equality. The number of Americans who are in favor of granting same-sex couples marriage rights, without using the word "marriage", could be as high as 60 percent.

This 60 percent estimate is bolstered by poll numbers showing that only 30 percent of those who oppose same-sex marriage also support a Federal Marriage Amendment that would ban same-sex marriage. The Federal Marriage Amendment would likely block access to both marriage rights and civil unions, which the public does not support. Americans are less divided than their representatives in Congress would suggest considering less than 30 percent of Americans support writing a ban on marriage equality into the United States Constitution. President Bush was hesitant to speak in favor of the amendment because poll numbers suggest that outside the Republican base, the support is simply not there.

Only a minority of Americans (35 percent) support full marriage equality for same-sex couples, but the Pew survey suggests support for marriage will increase in the future. Since 1996, support for same-sex marriage has increased by eight percent despite a large dip in 2003 and 2004. The Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Lawrence v Texas which outlawed bans on sodomy, and the 2004 Goodridge decision in Massachusetts which legalized same-sex marriage in the state, created a backlash in support for marriage equality. Support for same-sex marriage dipped to 29 percent following the two court rulings but has managed to return to pre-Lawrence and Goodridge numbers as people's fears about same-sex marriage subside.

The trend is clearly moving towards support for marriage equality. The future of America, people ages 18-29, support same-sex marriage by large numbers (53 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed). The age group that currently has a tremendous impact on American politics, ages 65 and over, remains adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage (with only 16 percent in favor). Young people are less likely to vote and seniors have high voter turnout, which is part of the reason rights for same-sex couples are more divisive in Congress than in the general public. As today's 18-29 age group grows older and begins to represent a larger portion of America's voting block, members of Congress will naturally begin to reflect their viewpoints, including support for same-sex couples.

The media tends to look at polling numbers for marriage equality and conclude that Americans are not supportive of rights for same-sex couples. But looking beyond the initial "number in support" and "number opposed" statistics reveals a much more complicated and optimistic trend for LGBT people and their families. As today's seniors begin to play a less significant role in politics and today's youth become more engaged, support for marriage equality will become a majority position and all but the most conservative Americans will be supportive of civil unions. It is difficult to build a timeline that can predict when these changes will occur, but the increasing visibility of loving same-sex couples will play a crucial role in expediting that change.

The optimistic numbers on marriage are complimented by an increasing number of Americans who believe sexual orientation is not a choice and cannot be changed. Forty-nine percent of those polled believe sexual orientation is unchangeable compared to only 39 percent who believe it can be altered. The number of Americans who believe sexual orientation is unchangeable has risen by seven percent in the last three years, a remarkable change in public opinion. Most believe that as more Americans realize sexual orientation is no more a choice than skin color or ethnicity, people will become more supportive of equal rights for LGBT people.

While many LGBT people and their allies have been disheartened by the judicial branch's reluctance to protect same-sex couples, it appears as if public opinion may play a crucial role in changing the status of gay and lesbian people in American society. All polling numbers continue to move towards acceptance and a better understanding of LGBT people, and it is only natural for protections and equal rights to follow. It is relatively safe to assume that Americans can talk about when, not if, marriage equality becomes law of the land. As democracies across the globe continue to stand up for the rights of same-sex couples, the United States will realize it can either support equal rights or fail to protect all of its citizens.

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About E.I.

  • Les Slater

    Good post.

    I am also optimistic.

    I think it is important to make the distinction between marriage civil unions.

    If the law states that same-sex couples have same rights, obligations, etc as state sanctioned man-woman marriage, then we will all the substance necessary for marriage to be realized.

    Any couple can find someone to marry them. The only question is whether the state will recognize the union for all legal purposes.

    Once civil union is legally recognized marriage will not be a problem. Marriage, will be, in essence, de facto, de jure will follow.

  • It’s nice that you actually bother to explain what the statistics mean for the future, rather than just spout them out, as most news outlets would (if they mention them at all).

    Good news, good insight, great article. Thanks!

  • I support same-sex marriage. However, with the divorce rate so high I ask myself, at this point, why any marriage is legal.

    I think that people are clinging to their so called belief of what marriage is and using it to justify discrimination while jumping from wife to wife or husband to husband. It is funny that a staggering number of those who are anti-gay marriage have been married at least twice if not more.

    Marriage has become as popular as putting on a suit. I think the real issue for support though is the children. Civil unions are not equal. There are over one thousand rights denied on both a state and federal level to GLBT couples and their children currently.

    If civil unions become legal in some states, most of these rights are federal rights and therefore, there is still a denial of rights. Irregardless, why is it so important that one word be “sacred” when the people who spout its sanctity have spit on it in their own personal lives?

  • I agree with Dominick that civil unions aren’t exactly equal rights. Although civil unions aren’t ideal, if enacted at a federal level, theoretically it would include the federal and state rights that are currently denied to same-sex couples (just like civil partnerships in the UK).

    When same-sex couples start entering into civil unions, hopefully people will realize that having two institutions with the same rights but different names is ridiculous and an obvious example of religion dictating social policy.

    I have never been a huge fan of civil unions, but it could be an important step towards achieving true equal rights through marriage. With the majority of Americans currently supporting civil unions, it is an option that should be considered by the LGBT community.

  • Good article and interesting analysis of the statistics

    The main stumbling block to civil unions seems to be the most radical elements of the gay/lesbian community. They would rather deny their entire community equal rights in a pointless fight for a meaningless name. That attitude suggests that equal rights are not their real objective. They want to force full acceptance of their lifestyle on those who are most opposed to it. That attitude is going to cost millions of couples who could benefit from civil unions equal rights in service of bitterness and egotism of a small portion of their community.


  • Dave —

    I guess it all comes down to “whats in a word”?

    Right now civil unions are not equal even if every state instituted them. I have to agree with comment #4. It’s kind of ridiculous to have the same institutions but different names.

    If it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck it’s still a duck so why call it a monkey instead?

  • As a former (and I STRESS former) gay rights activist, I think the BIGGEST roadblock we face in regard to equal marriage is the mainstream gay community itself . . . especially the men.

    It’s tough to ask people to take you seriously and respect you if you don’t show any respect for yourself. The parades aren’t about showing solidarity and support for the cause anymore. Instead, they’re an excuse for some members of our community to get smashed and act like morons while walking around half naked and being ultra sexual with everyone, even in front of kids. These folks keep perpetuating the gay stereotype, and unfortunately, that’s what voters see, and that’s what they base their positions on.

    Unfair? Absolutely. But that’s just how the world works. When people find out I’m engaged to marry another woman, some ask me, “Why would you want to do that?” They think the relationship is JUST about sex. They see AIDS and casual, unsafe sex running rampant in the male community, and they think we’re all like that.

    Back in my activist days, I tried numerous times through numerous means to bring up my concerns. I tried suggesting that AIDS might be better combated if the gay community stops comparing HIV to a manageable chronic condition like Asthma while playing the victim card. I wrote that people need to accept responsibility for their actions, and view HIV/AIDS as a deadly, horrific disease. It seems that being HIV + is in vogue among a lot of the men these days. It’s like a brotherhood of sorts.

    I stopped expressing these views because I only got flamed and pissed on. I was accused of being a closeted homophobe and a self-hater. It’s interesting that the community of people known to have the most open minds slam them shut the moment one of its own makes them turn the microscope on themselves instead of calling everyone homophobes.

    I tire of all that drama. Things will change gradually, on their own. As Dave said, nobody likes opposing views shoved down their throats.

    Hm . . . I see a new opinion article coming . . .