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Do People Get Less Accepting of Homosexuality as They Get Older?

This issue came up in the comments to Ilya's post below, so I thought I'd point to a post of mine from a year ago on the subject. Short version: National Opinion Research Center surveys have for years gathered information on whether people believe that homosexual sexual relations are "always wrong" (the other possible answers to the question are that such relations are almost always wrong, only sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all). Here is the data from those surveys for 1973 and 2002, as reported by an American Enterprise Institute paper:

Age 1973 2002
Total 73 55
18-29 56 48
30-44 74 48
45-59 75 55
60 and over 89 68

This suggests that the group of people who were 18-29 in 1973 remained on average about as accepting of homosexual relations 29 years later, in 2002. The group who were 30 and above became slightly more accepting of homosexual relations, though only by a little. Neither the gay rights movement nor life experience seem to have made much of a difference to those age cohorts' attitudes. (Obviously they may have affected many individual members of each cohort, and could even have pushed tens of millions in one direction so long as they pushed a comparable number in the other; I'm speaking here of aggregate effects.)

Of course, it's possible that the attitudes about specific gay-rights questions (same-sex marriage, antidiscrimination laws, and the like) might be affected by age, even if attitudes about the morality of homosexuality are not. If you have similar age cohort studies that relate to those questions, I'd love to hear about them.

For more pointers, see the earlier post.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Careful With Those Surveys:
  2. Do People Get Less Accepting of Homosexuality as They Get Older?
Freder Frederson (mail):
It looks as though peoples opinions are changing and they are carrying their opinions with them as they age. If you look at the numbers, people have moved up one age group and they numbers for that age group are even more tolerant than the next younger age group in 1973. An overall jump of 18% is hardly "slightly" more accepting and a 20% + jump in the two oldest age groups (which one would expect to be the most conservative) is quite impressive indeed.
6.18.2006 7:17pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Freder,

The people who were 30-59 in 1973 are now 60+ and their disapproval has changed from 74% to 68%, a difference of only 6%. People who were 18-30 are now 45-60 and seem to have stayed exactly the same.

I've heard the interesting claim (perhaps here) that the change amoung older people is because of a greater appreciation of the non-procreative/sexual benefits of marriage but I don't know how plausible this is.

I guess it just goes to show you that people don't change their minds they just die and are replaced.
6.18.2006 7:45pm
Gabriel Rossman (www):
I've posted a graph to my webpage.

The graph shows tolerance for different birth cohorts at roughly ten year intervals. Each line represents a pair of surveys. High scores indicate tolerance, low scores intolerance.

Here's the interpretation:
First, tolerance for gay sex is mostly a cohort effect.
Second, to the extent that opinions do change, the change tends to be towards greater tolerance, which is almost certainly a period effect, not an age effect.
Third, people age 80 and over grow slightly less tolerant than they were when they were middle-aged.
6.18.2006 8:53pm
Randy R. (mail):
The basic issue here is whether people are accepting of homosexuality, and it's similar, I would think, to whether people are accepting of blacks, or interracial marriage. People may grow up with a image of blacks, or gays, or whatever. But as they get older, they are forced in some way to mix and mingle with these groups. Over time, they find that there people in the minority that are good, kind and decent, and also jerks. Eventuallly, they find that you have to judge people individually instead of as a group. It's sort of a maturing process, in my book. Some people mature, some don't, and some never are givent he opportunity.
6.18.2006 11:53pm
Bob Van Burkleo (mail):

Third, people age 80 and over grow slightly less tolerant than they were when they were middle-aged.

Well they say 'only the good die young', you've just found empirical evidence of same.
6.19.2006 1:55am
Buck Turgidson (mail):
I mostly agree with the more detailed comments above. The only thought I want to add is that prejudices rarely change with age--people get better at hiding them, but they rarely lose them. This may explain, in part, the consistency of cohort numbers. The overall gradual, if small, decline does appear to be to better education of the public about the subject of prejudice. For example, recall the APA reaction to homosexuality--high number of homosexuals among APA membership used to be one of the worst kept secrets (high here does not mean close to half or some other benchmark of that nature, but rather high for the organization to remain silent on the issue). Yet, the official doctrine was of homosexuality as deviancy. It took for a number of prominent members to talk about it publicly at the annual meeting for the position to change. Similarly, greater social exposure has had some erosive effect on the standard prejudices, but not sufficiently so that the old prejudices would suffer a substancial setback. Furthermore, there is a significant problem with the question itself. One must make a distinction between the attitude toward "homosexual acts" and homosexuals. People have become far more tolerant of the homosexuals, even those openly flaunting their sexuality. Yet, they remain rather intolerant of the "act". This particular survey is not likely to reveal substantial progress because of the nature of the question.
6.19.2006 2:44am
The Divagator (mail) (www):

It looks as though peoples opinions are changing and they are carrying their opinions with them as they age.


I would agree. It is notable and somewhat surprising that 48% of the youngest cohort displayed anti-homosexual sentiment. I would have thought the number would be less. Bear in mind, too, that the kids born when the Republicans took over Congress (which I read as a kind of high-water mark for modern conservatism, from which it has subsequently ebbed) are now 12 years old. It will be interesting to see what that figure is a decade from now.

Note: No, I'm not suggesting a hard, causal connection between 1994 and the temper of the generation to come, so there's no need to pick apart the premise as such, though obviously I'm not sold on the notion that the next generation will be more liberal in political orientation. More likely, our current culture wars and the reactions to them--like homeschooling and such--will produce a generation in sum that is more conservative only because there will be more partisans on both extreme ends of the spectrum and fewer folks in the middle. This, of course, is highly speculative and invites comment. Cheers!
6.19.2006 4:33am
Casey Pick (mail):
The Pew Research Center did an interesting poll on the subject recently, actually. The number of people who "strongly oppose" gay marriage has sharply declined in the last two years, from 42 percent in February of 2004 to 28 percent in March 2006. The greatest decline is among seniors, Republicans and moderate religious groups. Fully 58 percent of Americans age 65 and older strongly opposed gay marriage in 2004; only 33 percent are strongly opposed now. Seems to support the idea that old dogs can learn new tricks, if people make the case well enough.
6.19.2006 4:35am
Fern R (www):
The Pew study doesn't surprise me. It seems to me that people are more likely to have favorable viewpoints regarding issues associated homosexuality as we as a society talk about it more. Gay marriage or gay parents are no longer little discussed issues shoved in the very far back of the closet. The more those sorts of issues are discussed, the less bizare they sound. It's easy to whip people up into a fervor about something they haven't thought very much about and is never done. It's much harder to freak people out about something when they are informed (regardless of their conclusion) and when they see that other states and countries have done it and the world didn't come screetching to a halt.

I would imagine that people of all age groups are more likely to move from the "unfavorable" to "favorable" column in the near future. That is, so long as there aren't a lot of courts forcing the issue. I think courts inserting themselves into the situation ticks off fence sitters and fans the flames, much the way Roe exacerbated rather than ended the debates over abortion. For example, if you ask my dad (who is 51) what he thinks about civil unions, he'll tell you he supports them. If you ask him what he thinks about the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that gays have the right to be married, he'll tell you he's sick of activist judges legislating from the bench.
6.19.2006 5:07am
jpaulg (mail):
As I've gotten older I become more and more aware of the law of unintended consequences. In my 20s I was all for Gay marriage. Now that I'm approaching 40 I can see that the other side does have some valid and reasonable arguments for the "no" case.

At this point in time I'd still vote "yes", but without the sense of assurity I would have done so 15 years ago.
6.19.2006 6:03am
Hans Gruber (www):
"As I've gotten older I become more and more aware of the law of unintended consequences. In my 20s I was all for Gay marriage. Now that I'm approaching 40 I can see that the other side does have some valid and reasonable arguments for the "no" case."

Absolutely. I would go out on a limb and say the current generation will be less supportive of gay marriage in 15 to 20 years. I don't think people often change their view on the moral or immoral question, but I think experience does temper notions of radical equality (e.g. accepting the morality of homosexuality but not believing it's a moral good).

A related question: Why lump all gays together? I wonder if attitudes could have changed for the better for lesbians and for the worse for gay men, or vice versa. On a related note, I don't really understand why the debate about marriage is one about gay marriage. I think people are in general much more supportive of lesbians marrying and rearing children than they are with gay men doing so. Why, then, treat it as a unified question? Lesbian relationships seem to be a closer analogue to traditional marriage; they are more likely to have and raise children, and they are more likely to remain faithful.
6.19.2006 6:43am
Duncan Frissell (mail):
Proponents of the view that people automatically become more accepting of everything over time should note some counter evidence.

Smoking was initially disfavored, then somewhat favored, and now disfavored again.

Marrying 13-year old girls was once the norm and now disfavored (in America in any case).

Public opinion surveys of attitudes towards sexual infidelity have turned since the '70s and now show almost 80% willing to describe sexual infidelity as always wrong.

Firearms ownership was widely accepted, it became less accepted with significant gun ban proposals, and then it became much more acceptable with left-wing presidential candidates forced to kill geese to show their comfort with guns.

Attitudes can swing in many peculiar ways.
6.19.2006 9:33am
nrein1 (mail):
hans

I think people are in general much more supportive of lesbians marrying and rearing children than they are with gay men doing so. Why, then, treat it as a unified question? Lesbian relationships seem to be a closer analogue to traditional marriage; they are more likely to have and raise children, and they are more likely to remain faithful.


Do you have any data to support that or is that just your own personal experience? In my experience that is not the case at all. In fact of the gay couples I know, it is men who seem more interested in raising a family. Now I am not going to make any general statement about that as I knwo way more gay couples then lesbians.

The whole point is probably not relevent anyway as it is utterly impossible to allow lesbian marriage but not ga marriage. That would clearly be a case of discrimination.
6.19.2006 9:51am
Medis:
As an aside, I recently posted this same information in a comment thread, and although I don't think I read Professor Volokh's original post a year ago, I want to give him full credit for noting it first.

The Divagator,

One of the interesting things you can find in the AEI roundup of surveys is a comparison of results depending on whether the person is being asked if homosexuality is wrong for them, or wrong for other people (and variations to that effect, such as whether homosexuality is an acceptable alternative lifestyle). The upshot is that enough people draw this distinction such that a plurality-to-a-majority seem to think that homosexuality is acceptable for other people, even if it is not acceptable for themselves.

Incidentally, attitudes on gay issues did seem to move a lot in the 1990s. I think another factor is likely the dramatically increased visibility of gay people in popular culture during that time (call it the "Ellen Effect").

Hans,

You should check out the AEI roundup. I think one thing you would find interesting is a summary of a Harris poll which suggests that people's attitudes toward men or women marrying each other respectively are virtually identical. Also, the general trend of increasing acceptance toward gay marriages and gay civil unions suggests that such attitudes are correlated with acceptance of homosexuality in general, which means you are indeed "going out on a limb" as far as the available data is concerned.

And I think that is because once one sees homosexuality as acceptable, at least for other people, the idea of gay marriage no longer seems "radical"--in fact, it actually may strike one as "conservative" or "traditional" in the all of the relevant ways.

Duncan,

It is indeed interesting that since the 1970s, American attitudes toward sexual issues have mostly moved in a more "conservative" direction. And yet American attitudes toward homosexuality in particular have seemingly moved in the "opposite" direction.

As I also noted above, I think that suggests that increasing numbers of people do not see acceptance of homosexuality as an issue of radical sexual license, but rather are coming to see acceptance of homosexuality as something that can be otherwise reconciled with "conservative" or "traditional" norms with respect to sexual behavior.
6.19.2006 10:44am
simon (mail) (www):
Fascinating. That brings to mind winston churchills. "ifyou are not liberalat the age of 20you have no heart if you are not conservative at the age of 30 you have no brain. I wonder is there a certain aspect of that in it. THat people think they are older and thus that they should hold certain views
6.19.2006 11:12am
jimbino (mail):
I think the stats mask the fact that the people who accept homosexuality in their youth are not the same people who accept it in old age, for the reasons that many young folks hate gays until they find out one of their relatives or even their own kids is gay, whereupon they become gay-friendly in old age, and that, from my experience, many folks libertarian (or libertine) in their youth end up fascists or fundies once they have a kid that they think they have to protect from all those gays out there.
6.19.2006 12:08pm
Fern R (www):

On a related note, I don't really understand why the debate about marriage is one about gay marriage. I think people are in general much more supportive of lesbians marrying and rearing children than they are with gay men doing so.

There was a recent California case about whether the non-biological parent raising children with a same-sex partner could obtain parental rights over their children the the couple were to break up. A California Court of Appeal ruled in a way that might make it easier for lesbian non-biological parents to obtain parental rights than gay non-biological parents. I blogged about it here (with links to the opinion and news articles). The case is called Charisma R. v. Christina S. The CA Supreme Court recently agreed to take up the case.
6.19.2006 12:55pm
Paddy O. (mail):
The question for me is whether people are becoming more accepting of homosexuality or more accepting of being accepting.

This is important because if there is in the future a strong interest, again, in moral issues "live and let live" tends to get tossed out the window. If homosexuality is included within society's broader accepted morality then any advances will be secure. If these rights are being advanced by a combination of activists who really care and the apathetic who would rather not worry what someone else does then we're looking at a battle more along the lines of abortion rather than the Civil Rights movement.

It would be entirely unique in American history for there not to be a swing towards a more restrictive morality in coming decades, and how really accepted homosexuality itself is in the minds of young people will break or ratify this movement.

Knowing how such people talk in private I'm not sure there is as much to be hopeful for as polls might suggest.
6.19.2006 1:43pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Fern has an interesting suggestion that who opposes gays changes with time. I am fairly comfortable with at least his first point, that a lot of those who earlier opposed homosexuality became more tolerant as they discovered that there were gays in their midst, and, in particular, when they discovered them in their own families.

For example, and this is suggestive, rather than based on hard facts, but I do suspect that Dick and Lynn Cheney somewhat revised what was probably fairly typical conservative views of homosexuality when their daughter came out of the closet. By all indications, they have given their daughter a lot of support, which translates into a lot more tolerance than they probably had before Mary came out of the closet.

So, a lot of us have had family, friends, etc. come out of the closet over the years. And many of us ask whether that has really changed who they are, and the answer is no. And, knowing these family members, friends, etc. who are gay, goes a long way towards accepting homosexuality.

I should add that finally getting back together with such when you have been estranged for a decade or so because of this, or, more accurately, because of an (unfounded in retrospect) fear of this on the part of the gays, can be quite overwhelming on the part of all concerned.
6.19.2006 1:56pm
Medis:
Paddy O.,

As I noted in response to Duncan, we have actually tested the issue you identified already. Broadly speaking, since the 1970s the United States has been moving toward a "more restrictive morality" with respect to sexual issues. And yet, the trend with respect to homosexuality in particular has been in the opposite direction.

And as I also noted to Duncan, I agree that this pattern suggests that "homosexuality is [being] included within society's broader accepted morality". In turn, I agree with you that this pattern also suggests that these "advances will be secure."
6.19.2006 2:11pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

It is indeed interesting that since the 1970s, American attitudes toward sexual issues have mostly moved in a more "conservative" direction. And yet American attitudes toward homosexuality in particular have seemingly moved in the "opposite" direction.
Considering the enormous energy that the news/entertainment industry has put into promoting homosexuality, it would be surprising if those attitudes didn't go the way that they did. Monopolies in the mass media can create surprisingly strong majorities in support of a particular position. Fortunately, there are still some media outlets that allow heterodox positions about this to appear.
6.19.2006 2:11pm
Elais:
Clayton,

Can you specify how news and entertainment 'promote' homosexuality? Does Fox specifically advocate that people should 'switch teams'? Are there hundreds of tv shows that show gay men and women?

Is Nike showing ads sayng 'Just Do Gay Sex'?

Or do you count that simply depicting gays in a positive light or acknowledging that gays exist as 'promotion' of homosexuality?

You seem to be literally making a gay mountain out of a gay molehill.
6.19.2006 2:37pm
EricK:
Can you specify how news and entertainment 'promote' homosexuality? Does Fox specifically advocate that people should 'switch teams'? Are there hundreds of tv shows that show gay men and women?


Will and Grace, Brokeback Mountain, Ellen.
6.19.2006 2:41pm
Paddy O. (mail):
Elais, I don't think there is a call to switch teams, however, it's hard to find a television show without a gay character these days, while it is equally hard to find a television show with a typical conservative Christian. Given the demographics of this country, it seems clear popular entertainment is intentionally promoting the acceptance of homosexuality. However, this is almost certainly more due to the reality that those in the entertaiment industry likely write about what or who they know. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on one's view of the topic, but it seems pretty clear that the percentage of gays on television is quite a bit higher than their general representation in society.

Medis, I get what you're saying but I'm not sure I agree with your optimism. Society is not more morally restrictive now, indeed it is significantly less so. Don't let the noise of conservative commentators be mistaken for real policy across society. The explosive growth of the porn industry over the last few decades across all media is the clearest indication of this. There is less willingness to say the law should restrict homosexual behavior, however, the great majority of people I know who are accepting would, in private, say homosexuality is not morally right. They are, however, willing to put up with it as a personal foible rather than a societal evil. This, however, could easily change given real, and substantive, moral restrictiveness.
6.19.2006 2:49pm
Medis:
Clayton,

What do you mean by "monopolies in the mass media"? The news and entertainment industry is generally highly competitive. And in that sense, whatever resources various media producers and outlets have devoted to depicting gay people positively has had the usual motive: making money.

For example, Will &Grace was a reasonable hit for NBC, peaking at around 17.3 million viewers in 2001-02. But when its ratings dropped to around half of that peak, it got cancelled.

Similarly, according to IMDB, Brokeback Mountain had a budget of approximately $14M. It has made over $83M at the boxoffice in the US, a sizeable chunk more overseas, and has been doing well in DVD sales.

So, I don't see a media monopoly here, nor some sort of media conspiracy to force gay characters, stories, and themes on an unwilling public. Rather, I see the media industry doing what it always does: making money off of cultural trends.
6.19.2006 2:57pm
Medis:
Paddy O.,

I can't, of course, address what people you know are saying to you in private. But I would suggest that you should be careful about assuming such anecdotal evidence is indicative of general sentiments. And in particular, those who feel in tension with the shifting norms of popular culture may be most vocal in private, whereas those who feel no such tension may be more concerned with other matters.

Anyway, when asking whether society is more or less "morally restrictive" about sexual matters now than it was before, you have to define your time period for comparison. You also have to be aware of the "kids today" factor (the general tendency of people to claim that "kids today" are not as virtuous as they once were). As you note, these things actually tend to go in cycles, not in a single direction. And by most measures, we are actually in a more restrictive, not less restrictive, part of the cycle.

Specifically, my point was that since the 1970s in particular, we have generally become more "morally restrictive" about sexual matters. I'm not sure if you are seriously disputing that (it strikes me that no one who remembers the 1970s would), but there is plenty of survey data. For example, on the issue of extramarital sex/adultery, it is very clear that we have grown increasingly intolerant of such behavior since the 1970s (incidentally, the numbers on premarital sex have been essentially flat since the late 1970s). Again, though, attitudes toward homosexuality are notably counter to this general trend in the surveys.

As for the media, there is actually less and less sexual content in "mainstream" media programming (anyone else remember when there was sometimes NUDITY in PG movies? Rent the 1984 movie "Sheena" if you don't believe me). It is true that the pornography industry has exploded, particularly over the internet, but a market for pornography has always existed--the internet just makes it easy to supply that market.

Roughly speaking, in fact, we are actually due for another move toward less restrictive sexual norms. Usually wars help initiate the less restrictive part of the cycle, and it will be interesting to see if that happens as a result of the GWOT/Iraq War.

Anyway, the bottomline is that in many ways, our society is more "conservative" and "traditional" when it comes to sexual matters than we were thirty years ago. But not when it comes to homosexuality, and that does seem to be a pretty telling fact.
6.19.2006 3:37pm
Elais:

Wow, you found only three examples out of the hundreds of tv shows/movies out there. Not exactly a landside of gayness is it?

Paddy O

Will and Grace is the only network tv show I know that had gay characters and that show has been cancelled. Where are these gay characters you see everywhere on tv? I can think of a handful of network/cable shows.
6.20.2006 8:01pm
Randy R. (mail):
The reason why there are so many gay characters on tv and in movies is because of market forces. TV and movie producers care only about one thing: making money. If there was money to be made in depicting a typical fundamentalist, they would do so. If the public didn't like seeing gay characters, they wouldn't watch that tv show or go to the movie. TV is driven by ratings -- few networks cancel a show that is doing well in the ratings, no matter what it's content. Likewise, few shows will last that have few ratings.

If we are seeing more gay characters, it's because Americans like to see gay characters. And that means they are getting more comfortable with gays.
6.22.2006 12:32am