For a number of years, there has been a contentious public debate in the United States on homosexuality and, more recently, same-sex marriage. Like any other social issue, Americans hold diverse opinions on these two issues. However, a not-so-subtle part of the recent public discourse has been treating these different topics—homosexuality and same sex-marriage—in tandem, rather than separately. This line of reasoning suggests that opposition to gay marriage is synonymous with being anti-gay. But do the data support such a notion?
A recent national survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) provides a closer look at public opinion on same-sex marriage. The survey was funded by the Arcus Foundation, an organization that champions the rights of gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual persons. According to the 2011 PRRI survey, views on same-sex marriage are evenly divided among the U.S. population as a whole: 47 percent of Americans favor it and 47 percent oppose it. Interestingly, this national survey reveals that 62 percent of Millennials (age 18 to 29) favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry. In contrast, only 31 percent of senior citizens (age 65 and older) report favoring same-sex marriage. The fact that Millennials are twice as likely as senior citizens to support same-sex marriage provides important evidence of a generation gap on this hot-button issue.
The media coverage of the PRRI survey, however, has painted a very different picture of the findings, drawing the more general conclusion that younger Americans are pro-gay while senior citizens are anti-gay. But does the PRRI survey, as well as other recent national surveys, provide data actually supporting such a conclusion? The 2010 Baylor Religion Survey (BRS) contains relevant questions regarding views on homosexuality that may be helpful in gaining a more accurate understanding of the degree to which there exists a generation gap on the specific issue of gay marriage, as well as the issue of homosexuality more generally. Like the PRRI and other national surveys, the BRS reports that 63 percent of Millennials favor same-sex marriage, while only 33 percent of seniors support same-sex marriage. Additionally, the BRS found that 74 percent of Millennials and 56 percent of seniors agree that “homosexuals should be allowed civil unions.” Though Millennials are significantly more likely to support civil unions, it is not the dramatic split found in support of gay marriage. This finding confirms that civil unions are significantly more palatable than gay marriage for younger as well as older Americans.
Several other questions on the BRS shed additional light by asking questions on homosexuality as well as gay marriage. For instance, the BRS finds there is essentially no difference between Millennials and senior citizens in response to this survey question: “Homosexuals should have equal employment opportunities.” Fully 93 percent of Millennials and 90 percent of senior citizens agreed with that statement. In other words, both young and old Americans overwhelmingly (9 out of 10) believe that homosexuals should have equal employment opportunities. If older Americans are indeed anti-gay, one would not expect 90 percent of senior citizens to support equal employment opportunities for homosexuals.
Millennials and older Americans actually respond in much the same way when asked another question about homosexuality. For example, 54 percent of Millennials and 59 percent of seniors agree with the statement: “People are born either as homosexual or heterosexual.” Finally, Millennials are slightly more likely than seniors to agree with the statement: “Do people choose to be homosexual?” Thus, one can argue that Millennials are more similar than they are dissimilar to senior citizens when asked questions about homosexuality.
As stated earlier, the one area where there is a dramatic divergence of opinion between the young and the old is on support for same-sex marriage (62 percent and 31 percent respectively). Perhaps the striking difference between the views of the young and the elderly on gay marriage is merely a function of the fact that Millennials are much more likely to be exposed to homosexuals or have homosexual acquaintances than senior citizens are. But this is not the case, as there is very little difference between Millennials and seniors, with the vast majority (87 percent and 82 percent respectively) indicating that they “personally know someone who is homosexual.” Simply put, it is inappropriate on methodological grounds to draw the conclusion that opposition to same-sex marriage is synonymous with being anti-gay.
But what are we to make of the undeniable evidence that older Americans (age 65 and older) are twice as likely as young Americans (age 18 to 29) to oppose same-sex marriage (62 percent and 31 percent respectively)? Why is there such a large age effect when it comes to views on gay marriage? I offer two possibilities for consideration.
First, since the issue of gay marriage is a relatively new one, it makes sense that younger Americans have had to confront the issue much earlier in life and with far more social pressure. Americans age 65 and older grew up in a time when they simply did not have to contend with the issue of gay marriage. Millennials, on the other hand, have not been as fortunate as their older counterparts. Most young Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 have been exposed to the issue of gay marriage throughout their adolescence and young adulthood. This is especially true of youth attending public schools in the last several decades. Indeed, public schools in recent years have been much more likely to utilize curricula in support of favorable rather than unfavorable attitudes toward homosexuality and gay marriage. Additionally, television shows over the last several decades have increasingly portrayed these issues in more normative and favorable ways. The data would seem to support the notion that these efforts have been consequential for many Americans.
For example, according to the General Social Survey (GSS), in 1988 only 11 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “Homosexuals should have the right to marry one another.” By 2008, the percentage of Americans agreeing that homosexuals should have the right to marry one another had more than tripled to 38 percent. Further, the GSS has asked the following question for almost four decades: “What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex?” In 1973, 76 percent of Americans responded that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex was wrong. In 2008, the percentage of Americans feeling this way had dropped to 53 percent.
Second, it is also possible that religion has had something to do with the apparent generation gap when it comes to the issue of support for same-sex marriage. Most American denominations and church teachings do not condone the practice of homosexuality, and most certainly do not support gay marriage. However, we also know from decades of survey research that the young tend to be less religious than the elderly. Research consistently confirms that the elderly are much more likely than the young to attend religious services and report that religion is important in their lives. Simply put, senior citizens exhibit higher levels of religiosity than Millennials. It stands to reason, therefore, that since the elderly are more religious, they are less likely than the young to favor same-sex marriage. However, should we not also expect Millennials and seniors to differ likewise on other questions regarding homosexuals? As demonstrated earlier, Millennials and seniors hold rather similar views on a number of questions regarding homosexuality.
We also know from the research literature that consistent differences exist between people based on their particular religious tradition or affiliation. For example, Evangelicals tend to be more conservative than mainline Protestants and other religious groups on a host of moral and political issues. Consequently, I examined views on gay marriage among Evangelicals and found a far different picture when comparing Millennials to senior citizens. According to the 2010 GSS, only 38 percent of Evangelical Millennials support gay marriage. Among all other Millennials in the GSS, 72 percent support gay marriage. Turning to Evangelical seniors, we find that only 25 percent support gay marriage, compared to 40 percent among all other seniors. In sum, young Evangelicals are more likely to support same-sex marriage than Evangelical seniors (38 percent and 25 percent respectively), but the difference is nothing close to the 2-to-1 split found in the general population.
There is indeed a significant gap in support of same-sex marriage when one compares all Millennials to all senior citizens. However, when one looks at the views of Evangelicals toward same-sex marriage—a group estimated to be 100 million strong—a considerably different picture emerges. Being an Evangelical Protestant significantly lowers the chance one will agree with gay marriage in either age range, and brings the 18-to-29 age group down to a level of support similar to all others in the 65-and-over age range. Perhaps Evangelical churches are doing a better job combating the considerable cultural influences in support of same-sex marriage.
It is unwarranted and irresponsible to interpret opposition to same-sex marriage as a proxy for being anti-gay. There is no empirical evidence to suggest that senior citizens are anti-gay.
Byron R. Johnson is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University and author of More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More (2011).