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Hamilton College Gay Issues Poll


ANALYSIS


By Dennis Gilbert
Professor of Sociology, Hamilton College

"Who they are as a person is more important than who they sleep with or love. It shouldn't be a big deal."

"Flaming homosexuals are just weird and gross. But if they don't flash it there's nothing wrong with it."

"I don't like fags. I want to beat their queer asses."

"God made them that way. Let them be."

"I believe it is a choice, a moral decision. And I don't believe what they are doing is right."

"Gays are morally wrong, but should be accepted for who they are and not discriminated against."

"People say they are gay to get attention."

"I like gays. They are nice people."[1]

The Hamilton College Gay Issues Poll explored the opinions of this year's high school graduating class. Over a thousand seniors answered questions about gays and gay public issues.[2] As their comments above suggest, the graduates are as varied (and sometimes confused) in their thinking about homosexuality as the rest of the country. On average, the class of 2001, holds liberal, pro-gay opinions. They are much more liberal on gay matters than adults. But many graduates still doubt that they would be comfortable with gays in common social situations. And the Hamilton researchers found a solidly anti-gay minority, about 30 percent of the graduates, who have negative attitudes toward gays and conservative opinions on most gay issues. Their views are examined separately below.

Public Issues

The Hamilton researchers found that the high school class of 2001 takes liberal positions on commonly debated public issues concerning gays. Strong majorities of graduates say that gay marriages deserve legal recognition, gay couples should be permitted to adopt children, and gay men should be allowed to serve as Boy Scout troop leaders. The graduates overwhelmingly favor legislation protecting gays from hate crimes and job discrimination.

Virtually all agree that homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the military. But the graduates are split between those who would permit gays to serve openly (40%) and those who favor the current policy, which requires gay service members to conceal their sexual orientation (52%). Surprisingly, graduates who say that they have considered military service differed little from their peers on this issue. [For question wording and other details see the appendix.]

Percent Favoring
66 Legal Recognition for gay marriages
68
Permit gay couples to adopt children
71
Allow gay men to serve as Scout Leaders
88
Hate crime legislation protection gays
79
Laws protecting gays against job discrimination


Attitudes toward Gays

Members of the class of 2001 are similarly pro-gay in their responses to a series of questions designed to measure positive and negative attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women. Seventy-seven percent of the graduates agree that gay people "contribute to society in unique and positive ways." More than eight out of 10 graduates think that gay men and lesbians should be "accepted by society." More modest majorities of graduates reject the idea that homosexuality is morally wrong and the notion that gays should remain "in the closet," as expressed in the statement, "Gay people have a right to exist, but they should keep their sexuality private and hidden." (The minority of respondents who agreed with this statement were highly likely to take anti-gay positions on the other questions in the survey.)

Percent supporting Pro-Gay Position [3]
77 Gays contribute to society in unique and positive ways
86
Lesbians should be accepted into society
85
Gay men should be accepted into society
55
Gays have right to exist, but should hide their sexuality (% disagree)
61
Gay lifestyles are morally wrong (% disagree)
78
Lesbians are digusting (% disagree)
69
Gay men are disgusting (% disagree)


It is common wisdom that popular opinion is more open to lesbian women than gay men. Two pairs of questions included in the Hamilton survey tested this proposition, with mixed results. This year's graduates are equally likely to agree that lesbians and gays should be "accepted by society." But they are somewhat less likely to apply the raw label "disgusting" to lesbians than to gay men.

Comparisons with Adults


Comparisons between the Hamilton Gay Issues Poll and national surveys of adults conducted in 2000 and 2001 indicate that the class of 2001 is much more liberal than older Americans on gay issues.[4] For example, the Gallup Poll, the Associated Press, and the Los Angles Times all asked national samples of adults about legal recognition of gay marriages and got similar results: one-third of adults support legal recognition and two-thirds are opposed. Among this year's high school graduates, two-thirds support recognition and one-third are opposed, according to the Hamilton poll. Earlier this year, 54 percent of the adults surveyed by Gallup and 71 percent of the graduates polled by Hamilton said that sexual relations between same-sex adults should be legal.[5] In nine out of nine specific comparisons with recent adult polls, covering issues from gay marriage to gay Scoutmasters, graduates were more likely than adults to side with gays.[6]

Gender Differences, Born-Again Christians and other Variations


Although the Hamilton researchers found big majorities of graduates with liberal opinions on gay matters, they also noted significant variation among groups of graduates. Table 1 reports group differences on two dimensions: the key issue of recognition of gay marriages and general attitude toward gays. General attitude was measured by answers to the battery of questions in the section above titled "Attitudes toward Gays." Respondents were classified as "pro-gay" or "negative toward gays" based on their average response to these seven items. Overall, 51 percent of the class of 2001 are pro-gay by this measure.[7]

As the table indicates, majorities of graduates from virtually every major demographic group, even Southerners and rural or small town populations, support legal recognition of gay marriages. On both indicators, support for gays was especially strong among females, Hispanics, children of single mothers, Catholics, Jews, those without religious affiliation, graduates from the Northeast and the West, and graduates from the suburbs and from less affluent families.

Born-again Christians are the largest group of graduates who are negative toward gays by both measures. The majority of born-again Christians oppose recognition of gay marriage and only one in four is classified as "pro-gay." (The apparent conservatism of Protestant graduates registered in the table reflects the high proportion of born-again Christians among them. Protestants who do not describe themselves as born-again are, in fact, average in their support for gay marriage and affinity for "pro-gay" attitudes.)

Some of the relative differences revealed by the survey were predictable. We expect fundamentalist Christians, males, Southerners, and rural people to exhibit greater cultural conservatism. But there is no particular reason to anticipate greater liberalism on gay issues from Catholics, Hispanics or graduates with single mothers and lower-incomes. The support for gay marriage by eight out of 10 Catholic graduates stands in direct opposition to official Church doctrine. Another surprise was the weak, inconsistent influence of parents' education, normally associated with greater tolerance.

Three non-demographic factors have notable influence on the opinions of graduates: perceived parental opinion, notions about causes of homosexuality, and familiarity with gay people. Graduates who say someone close to them is gay, those who believe their parents would be accepting of a gay friend, and those who believe that homosexuality is "something people are born with" are especially supportive of gays. Similarly supportive are graduates who are close to someone who is openly gay. But mere acquaintance with openly gay individuals or those suspected of being gay has little effect on opinion (See Table 2).

Table 1. Demographic Differences
 
 % Favor Recognition
of Gay Marriage
% Pro-Gay Attitudes
ALL
66
51
Males
60
43
Females
71
58
 
White
64
50
Black
67
41
Hispanic
77
69
 
Protestant
46
33
Catholic
80
64
Jewish
80
67*
 
Evangelical or Born-Again Christian
Yes
23
27
No
76
60
 
Northeast
71
64
South
63
43
Midwest
62
47
West
71
56
 
Rural/Sm Town
63
48
Suburb
71
58
City(100k+)
68
51
 
Single Mother
83
61
2 Parent Family
63
49
 
Family Income
Over $75k
62
50
$50k-$75k
65
50
Under $50k
70
52
 
 
Mother's Education
HS or Less
66
51
1-4 Years Col
64
49
Post Grad Ed
74
63
 
 
Father's Education
HS or Less
70
54
1-4 Years Col
63
49
Post Grad Ed
67
52
* Based on 15 respondents  


Table 2. Influence of Three Factors
 
% Favor Recognition
of Gay Marriage
% Pro-Gay Attitudes
Expected Parental Response to Gay Friend
Accepting
84
70
Partially Accepting
62
46
Not Accepting
39
27
 
Causes of Homosexuality
Born Gay
86
74
Upbringing
61
34
Choice
58
44
 
Familiarity with Gays*
Someone close
78
65
Others
59
43
None
55
39
*Close = respondents with openly gay "relatives, friends, or aquaintances" who have "let you know they are gay" or "you think (are) gay." None = respondents with no known or suspected gay contacts.


School Life and Social Comfort

Despite the generally liberal opinions of the class of 2001 on gay matters, two sets of findings from the Hamilton Gay Issues Poll suggest that everyday life for gay high school students can be difficult.

Asked about their own schools, 60 percent of the graduates say that some of their classmates were "openly" gay, but only 13 percent knew of gay-support groups, often called Gay-Straight Alliances, at their schools. Nine out of 10 graduates said that the phrase "that's so gay" is used at their schools to describe things that students "don't like." More significantly, about half reported that they had heard a classmate "insult another student who is believed to be gay by calling them, to their face, faggot, homo, dyke or anything like that."

The Hamilton researchers asked seniors whether they would be "comfortable, uncomfortable, or somewhere in between" in four social situations in which they might encounter gays or lesbians. Most say that they would be comfortable with a gay man as a math teacher, but probably not with a gay lab partner or teammate or at a party with gay and straight couples. Only 17 percent believe they would be comfortable in all four situations, while 27 percent cannot imagine themselves being comfortable in any of them. However, for each social situation, about 30 percent of the graduates take refuge in the "somewhere in between" alternative. This response might indicate a reluctance to acknowledge (politically incorrect?) discomfort or may simply reflect doubts based on limited experience with gays. Comfort level does increase with experience. For example, about half of graduates with a gay friend or relative, but only 20 percent of respondents who have had no known contact with gays, say they would be comfortable in three or four of the situations.
 
Percent Comfortable
63 With gay male math teacher
43
With gay lab partner of same sex
38
With gay teammate, sharing locker room
31
With gay and straight couples at a party


The Anti-Gays

Approximately 30 percent of the class of 2001 is both opposed to recognition for gay marriages and negative (rather than "pro-gay") in their general attitudes toward gays.[8] Three out of four members of this anti-gay minority believe that homosexual relations should be illegal and regard gay men as "disgusting." Both opinions are rare outside this minority. Some respondents thought the idea of labeling gays "disgusting" was laughable.

But even the anti-gays have not been immune to the liberalizing atmosphere surrounding gay issues. Eighty percent would support hate crimes legislation. Though most think gays should keep their sexuality hidden, about half agreed that gay people should be "accepted by society."

Most Anti-gays are obhservant Christians who regard homosexuality as a moral or religious question. Seventy percent report attending Church four or more times a month, and half describe themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. Over 90 percent say "gay lifestyles" are "morally wrong." Consistent with this idea, three out of four anti-gays say homosexuality is a choice rather than something inborn or inculcated. Like many religious conservatives, the anti-gays overwhelmingly describe themselves as Republicans.

The opinions of the anti-gays seem to reflect parental views. They are much less likely than other graduates to believe that their parents would be accepting of a gay friend. However, the majority of anti-gays know gay people and, surprisingly, one in four say that someone close to them is openly gay. Men are somewhat overrepresented (56 percent) among the anti-gays, and Catholics are underrepresented (14 percent among anti-gays vs. 37 percent in the remainder of the sample), but in broad demographic terms the anti-gays are not especially distinctive. Rather, they are set apart by their consistent views on homosexuality, backed by core religious commitments.

Conclusions

This analysis of the Hamilton Gay Issues Poll contains good news, with a dose of bad news, for gays and their advocates. The good news is that big majorities of graduates take pro-gay positions on relevant public issues and the class of 2001 is much more liberal on such questions than adults. The liberalism of a new generation reinforces the conclusion from long-term polling conducted by Gallup and others that Americans are becoming more tolerant of gays.[9] On the other hand, the graduates report widespread verbal abuse of gay classmates and they have doubts about their own comfort level with gays. A 30 percent minority of graduates hold strongly anti-gay opinions.

Verbal abuse and social discomfort can be expected to ease over time and with exposure to gay people. But the views of the anti-gay minority are more problematic. They appear firmly rooted and unlikely to change soon.

Conducting the Gay Issues Poll

The Hamilton College Gay Issues Poll is the fourth in a series of national youth surveys conducted by Hamilton faculty and students. These studies are intended to take advantage of the academic expertise of faculty and the life experience of Hamilton students. Previous Hamilton youth polls have dealt with the plans and life values of graduating high school seniors (1998), the racial attitudes of young adults (1999), the opinions of high school students about gun issues (2000), and the political attitudes of young voters (2000). Most funding for these surveys is provided by Hamilton's Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center, which paid all costs for the Gay Issues Poll.

The Gay Issues Poll was designed and analyzed by Hamilton Sociology Professor Dennis Gilbert and the Hamilton students whose names are listed on the cover page of this report. The sampling and calling were administered by Zogby International and done in two phases.

The first was a 200-call pilot survey, conducted in February 2001. Calls for this phase were made by the Hamilton student researchers at Zogby International facilities. On the basis of the results from the pilot study, the questionnaire was rewritten by the Hamilton team. The redesigned questionnaire was administered to a national sample of 1,003 high school seniors in calls made the week of March 18 by Zogby International.

In theory, a random sample of 1,000 is accurate within plus or minus 3 percentage points. However, obtaining a random national sample of high school seniors is more difficult than drawing a national sample of adults or households. The demographics of the second stage data suggest that a trustworthy national sample was obtained. For the analysis presented here, the sample was reweighted for mother's education, region of the country, sex, and race/ethnicity. Because the original sample was reasonably representative, these adjustments had little effect on the results. Non-sampling problems, such as unintended ambiguities in questionnaire language and less than candid responses, can also affect survey accuracy.Revisions based on the first-stage results reduced distortions of this type.

Acknowledgments
I am grateful for help we received at various stages of this project from Stuart Michaels, Tom Linneman, Mitchell Stevens, Kirk Pillow, Paula Rust and Peter Roche.




[1] The quotations are from phone interviews with high school seniors contacted by Hamilton College student researchers. See the final section of the analysis for an explanation of how the Gay Issues Poll was conducted.

[2] The Hamilton Gay Issues Poll was designed to measure the attitudes of a largely "straight" population toward gay men and lesbians opinions regarding their own sexual orientation. No questions were included on bisexuals and transgendered people.

[3] Percentage figures are totals of agree and strongly agree responses for positive items (first three), or disagree and strongly disagree responses for negative items. See appendix for details on teh individual items, including question wording.

[4] Comparisons were made with surveys conducted by or for Gallup (June 2001), Associated Press (May 2001), Harris (June 2001), CNN/USA Today/Gallup (Jan. 2000), Los Angeles Times (June 2000), Fox News (Jan. 2000). The issues covered were gay marriage, legality of gay sex, gay Scoutmasters, job discrimination, and gays in the military.

[5] On the issue of gay marriage, Gallup (for CNN/USA Today) used the same question that was included in the Hamilton Survey. The other two organizations employed similar language. A fourth poll conducted for Fox News used different question on gay marriage, obtaining results that also indicated more conservative opinion among adults. On the legality of homosexual relations, both surveys used the same question.

[6] Two additional comparisons with adults-neither involving policy matters-produced unanticipated results. The graduates are marginally less likely to know gay people and much more likely to believe that gays "choose" their sexual orientation that the adults polled by the Los Angeles Times in June 2000. Familiarity with gays and the belief that gays are "born with" their orientation are normally associated with higher levels of support for gays.

[7] Scores on this general attitude scale are based on the four point scales unse in teh original questions (see appendix for wording). Graduates whose average response was the equivalent of "strongly agree" or "agree" on the positive items (gays "should be accepted by society") and "strongly disagree or "disagree" on the negative items (homosexuality is "morally wrong") were considered "pro-gay." Those whose average response was on the other scale were considered "negative toward gays."

[8] In contrast, about half of all respondents both support recognition of gay marriages and are "pro-gay" in their attitudes. One in five support recognition but are not pro-gay in attitudes.

[9] For example, the proportion of adults polled by Gallup who think gays should have protection from job discrimination rose from 56 percent in 1977 to 83 percent in 1999. The proportion who believe that sexual relations between same-sex adults should be legal, rose form 43 percent in 1977 to 54 percent in 2001.