The graph at the top of this post tells a story that I find incredibly amazing, maybe even miraculous: during my adult lifetime, America has changed from a place where 4 out of 5 people were hostile to same-sex relations to one where more than half of the people now see nothing wrong with it.
First, a word of explanation. The figures come from my analysis of responses to a question in the General Social Survey (GSS), a massive long-term, large-scale survey conducted regularly since 1972. (Data available online at http://sda.berkeley.edu/sdaweb/analysis/?dataset=gss14). Starting in 1973, the survey has included the following question (somewhat disturbingly coded HOMOSEX by the survey designers, but hey, it was 1973):
“What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex? Is it:
“1. Always wrong?
“2. Almost always wrong?
“3. Sometimes wrong?
“4. Not wrong at all?”
I’m not fond of the way the question is framed, which seems to give people three out of four chances to express negativity toward same-sex sexuality. But it seems likely that people will understand the answers as a sort of scale of attitudes and will choose answer 3 as meaning “only sometimes” wrong, i.e., mostly not wrong. And of course, there’s no specificity about what “wrong” means in this context, but I think most people probably interpret it as meaning “immoral” or something of the sort.
What the graph shows is the combined percentage of people who gave 1 or 2 as their answer (in blue) and the combined percentage who answered with 3 or 4 (in red). And what’s immediately clear is that from the early 1970s until the late 1980s, some 70 to 80 percent of Americans were hostile toward same-sex sexuality – and then the hostility began a steady decline, with acceptance correspondingly rising.
By 2010, the percentage who indicated acceptance of same-sex relations was larger than the percentage expressing hostility. In the most recent survey year, 2014, the majority of respondents, 54 percent, chose the more gay-friendly responses, while just 42 percent remained hostile. (The numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because there’s always about 3 to 4 percent who won’t answer or whose answers totally miss the point.)
That’s really astonishing: Over the course of about a quarter-century, antipathy toward same-sex sexual relations has been cut almost in half, while support has more than tripled and is now expressed by a solid majority.
It would be easy to think, “Well duh, thinking gay sex is wrong was always just stupid, and people have smartened up, that’s all.” And I would have to agree that there’s some element of that in play here. But right now, I’m more interested in a question that is particularly urgent today in view of the Trump administration’s apparent determination to roll back LGBTIQ rights: Who are the people who are still clinging to hostility toward us, that is, the people Trump is trying to please with these unjustified and unjust policy changes?
Anecdotally at least, a possible answer can be found in the fact that the loudest opponents of same-sex marriage, transgender rights and similar topics are the kind of religious extremists who show up regularly on Right Wing Watch (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/ ), the Southern Poverty Law Center (http://www.splcenter.org/ ) and similar human rights watchdog sites – groups from the religious right, “conservative Christians,” or however people want to describe them.
Clarity on this issue is provided by a second GSS question, coded BIBLE, which goes like this:
“Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible?
“1. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word.
“2. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word.
“3. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history and moral precepts recorded by men.”
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to refer to people who give answer 1 as TWOGs (“The Word Of God”), answer 2 as INSPs and answer 3 as FABs. The graph below shows the trend in these responses:
The story here isn’t as dramatic as that told by the first graph, but it’s important: the percentage of survey respondents who identify themselves as TWOGs or INSPs has fallen, while the percentage identifying themselves as FABs has increased.
If we take the peak year for TWOGs, which was 1987, the percentage has fallen by 8.2 percentage points, from 40.2 percent to just 32.1 percent in 2014. For INSPs, the peak was more recent, 2002, at 53 percent; in 2014, the figure was 43.1 percent, a fairly rapid drop of 9.8 percent. Meanwhile, the low year for FABs was 1985, when just 12.5 percent of survey respondents chose that answer; today, it’s up to 21.9 percent, an increase of 9.4 percent.
Other major surveys, including those taken by the Pew Research Trust, have documented similar declines in traditional religiosity, so this isn’t breaking news here. But it’s important to keep in mind as we move to the next point.
It’s possible to combine, or “cross-tabulate,” the responses to these two survey questions, HOMOSEX and BIBLE, which enables us to see what answers the anti-LGBTIQ respondents on the first question gave for the second question, or vice versa. When we do, we find that TWOGs are significantly more hostile to homosexuality than either of the other two groups.
Even here, antipathy toward LGBTIQ behavior has declined. In 1984, for example, a whopping 92 percent of TWOGs said same-sex sexuality was “always wrong;” in 2014, that figure was down to “just” 71 percent. That still makes TWOGs the only group with a majority expressing strong anti-LGBTIQ sentiments; among INSPs and FABs, not even the combined “always” and “almost always” responses were above 50 percent (INSPs 34 percent, FABs 14 percent).
The most interesting fact that emerges from the GSS data, however, and the thing I’ve been leading up to here, is this: Even though TWOGs have declined as a percentage of the overall population, they have increased as a percentage of the anti-LGBTIQ respondents. In other words, anti-LGBTIQ attitudes are increasingly concentrated among TWOGs while the rest of the world moves on.
In 1984, when TWOGs represented 37 percent of the total sample, they accounted for 48 percent of the “always wrong” responses and 45 percent of the combined “always” and “almost always” responses. In 2014, at just 32 percent of the total population, they provided 57 percent of the most hostile answer, “always,” and 55 percent of the combined anti-LGBTIQ answers.
In short, more than half of the anti-LGBTIQ sentiment found by the GSS in the most recent survey comes from TWOGs. In other words, a shrinking minority of ultraconservative Christians is responsible for the majority of the anti-LGBTIQ sentiment in American society today.
We sort of knew that, anecdotally, from the previously mentioned reports of human rights watchdogs and from watching the news – for example, the case of Kim Davis, the pentecostal church member and court clerk in Kentucky who made national headlines a couple of years ago by violating the law in refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But it’s nice to have clear, smoking-gun evidence to back up our impressions.
In posts to come, I’m going to drill down deeper into the GSS data to reveal more about who the TWOGs are and why they’re so intransigent when it comes to accepting and respecting the rights of their fellow citizens. What I think I’ve found boils down to three core factors: authoritarianism, anti-modernism and plain old-fashioned prejudice.