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Analyzing Attitudes Toward Homosexuality Over Time

Beth Hurley
SOC 302-01
Dr. Bates
December 13, 2004
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Analyzing Attitudes Toward Homosexuality Over Time


Using data from the General Social Survey from 1973 to 2002, changes in American attitudes

toward homosexuality are examined. The analysis supports previous literature by confirming

that attitudes towards homosexuality are liberalizing over time. The dependent variable is

measured two ways: (1) morality of same-sex sexual relations (2) willingness to extend civil

liberties to homosexuals. Increases in education and sexual permissiveness, determined through

linear regression, directly influence the acceptance of homosexuality and are related to theories

of individualism, secularism, and postmaterialism.


This research study examines attitudes towards homosexuality over a time period of three

decades. In recent years issues surrounding homosexuality have been at the center of moral,

political, and religious debates. Most recently the issue of gay marriage has stirred conversation

among Americans. Gay marriage is a particularly interesting issue because those opposed to it

may still be in favor of giving other civil rights to homosexuals. By examining how attitudes

toward homosexuality have changed over the past three decades, one can begin to frame the

basis for a movement for same-sex marriage.

Sociologically, individualism, secularism and postmaterialism values support sexual

permissiveness because it promotes personal choice and tolerance for nonconformity, often

through increased education, by weakening institutional controls over individuals that organized

religion or family could impose (Treas 2002). People with postmaterial and more secular values

have been shown to reject traditional views of family, gender, and sexuality. Generational

replacement and greater educational opportunities increase the acceptance of nonconformity and
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greatly affect American’s willingness to extend protections to unpopular minorities

(Golebiowska 1995). Theories of individualism and postmaterialism suggest that higher

education, secularism, and relative income are all associated with greater tolerance of


The rejection of traditional views of family, gender, and sexuality are at the heart of the

liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality. Since the Stonewall Riots in 1969 the gay

rights movement has made incredible strides in changing laws and popular opinion toward the

homosexual community. Their efforts were stymied during the late 1980s due to an

overwhelmingly conservative national attitude and the stigmatization of AIDS and gay men.

Since this time, America as a whole has become increasingly liberal toward homosexuality and

sex in general. Most recently, opinions toward homosexuality and gay marriage have played a

large role in politics and the 2004 presidential election. This research study examines the trend

of opinions toward homosexuality over time and their connectedness to education and increased

sexual permissiveness nation-wide.


In the wake of World War II, rapid social change, the weakening of traditional political

loyalties, and heightened emphasis on personal autonomy conspired to intensify conflict over

cultural values (Wald, Button, and Rienzo 1996). The war and its aftermath induced large

geographical migrations, uprooting people from familiar surroundings, cutting off traditional

patterns of social interaction, and permitting individuals to construct new social identities. This

resulted in long-term ideological adjustments toward sexuality, family, and gender. Whether the

issue is sex education, the availability of birth control, censorship, premarital sex,
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homosexuality, prostitution, nudity, or simple candor, as standards have become more

permissive and lenient, the public has moved to new levels of tolerance (Chong 1994).

Greater tolerance for sexual matters reflects shifts in sexual attitudes that began with the

sexual revolution in the mid-1960s and continues to be evident through the decriminalization of

homosexual acts and the widespread availability of sexually explicit material (Treas 2002).

Liberalization of sexual permissiveness can be seen through the widespread use of

contraceptives, increased unmarried cohabitation, and increased divorces. History impacts

generations differently and can affect how Americans view sexual matters. Materials subject to

censorship differ greatly over time and become excellent indicators of how societal morals

regarding sex and sexuality have changed (Chong 1994). In recent decades, popular

conceptions of what is shocking and risqué in fashion, interpersonal relations, sexual practices,

language, books, magazines, and films have evolved dramatically, as have legal definitions of

what is “obscene.” Media censored decades ago for sex, nudity, and teenage pregnancy are now

at the heart of mainstream pop culture.

Concerning public attitudes toward the morality or acceptability of homosexuality, there

has been majority disapproval for long periods of time and throughout the seventies and eighties,

rates of disapproval remained remarkably stable (Yang 1997). By the 1970s, inspired generally

by the atmosphere of social radicalism and specifically by the open resistance of gay men to

police harassment in New York’s Stonewall riots of 1969, countless new lesbian and gay

liberation organizations developed and embraced a call for “gay liberation.” Opposition to

unpopular groups (communists, atheists, and homosexuals) lessened and a greater extension of

civil liberties reflects greater tolerance between 1976-1988 although some opposition to

homosexuals seems to increase (Wilson 1994). By 1996 more than one-fifth of Americans lived
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in cities and counties that provided legal protection to gays, lesbians and bisexuals (Wald,

Button, and Rienzo 1996).

The majority of existing literature highlights the importance of education in explaining

greater political tolerance over time. Education is responsible for creation, stability, and change

of opinions and attitudes. Golebiowska (1995) finds that the better educated are more tolerant

diversity and politics. One of the reasons for their greater tolerance is that they tend to subscribe

to more modern values, most likely due to changes in sex roles, abortion, and sexual openness in

recent decades.

Besides being more tolerant of sexual nonconformity, people with more schooling are

known to voice greater support for the civil rights of nonconformists (Nunn, Crockett, and

Williams 1978, cited in Treas 2002). Specifically, Loftus (2001) finds that education is the

largest demographic factor accounting for increased support for civil liberties and tolerance for

homosexuals. Both time and education are negatively associated with strict disapproval of

homosexuality, which reflects a move of persons with less schooling closer to the liberal views

of those with more education (Treas 2002). By using statistics gathered from the U.S. Bureau of

the Census in 1990 and 1998, Loftus (2001) determines that an increase was present in the

percentage of adults with at least a college degree as well as a decrease of adults with less than a

high school degree.

Haider-Markel and Meier (1996) find that for a state or local governance to prohibit

discrimination against gays and lesbians, interest group resources, elite values, and past public

policies were important influencing factors. More recently there has been increased public

support for the rights of gays and lesbians in employment and housing, despite little change in

beliefs about the acceptability of homosexuality (Brooks 2000). Frank and McEneaney (1999)
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explain growing state legitimization of homosexual relations through “cultural individualism,”

which they argue favors sex for individual pleasure instead of sex solely for procreation.

Increased individualization and gender equality provide an opportunity for lesbian and gay social

movements and liberalized state policies on same-sex relations.

A study by Yang (1997) finds that the percentage of American citizens who believe that

homosexuality is something people are born with has doubled in recent decades. Furthermore,

the proportion of those who believe homosexuality is something people cannot change is now

comparable to the proportion who believe that homosexuality is chosen. Disapproval of

homosexual relations gradually increased between 1973 and 1988 but dropped significantly by

1998 (Loftus 2001; Treas 2002) while support for their civil liberties has increased since the

early 1970s. Women and citizens with a higher relative income are less likely to disapprove of

same-sex relations.

Treas (2002) finds that frequent attendance at religious services increases the likelihood

of condemning homosexual relations, consistent with theories of secularism. Measured by

frequency of attendance at religious services, more secular Americans’ disapproval of

homosexuality decreased more greatly than for more religious Americans, although almost all

Americans moved toward less disapproval. The gay rights campaign has historically

encountered the greatest resistance from religious fundamentalists who condemn homosexuality

as contrary to the religious scripture, natural law, and the family (Wald, Button, and Rienzo


Increased individualization and gender equality provide an opportunity for lesbian and

gay social movements and liberalized state policies on same-sex relations (Frank and

McEneaney 1999). As Lesbian and gay social movements expanded worldwide between 1984
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and 1995, sate policies on homosexual relations liberalized as well. The liberalization of state

policies on homosexual relations is due the recent institutionalization of individualism that has

freed persons from communal, religious, and familial embeddings, and it has undercut gender

differentiation. Gay and lesbian social movements at both the national and international level

spur the liberalization of state policies.

According to Gamble (1997) gay men and lesbians have seen their civil rights put to a

popular vote more often than any other group, with more than 60 percent of all civil rights

initiatives involved gay rights issues. Such measures have included efforts to protective gay

rights as well as efforts to repeal gay rights ordinances, remove sexual orientation as a protect

category in housing and employment laws, and to declare homosexuality as, “wrong and

unnatural.” Yet, in the last decade, Americans have become increasingly liberal in their opinions

about civil liberties, including the rights of gays and lesbians (Brooks 2000). Loftus (2001) finds

that Americans distinguish between the morality of homosexuality and the civil liberties of


A significant relationship exists between negative feelings toward homosexuals and

opposition to the civil liberties of homosexuals. Therefore, one might expect that people

belonging to groups that frown upon homosexual behavior would be less likely to support gay

rights (Sniderman et al. 1991: 48 citied in Haider-Markel and Meier 1996). However, many

Americans can disapprove of homosexual behavior but still be in support of their civil rights.

Interestingly, the current controversey over gay marriage has many Americans in support of gay

rights but disapproving of gay marriage.

This study replicates previous literature conducted on attitudes toward homosexuality and

builds upon those findings two ways. One, data from the years 2000 and 2002 are now included
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and two, controls for sexual permissiveness are added to determine whether or not the

liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality is simply a result of greater sexual openness and

tolerance over time. Education’s influence will also be closely examined because of its

presumed affects on tolerance of diversity and minority groups.

Data, Methods, and Measures

To study the change in attitudes towards homosexuality over the last three decades, data

was collected from the General Social Survey (GSS) between 1973 and 2002. Since 1973 the

National Opinion Research Center (NORC) has regularly conducted the GSS. The GSS is a

nation-wide probability sample of non-institutionalized adults, 18 years or older, which contains

information on the attitudes, demographics, and behaviors of the American people.

Approximately 1,500 people were sampled through individual interview every year between

1973 and 1993. Beginning in 1994, sample size increased to 3000 respondents, with the survey

being administered every two years. Questions measuring attitudes towards homosexuality have

been asked nineteen times during this period.

In order to examine the research question, four separate hypothesizes were created to

determine significant relationships between year and attitudes towards homosexuality.

1) Attitudes toward the morality of homosexuality have liberalized over time,

controlling for changes in demographics and attitudes.

2) Attitudes toward the morality of homosexuality have liberalized over time,

controlling for changes in demographics, attitudes, and sexual permissiveness.

3) Attitudes toward the civil rights of homosexuals have liberalized over time,
controlling for changes in demographics and attitudes.

4) Attitudes toward the civil rights of homosexual have liberalized over time, controlling
for changes in demographics, attitudes, and sexual permissiveness.
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For purposes of this study, attitudes towards homosexuality are operationally defined two

separate ways in order to examine the morality of same-sex sexual relations and the extension of

civil rights to the gay community. Four items measuring attitudes toward homosexuality have

been included in the GSS since 1973. The first is a question asks respondents for their opinion

about homosexual sexual relations:

What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex---do you think it
is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at
This item concerning the morality of homosexuality is an ordinal measure coded from one to

four, with “not wrong at all” coded one and “always wrong” coded four.

In order to study Americans’ concern for the civil rights of homosexuals, three separate

items were added to create an index. The wording for these variables is as follows:

And what about a man who admits that he is a homosexual? Suppose this
admitted homosexual wanted to make a speech in your community. Should he be
allowed to speak or not?

Should such a person be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?

If some people in your community suggested that a book he wrote in favor of

homosexuality should be taken out of your public library would you favor
removing this book, or not?

Index values range from three to six, with three reflecting greater restriction of civil rights and

six reflecting support of civil rights for homosexuals. This index has an alpha of .72, indicating

that it is a strong index.

The two dependent variables presented in this research offer two different ways of

measuring attitudes toward homosexuality. In truth, they measure two entirely different aspects

of the same overreaching concept. The question HOMOSEX measures attitudes about the

morality of sexual intercourse between to members of the same sex. The variables LIBHOMO,

COLHOMO, and SPKHOMO examine the civil liberties of a marginalized group, rather than the
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sexual behavior of homosexuals. Because the dependent variables measure two different things,

it is easy to see why a majority of the American public continues to view homosexuality as

wrong while concurrently increasing support for civil rights for homosexuals.

The independent variable used to measure change in attitudes towards homosexuality is

time, measured by the year that the survey was administered. Additional control variables

include four demographic variables, three attitudinal variables, and three sexual permissiveness

variables. Demographics are measured by respondents’ education, income, region, and sex.

Education is an ordinal measure indicating the highest degree attained by the respondent.

Income is coded dichotomously to reflect incomes greater or less then $20,000 a year. The

variable measuring region is also coded dichotomously to reflect the recent political division of

the country into “red” and “blue” states. Therefore region is recoded to indicate blue states’

(coded one) regions: Pacific, New England, Middle Atlantic, and East-North Central.

Conversely, red states’ region (coded two) includes: West North Central, South Atlantic, East

South Central, West South Central, and Mountain.

This study selects three separate variables for attitudinal controls, a measure of political

liberalness and two separate measures of religiosity. Political liberalism versus conservatism is

an ordinal measure, coded one to seven, with one being “extremely liberal” and seven being

“extremely conservative.” Two separate items measure religiosity: confidence in organized

religion and strength of religious affiliation. Confidence in organized religion is an ordinal

measure, one-three, with responses ranging from “a great deal” of confidence, to “hardly any.”

Strength of religious affiliation is measured by respondents’ self-reported answers to if they are

“strong,” “not very strong,” or “somewhat strong,” in their religion or have no religion. Again,

an ordinal level measure, “strong” is coded one and no religion is coded four.
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Recent literature suggests that a change in attitudes toward homosexuality may be

associated with a change in America’s attitudes towards sexual permissiveness. This is

measured with three items: support for sex education in public schools, acceptability of

premarital sex, and acceptability of extramarital sex. Support for sex education in public schools

is coded dichotomously, allowing for responses of “oppose” (coded one) or “favor” (coded two).

Additionally, attitudes toward premarital sex and extramarital sex are coded exactly the same,

reflecting the degree to which the respondent finds such an act wrong. Answers reflect an

increasing level of acceptance, with answers coded one to four beginning with “always wrong”

and ending with “not wrong at all.”

Linear regression is used to analyze the change in attitudes toward homosexuality.

Before linear regression was utilized, univariate analysis was conducted on every variable to

determine the normality. If the variable was not normally distributed, that variable was recoded

to best standardize the data. Bivariate correlation analyses were run on all independent variables

to determine which variables if any were too highly correlated with one another and therefore

must be made into an index or not used.


From 1972 to 2002 attitudes toward the morality of homosexuality have liberalized

greatly, see Figure 1. Attitudes liberalized during the mid-1970s and reached its most

conservative point during 1987. Since 1990 positive attitudes toward homosexuality have

increased greatly. This trend is similar to the measure of civil rights of homosexuals because of

liberalization, except this trend has increased positively since 1973. Table 1 summarizes the

results of all four hypotheses on attitudes towards homosexuality and the willingness of

Americans to extend civil rights to homosexuals.

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Figure 1. Opinions of the Morality of Homosexuality on Year: General Social Survey 1973-2002


MeMorality of Homosexuality




1973 1976 1980 1984 1987 1989 1991 1994 1998 2002
1974 1977 1982 1985 1988 1990 1993 1996 2000

Year for respondent

Hypothesis 1:
The results of hypothesis one do not support the liberalization of attitudes towards

homosexuality, specifically in regards to morality of homosexuality. Results for year were

significant (p<.05) with an unstandardized coefficient of .011. As time increased, attitudes

toward the morality of homosexuality became slightly more conservative. In this model,

controls for education, confidence in organized religion, strength of religious affiliation, political

views, region, and sex were all significant. Income was the only control variable not significant

to the model. Education had the largest standardized coefficient of .222, indicating its

importance to the attitudes toward homosexuality, even though attitudes remain conservative.
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Hypothesis 2:
The results show that there is strong support for hypothesis two, that when controls for

sexual permissiveness are added, the coefficient for year increases (.011 to .016) as well as the

adjusted R square (.189 to .271). As seen in Table 1, the direction of association reverses from

hypothesis one to hypothesis two. Thus, when controlling for the increased openness of

American society to sex and sexual permissiveness, opinions of the morality of homosexuality

have liberalized over time largely due to the liberalization of sex. Education again was the most

important control variable in this model. Strength of religious affiliation and region have a great

impact on attitudes toward homosexuals. Of the three variables measuring sexual

permissiveness, extra-marital sex has the greatest relationship with changing ideas of morality of


Hypothesis 3:
This model examines attitudes toward extending civil rights to homosexuals and found

that over time more Americans wish to extend civil liberties to homosexuals than do Americans

who wish to restrict them. This finding again supports the over arching research question of has

attitudes liberalized toward homosexuals over the past three decades. When controlling for only

attitudes, such as political views and religiosity, and demographics, including education, income,

region, and sex, the relationship between year and extension of civil rights is highly significant.

In this model, education appears to be less of an influence than is confidence in organized

religion and region shows no affect. Only in hypothesis three does there appear to be no

relationship between liberalization and region.

Hypothesis 4:
The results of linear regression for hypothesis four suggest that, although the model is

again significant, its significance is not due to year but instead due to the influence of the control
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variables. When using all control variables, year, strength of religious affiliation, and sex do not

significantly affect the likelihood of Americans to want to extend civil rights to homosexuals.

Table 1. Unstandardized Coefficients from the Regression of Attitudes Toward Homosexuality on

Independent Variables, General Social Survey 1973-2002
Variable #1
Year .011* -.016* .082* .003

Controls #1
Education (highest .235* .172* .081* .073*
Confidence in .125* .057* .162* .013*
organized religion
Strength of religious .268* .125* .054* .032
Income .014 .030* .050* .056*
Political Views -.174* -.071* -.038* -.027*
Region (Red vs. -.229* -.150* -.103 -.081*
Blue States)
Sex .137* .023* .053* .030

Controls #2
Sex education in - .049* - .138*
public schools
Extra-marital sex - .331* - .037*
Pre-marital sex - .194* - .074*

Constant -19.262* 31.735* -11.583* -2.035

Adj. R square .189* .271* .068* .113*


This study substantiates previous literature by confirming the relationship between year

and the liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality. However, although the trends are the

same, several variables were operationalized in very different ways, which most likely affected
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the differences in significance between the two studies. In Loftus (2001) education is measured

by number of years, instead of highest degree earned and religious affiliation is examined, while

this study looks directly at the affects of religiosity and confidence in religious institutions.

Income is measured in this study while it is absent from Loftus’ study. Political views is

presented as a scale, instead of a dichotomous variable, and race, nationality, rural or urban,

attitudes toward civil rights for atheists and communists, and age are not controlled for or


One of most significant differences between Loftus and this study is how region is

measured. Loftus examines attitudes separately within several regions of the country while for

purposes of this study, a more contemporary view is measured. Due to political debate in the

2004 Presidential election, region was coded dichotomously into two groups, “red” and “blue”

states. Red states are states with Republican affiliation while blue states are more Democratic.

One of the central issues of this year’s election was gay marriage. Because of region’s affect on

the likelihood to grant marriage to gay couples, considered a civil rights issue to many, region

was examined for this purpose. Democratic states were thus not surprisingly more liberal toward

homosexuality than were Republican states.

Education and sexual permissiveness are both significant influences on the liberalization

of attitudes toward homosexuality over time. As seen between hypotheses one and two and in

both models, controls for sexual permissiveness are largely responsible for liberalization. While

attitudes toward homosexuality have remained relatively constant and conservative over time,

America’s increase in sexual permissiveness largely controls America’s change in attitudes

toward the gay community, both through morality and civil rights.
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Between 1973 and 2002 America has greatly liberalized their attitudes toward

homosexuality. Only during the late 1980s did attitudes towards homosexuality become more

conservative. It is not unlikely that this decline was significantly impacted by two historical

factors: Ronald Reagan’s administration and the onset of the AIDS crisis. Ronald Reagan and

his terms in office are characterized by a strong sense of “family values” that are not in support

of homosexuals or homosexuality. At the same time, AIDS was first discovered at this time and

socially labeled “the gay man’s disease.” AIDS helped to stigmatized the homosexual

community and heighten fears of homosexuals. Since 1991 there has not been a decline in

approval of homosexuality, with each year henceforth more liberal than the last.

The variables used to create an index measuring attitudes towards homosexuality through

concern for civil liberties produce a negative bias against homosexuals because of the wording of

the questions. The questions focus on male homosexuals and respondents may react differently

to male and female homosexuals, something that is not captured by these questions (Loftus

2001). While the GSS is the only national survey to ask questions concerning homosexuality

over such a great time period, the wording of the questions cannot be changed because it would

prohibit accurate, longitudinal comparisons. Furthermore, the bimodal distribution of the GSS

question on morality of same-sex relations interferes with obtaining measurement validity.

It is unfortunate that the GSS has not consistently asked its own question about

homosexual marriage through the years of the survey. Understanding how the liberalization of

homosexuality over the past three decades will continue to impact the future is directly relevant

to the public controversy over gay marriage. Furthermore, gay marriage may greatly influence

the direction of civil rights policies and constitutional protections. What is most interesting in

the debate over gay marriage is that even those in favor of gay rights may find that gay marriage
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threatens the institution and tradition of marriage and are therefore not in favor of such


Increases in sexual permissiveness and education are responsible for more positive

attitudes toward the gay community. However, further research should be conducted to

understand the relationship that changing gender ideologies and sex roles have played in the

liberalization toward homosexuality. Kane and Schippers (1996) argue that compulsory

heterosexuality is central to the structure of gender order in wealthy, industrialized, capitalistic

countries, such as the United States. It is responsible for the construction of gender inequality,

asserts male dominance through contempt for homosexuality, particularly through heterosexual

men. Most studies find a significant, positive association between traditional gender role

attitudes and intolerance toward homosexuality. Fitting with generational replacement theories,

younger people tend to be more critical of gender inequalities. Individualistic conceptions of

equal men and women in society provide opportunity for social movements; specifically gender

equality influences gay/lesbian social movements (Frank and McEneaney 1999). Thus,

increased gender equality, sexual permissiveness, and higher levels of education support this

study’s findings of increased liberalization toward homosexuality and present compelling

evidence for the continuance of such a trend in the near future.

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