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Tracking public opinion on same-sex marriage bans

March 22, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing two cases that seek to overturn bans on gay marriage: Hollingsworth v. Perry, which seeks to overturn a California voter initiative that prohibited gay marriage, and Windsor v. United States, which challenges the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell has been surveying Americans’ views of marriage and family for years and has predicted that public acceptance for same-sex marriages was inevitable. Yet, even he is surprised at how quickly public support for same-sex marriage has increased.

“This is faster than I thought it would be. I cannot think of another social issue that has seen such a quick shift in public opinion,” says Powell, who is author of Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family (Russell Sage Foundation, 2010.)

Powell noted that Supreme Court decisions often are both responsive to public opinion and change public opinion by legitimizing policies in the eyes of many people. Several years ago, the Supreme Court ruled against same-sex marriage in several instances. Judging from the transcripts, Powell says, there was sympathy on the court for same-sex marriage, but public support was not as strong as it is today.

“Public support has completely flipped in the last 10 years,” he notes. “The Supreme Court is hearing the case when it is clear that the movement has been unremitting in the direction of support for same-sex marriage.”

Support for same-sex marriage had been increasing by around 2 percent to 2.5 percent a year in the past decade, Powell says. He attributes much of the change, ironically, to the vocal opposition. Many people who he surveyed in 2003 had never given much or any thought to the idea of same-sex families or couples, but this changed when it because a hot political topic.

“There was so much news and so many anti-same-sex marriage campaigns,” he says. “They took an idea that wasn’t even imaginable, but ultimately, as people thought about it, they moved from lack of support to ‘Why not?'”

During this time, more people became more open about their sexuality so that it became more common for people to know others who were gay or lesbian. An “overwhelming” number of people under 30 support same-sex marriage, according to Powell’s research, and their support does not change as they age. Most of the opposition has come from people 65 and older, with the opposition “literally dying off.”

Powell said the arguments being presented to the Supreme Court in opposition of same-sex marriage do not reflect public opinion he has documented in his surveys. The attorneys emphasize the opposition is not for moral reasons. Yet, in Powell’s surveys, moral disapproval, particularly involving parenting, was most commonly cited to explain opposition.

Another argument by opponents of same-sex marriage, he says, is that the experiences of gays and lesbians cannot be compared to discrimination experienced by racial minorities and women because a person’s sexuality is a choice while his or her gender and race is not. Powell said his surveys also find this argument contrary to public opinion, with respondents to his surveys believing that genetics or even the “will of God” explains homosexuality.

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