What Polls Reveal About America’s Attitudes on LGBT Issues
For more than a decade, public polls documented the steady growth in support for gay rights and the rising acceptance of LGBT people. The steady trajectory led many to assume that public support for LGBT equality would move inexorably upward. Few public policy debates are ever definitively settled. Yet, when it comes to gay rights, polling seemed to suggest that the American public was speedily approaching consensus.
Until it wasn’t.
A Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this year found that forty-three percent of the public—a plurality—said that the US has gone too far in accepting transgender people, a view that only 15 percent of the public expressed just three years earlier.
Last month, Gallup recorded a substantial drop in the number of Americans who believe that “gay or lesbian relations” are morally acceptable. The 2023 poll found that just shy of two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans believe same-sex relationships are morally acceptable, a seven-point drop from the previous year. That’s a significant reversal of a long-running upward trajectory over the last 20 years. It wasn’t that long ago—2002—that only 38 percent of Americans believed same-sex relationships were morally acceptable. Much of this recent decline was driven by Republicans, but not entirely.
These findings have led some to suggest that we’re experiencing a backlash. After years of rising support same-sex marriage, the public has now suddenly become more conservative. But I think what recent polls are showing is something different: an unsettled public responding to emerging policies that are extraordinarily complicated, and about which many people feel conflicted. In the years leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage, most polling focused exclusively on this issue—giving us a false sense of what Americans believe when it comes to sexuality and sexual identity.
Same-Sex Marriage is Unique
Any review of the polling landscape leaves one with the conclusion that on the question of same-sex marriage, the trend in support remains positive. Despite enduring partisan divisions, generational patterns offer a strong signal of what’s ahead. A 2022 Pew poll, for instance, found that nearly two-thirds of young Republicans believe that the legalization of same-sex marriage has been beneficial to society. If Americans were once conflicted about this issue, most no longer are.
And yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that support for same-sex marriage does not accurately reflect of how Americans feel about a host of other policies related to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
Quite simply, same-sex marriage was unique. Gallup recorded a more than 40-point opinion shift in a little more than two decades. That’s remarkable. A few years back, I argued that the incredible success of the same-sex marriage movement would be difficult to replicate. Years before same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states, most Americans believed that it would eventually happen—even Americans who opposed it still thought it was inevitable. In this way, polling on same-sex marriage is a poor proxy for understanding the broader landscape of opinion on LGBT issues. It was a discrete policy goal with a clear moral imperative: to treat gay and lesbian people fairly.
Beyond same-sex marriage, however, support for policies related to gay and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people have always hinged on the specific context or cases involved. Americans appear fine with allowing gay and lesbian people to teach in elementary schools, but what’s the appropriate age for students to read books featuring gay and lesbian characters and themes? Nearly half of Americans, and fully half of parents, say they would be uncomfortable with the inclusion of gay and lesbian characters and stories in elementary school library books. What’s more, only about one-quarter of Americans say it’s important for students to learn about LGBT identity and experience.
When it comes to transgender issues there is also plenty of evidence of substantial disagreement. How should we think about fairness when it comes to the participation of transgender athletes in high school sports? Americans strongly reject discrimination against transgender people, but the lengths they think society should go to in order to accommodate transgender athletes is less clear-cut. Polling reflects this sense of conflict.
Human Sexuality is Complicated
There's no single poll question that can adequately summarize the state of opinion on such a diverse range of policies that affect very different types of people. What’s more, this stuff is complicated, and our understanding of human sexuality continues to evolve. For instance, ideas surrounding sexual identity and experience are not always neatly aligned and may reflect underlying political or religious values.
Even after 20 years, Americans have not reached a consensus about the nature and origin of sexual preferences and attraction. Only 49 percent of Americans believe that sexual orientation is innate, while roughly as many believe it’s the result of environmental factors or some combination. Views have been divided on this fundamental question for the past couple of decades.
It’s also difficult to predict what increasing knowledge may lead the public. A new poll from PRRI finds that more Americans now say that gender is binary, and the increase is especially pronounced among young adults. In fact, no generation shifted more dramatically than Generation Z. In 2021, just 43 percent of Gen Zers thought that gender was binary. Today, that number has increased to 57 percent—a 14-point increase over the last two years. It’s difficult to know what to make of this finding, other than that views are, well, fluid.
Polls can create an illusion of steady, incremental, seemingly inevitable progress, but the trend toward greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people has always proceeded in fits and starts. Opinions are almost always more nuanced than they appear, and ambivalence can sometimes pass as support in a public opinion question. On most of the policies related to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, we don’t live in a binary world of opponents and supporters. Instead, polls reveal a tangle of ambivalent, contradictory, and inconsistent beliefs.
Daniel A. Cox is the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a contributor to 538 and Insider and writes the newsletter American Storylines.