Do you favor same-sex marriage? Do you know any gay people?

Jeff and Justin found, based on survey data from 1994-2008, that gay marriage is most popular among the under-30s and least popular among the over 65’s, and it’s a big gap: the difference in support for gay rights is about 35 percentage points more among the young than the old.

To explore these age patterns some more, Daniel and I did some simple analyses of attitudes on gays from three questions on the 2004 Annenberg survey, which had a large enough sample size that we could pretty much plot the raw numbers by age.

First, do you favor a state law allowing same sex marriage? As expected from Jeff and Justin’s analysis, the younger you are, the more likely you are to support same-sex marriage:


How do we understand this? Perhaps younger Americans are more likely to know someone gay, thus making them more tolerant of alternative lifestyles.

It’s not so simple. Let’s look at the response to the question, Do you know any gay people. As of 2004, a bit over half the people under 55 reported knowing someone gay; from there on, it drops off a cliff. Only about 15% of 80-year-olds know any gay people. (The data are a little noisy at the very end, where sample sizes become smaller.)


This isn’t what I was expecting. I thought that people under 30 would be much more likely to say they know a gay person. But the probability actually goes up slightly from ages 18 to 45. I guess this makes sense: during those years, you meet more people, some of whom might be gay.I showed this graph to a student in our department, and she was surprised that the percentages were so low: less than 60% of any age group reports knowing a gay person. A quick calculation: suppose you know 100 people well enough to know their sexual orientation, and suppose 3% of people are openly gay; then on average, people will know 3 gay people. (I think we actually asked a “How many gay people do you know?” question on one of our surveys, so we could look this up.) Given that there’s overdispersion–some people have more friends than others, and gay people are not randomly distributed in the population–it doesn’t seem unreasonable for about half the respondents to not know any gays.

Finally, who supports a Federal Marriage Ammendment (this one is an anti-gay position)? As of 2004, most people opposed such a constitutional amendment:


Opposition was slightly stronger among the young, but not nearly as much as you might expect given the attitudes on state gay marriage laws (as shown in the top graph above). Of the 20-year-olds, 50% supported a state law making gay marriage legal, 35% supported a federal law making gay marriage illegal, with only 15% supporting the status quo. Among 80-year-olds, however, 15% supported a state gay marriage law, 40% favor the federal anti-gay-marriage amendment, and a whopping 45% are happy with the existing laws. (I’m assuming that nobody out there is supporting the anti-gay marriage amendment and also state gay marriage laws, but I guess we can check this.)

Finally, from the Annenberg 2000 survey, here’s the percentage of people, by age, who supported employment nondiscrimination laws. This one shows the expected pattern of the under-30s being different from everybody else:


Next steps

The next thing to do here is to break things up by state–in particular, I’m curious about the “Do you know someone gay” question–and to look at the responses jointly: for example, who are the people who know someone gay but don’t support gay marriage.

P.S. Yes, I know the graphs should not go below 0 or above 100% [now fixed; see above], and probably we should reverse the sign of that third graph. We’re working on it. But isn’t it fun to see some raw research results?

P.P.S. Here are the question wordings:

Do you know someone gay?

– Do you have a friend, colleague, or family member who is gay or lesbian?

Responses: Yes, No, Respondent is gay or lesbian, don’t know, refused. I grouped “Respondent is gay or lesbian” into the yeses.

Do you support a federal gay marriage amendment?

– wording 1: The federal government adopting a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage–do you favor or oppose the federal government doing this?

– wording 2: Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would make it illegal for two men to marry each other or for two women to marry each other?

– wording 3: Do you favor or oppose a constitutional amendment that would allow only marriages between a man and a woman, making it illegal for two men to marry each other or for two women to marry each other?

– wording 4: Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman?

– wording 5: Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution saying that no state can allow two men to marry each other or two women to marry each other?

Responses: Strongly favor, Somewhat favor, Somewhat oppose, Strongly oppose, Neither favor nor oppose, don’t know, refused.

Grouped “Strongly favor” and “Somewhat favor” as positive, all others (including don’t know and refused) as negative.

Do you support a state gay marriage law?

– wording 1: Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow gays and lesbians to marry a partner of the same sex?

– wording 2: Would you favor or oppose a law in your state that would allow two men to marry each other or two women to marry each other?

Responses: Strongly favor, Somewhat favor, Somewhat oppose, Strongly oppose, Neither favor nor oppose, don’t know, refused

Grouped the same way as the federal amendment.

13 thoughts on “Do you favor same-sex marriage? Do you know any gay people?

  1. Hmph. The nature of the person doing the knowing of a gay person certainly effects this. I worked with a fellow ("George") who disbelieved the gay population could be 3 to 7% percent. "Heck," he said, "I don't know ANY gay people."

    I said, "George, if you knew a guy who was gay, what makes you think he would tell you about it?" George, being honest in addition to his mild bigotry, admitted that they probably wouldn't.


  2. I don't find the "do you know any gay people" numbers surprising in and of themselves, nor in how they relate to the gay marriage numbers.

    To take a fairly extreme example that I still think illustrates my point, white slaveowners knew plenty of black people. What do you think their responses to a poll about black rights would have been?

    Acquaintance with, and even sympathy for the social predicament of gays does not necessarily lead immediately to a belief in legalizing gay marriage. In fact, I know plenty of gay people who don't believe gay marriage should be legalized. It's more based on pre-existing societal expectations for a lot of people.

    I would say the more likely correlation of younger meaning a higher rate of acceptance of gay marriage is that humanity in general tends to become more liberal as time passes, as well as that the young are more likely to lean liberal.

  3. Interesting, but watch that you don't draw too much inference from there two very different questions, one about state law and the other (reverse coded) about a constitutional amendment. survey respondents are likely to cue in on the amendment language and oppose anything so radical. If you asked the same question about a law (especially state law) and an amendment, you are priming different ideas and often get very different responses.

    Very interesting question, though. You might want to look at Paul Brewer's recent work on the issue.

  4. It may appear that people unuder 30 do not know as many gay people simply because the gay people they know have not come out yet. Many people keep their sexuality a secret late into their 30s or even 40s. This secrecy would also explain the last half of the graph, where people over 60 appear to know hardly any gay people at all. There is no reason to believe the life expectancy of gays is that short, nor that the proportion of gays in the general population changed that dramatically in 40 years. Rather, I think it's more reasonable that a 65 year-old homosexual who has not come out is unlikely ever to do so because of the severe taboo against it by the majority of his/her generation.

  5. Another David's comment is correct. Coming out is a process for many people, one that takes years. They may be out to a group of friends, but not generally. They may not be out to family – which would affect numbers in the older age groups.

  6. I asked several different people how they understood the question "do you support a federal gay marriage amendment" and it became clear that the question means a law to permit to some people and ban to others. You are in a garbage in garbage out scenario with your question.

  7. It pains me to credit Jonah Goldberg with more than reptilian intelligence, but he’s one of the few on the Right who have figured this out (or at least one of the few who will publicly acknowledge having figured it out). This battle is lost for the right. It’s all but inevitable, demographically speaking, that a majority will emerge in favor of gay marriage.

    They Republicans are going to find themselves squarely on the wrong side of history. I respect the temptation to milk it for all it’s worth while they can—Nixon and Reagan sure did with respect to blunt racists—but you’ve got to be smarter about it. That is, you’ve got to lay the groundwork for a plausible revisionist history in the future. If a guy like Romney gets the nomination (or wins the presidency), I think we will see him brave the wrath of the base and make some concessions in this direction, e.g. putting an openly gay person or two, probably of the lesbian variety, in a prominent position.

  8. Does the cell phone only population of younger people play a role here? I'm under the impression that the Annenberg survey is landline only.

  9. The LGBT population isn't distributed evenly. It's more concentrated in gay-friendly neigbhorhoods, cities, counties & states. Thus, there's a decreasing proportion of gays as you expand the field from New York's Chelsea neighborhood to the city as a whole, the metropolitan New York area, or New York State.

    Places with low concentrations of gays are, on average, probably less tolerant, meaning that those LGBTs who reside there are less likely to be openly gay. Thus, it's not surprising that large parts of the population don't know anyone gay. This means that there's also an endogeneity problem in attributing their views to their not knowing someone gay — one reason they don't know someone gay is because of the perceived dominant views in the region.

  10. Support for gay marriage will go up for two demographic reasons as the older generation dies off and as the younger generations ages and becomes more involved in politics. This will put the Republican party in a bind. A
    majority of Republicans will be fairly militantly anti-gay for a long time after the rest of the country has moved on.

  11. Certainly a look into rural/urban differences in respondents would provide a considerable amount of insight, no? Seems respondents from smaller towns would be far less likely to know someone who is gay.

  12. So are there noticeable differences between support for state gay marriage laws or a federal marriage amendment conditional on knowing or not knowing someone who is gay?

  13. Okay, same sex marriage should be legalized everywhere. I think it is ridiculous that it isn't. The government has no right to decide who should be with whom. Gay marriages are the same as opposite sex' getting married, who you fall in love with is between you and that person. Everyone can sit there and say they want everyone to have equal rights an be happy, but when it comes down to it, 1/4 of this world is against same sex marriage. Hypocrites.

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