Changing Attitudes About Homosexuality:

[UPDATE: I'm afraid I misentered the data in the table when I first posted this; please see the revised information. The analysis remains correct — but the data now matches it.]

AEI has a useful compilation of poll data on attitudes about homosexuality and related topics. Here's one particular interesting item, from p. 3, reporting on what percentage of respondents to a National Opinion Research Center survey said that homosexual sexual relations are "always wrong" (as opposed to almost always wrong, only sometimes wrong, or not wrong at all):

Age 1973 2002
Total 73 55
18-29 56 48
30-44 74 48
45-59 75 55
60 and over 89 68

There are three obviously striking items here: First, 55% of Americans still think homosexual sexual relations are always wrong. Second, public attitudes have shifted considerably (by 18%) on this in the last thirty years. Third, younger people have always been less likely than older people to say that homosexual sexual relations are always wrong.

But the fourth thing may be less obvious, and yet I think just as important: If you look at the 18-29 age range in 1973 and the 45-59 range in 2002, which represent pretty much the same people (18-29-year-olds in 1973 would be 47-58 in 2002), the percentages are statistically identical, 56% and 55%. If you look at 30-59-year-olds in 1973 and 60-and-over in 2002, which should also be pretty much the same people (since only a small fraction of the 60-plus in 1973 survive in 2002), the change is from 74-75% to 68%, a significant change but a relatively small one.

So the primary reason for the 18% change does not seem to be that adults are hearing more about gay rights claims, seeing more out-of-the-closet gays at work or in social circles, and thus changing their views. There seems to be a modest such effect among those who were over 30 in 1973, but only a modest one.

Rather, the main change is in the views of the new generations (the ones who are now 18-44). And this change started with those who came of age in the 1960s and early 1970s (note that the "always wrong" figure has declined only from 56% to 48% from 1973 to 2002), and therefore seems likely to have been caused by the Sexual Revolution, which predated 1973, more than by the gay rights movement.

UPDATE: Many thanks to reader Marco Parillo, who gave the quote that this reminded me of, but the details and the author of which I couldn't remember: It's known as Planck's Principle (after it's author, physicist Max Planck), and it is that

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Naturally, the analogy is not intended to be perfect, and those who prefer to see tolerance of homosexuality as being more akin to new error than to new truth may feel free to replace "truth" with "error." The important point here isn't about truth as such, but rather about how public opinion changes.

Goober (mail):
56% and 52% among 18-29 year olds. Probably it's still statistically insignificant, I'm guessing.
8.19.2005 1:19pm
Goober (mail):
Whoops! Misread you. My bad. But the second column should read 48/ 48 / 55 / 68, no? I believe you're quoting the 1974 column. (I'm looking at page 3.)
8.19.2005 1:25pm
Jim Anderson (mail) (www):
"Coming out" has to be an important variable in the analysis.

Look at these Newsweek poll results:

1992-- 20% work with someone gay or lesbian
2000-- 32%

1992-- 9% have a gay or lesbian family member
2000-- 23%

1985-- 22% have a gay / lesbian friend or acquaintance
2000-- 56%
8.19.2005 1:36pm
Byomtov (mail):
Something is wrong with your table. It shows 52/70/78/84 for age groups in 2002, with an overall value of 55. That can't be right. And as Goober says, it doesn't match your text.
8.19.2005 1:36pm
Marco Parillo:
Would this also explain the data?

Max Planck: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grow up that is familiar with it.

I know attitudes about homosexuality are not science, but the parallel struck me as obvious.
8.19.2005 1:37pm
Jim Anderson (mail) (www):
I'm not sure how well this data squares with the "sexual revolution" hypothesis, though, except perhaps as a backlash effect, since younger folks are now more likely to view extramarital sex as "always wrong."

Extramarital sex always wrong
Generation Gap 1973-1997

          18-24 25-34 35-44  45-54 55-64  65+

1973 NORC/GSS 57 63 71 75 81 87
1985 NORC/GSS 66 70 68 73 83 86
1997 NORC/GSS 81 78 79 77 83 82

SOURCE: "Changes in the Generation Gap, 1972-1998" by Tom W. Smith, National Opinion Research Center,
October 2000
8.19.2005 1:46pm
The text of your post is correct, but you copied some of the numbers in the second column from the wrong place, causing your chart to not match the text.
8.19.2005 1:50pm
Chad K:
Prof. Volokh,

Your column labelled 2002 is actually the 1974 table.

The correct 2002 column should be:
8.19.2005 1:52pm
Cal Lanier (mail) (www):

In the first place, I don't think there's any question that the sexual revolution movement was responsible for a huge shift in attitudes about homosexuality. If you read some of the other polls in your link, it shows that in 1977, half the adults polled didn't think homosexual relationships should be illegal, which is far more meaningful than whether or not they think it's "wrong".

But you seem to be saying there hasn't been a big shift since that point, and most of the other polls in that link contradict that. Look at some of the other polls.

Gay relationships "not acceptable": 59% in 1978 to 38% in 2004.

Important to have laws prohibiting gay relationships: 47% in 1976 to 25% in 2002.

"Gays should have equal job opportunities": support went from 56% in 1977 to 87% in 2005.

"Gays should be able to join the armed forces": support went from 51 to 76% in the same time frame.

All the other employment possibilities went up similar amounts (with teaching doubling in support but still the lowest).

So by the seventies, around half the population already didn't object much, and that number has steadily declined since then.

I do think that the shift is more likely due to movies and television than any gay rights efforts. The cute, sympathetic gay neighbor in the romantic comedy is far more appealing than the dykes on bikes at the parades.

So ask folks if it's "wrong", with no out, and they don't seem to have changed much. Get specific, or give them the "not a moral issue" option, and the change shows up.
8.19.2005 1:52pm
Gabriel Rossman (www):
Anyone interested in the raw data can query it at The variables in question are called "homosex," "year" (of interview), and "age" (at time of interview).

"Cohort replacement" is the technical term for the phenomenom AEI is describing and it's generally pretty powerful. The consensus is that the late teens are a particularly formative period for people's attitudes. You can find a lot of articles on the subject in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.
8.19.2005 2:11pm
Jim Lindgren (mail):

The phenomenon you identify is called "Cohort replacement." It is standard to try to separate a cohort effect (one age cohort dying and a new one replacing it) from a period effect (people changing their views from one period to the next).

As I recall, the new release of 2004 GSS data still shows that most people think gay sex is always wrong.

Jim Lindgren
8.19.2005 2:24pm
B. R. George (mail):
to J. A. - do you mean ‘extramarital’ in the sense of ‘adulterous’ here? that's the definition given over at, and if so, i'm not sure how representative it is. i'm a young libertarian, and most days i think the whole institution of marriage sounds sort of silly, but adultery strikes me as extremely distasteful not as a matter of sexual morality, but as a matter of honesty and of respect for one's promises.

i'm most likely unusual in this respect, but it seems possible that young people are less tolerant of adultery because they've assimilated a ‘just be honest about it and get a divorce!’ or ‘if you wanted to screw around, then why did you get married?’ sort of attitude.

of course, there must be a backlash effect in play too, but by itself the data you provide doesn't do much to establish its extent.
8.19.2005 2:43pm
Jim Anderson (mail) (www):
B.R., I'm not sure how it was defined in the original survey, which was included in the AEI report. My guess is that it refers to adultery--but even so, that more young people view adultery as wrong, even if for reasons of honesty, is surprising, especially in an otherwise permissive sexual climate.
8.19.2005 2:57pm
Hiram Hover (www):
I'm not sure why you pose what seems like a false and blindered dichotomy in terms of causation, unless it's to take a slap at the gay rights movement.

Why does the cause have to be either the sexual revolution OR the gay rights movement, and not other cultural and social phenomena that may only be loosely linked to either of those two things, including those cited by previous commenters: more people out of the closet, and thus more personal acquaintance among hetrosexuals with people they know to be homosexual; more discussion and sympathetic portrayals of gays in media and popular culture, etc.
8.19.2005 3:04pm
Andrew Meyer:
Extramarital, I think, is a term more board than just adultery, as it really just means "outside of marriage". That's generally how evangelicals use it, and that's typically how it has been described to me by most of the people who condemn it.

That definition obviously encompasses adultery, but it isn't just limited to it. I
8.19.2005 3:09pm
Simon (391563) (mail) (www):

My guess is that it refers to adultery--but even so, that more young people view adultery as wrong, even if for reasons of honesty, is surprising, especially in an otherwise permissive sexual climate.

I'm not sure why this would be so. "Permissive sexual climate" means that generally speaking that 1) sex is ok -- something to be enjoyed, not condemned, and 2) no one really has standing to complain about anyone else's actions in relation to #1. Marital vows negate the second premise (and not, witticisms aside, the first, one hopes), but only for the people who are a part of the marriage.

To put it another way: I'm quite confident than everyone I have known who was married in the last 5 years had sex "outside of" marriage with their intendeds. Does that mean that after they were married they would countenance their husbands and wives to continue to have sex "outside of" marriage? Not by a long shot.
8.19.2005 3:42pm
frankcross (mail):
An equally good way of looking at this data would be to say that attitudes naturally become more negative toward gays as people age (increasingly self-certain and judgmental?), so the fact that the cohort has stayed roughly the same is functionally a change in counteracting the natural effect.

But I think the biggest question is why the new cohorts of the young have become much less anti-gay, which I suspect is due to TV and other culture and more openness among gays, etc.
8.19.2005 3:42pm
Gabriel Rossman (www):
The GSS has one question specifically about adultery (exmarsex) and another about sex before marriage (premarsx). overall, 28.4% of respondents say fornication is always wrong and 75.2% say adultery is always wrong.
So it appears that Jim's numbers actually are about adultery.
Here's the exact wording of exmarsex:
What is your opinion about a married person having sexual relations with someone other than the marriage partner--is it always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?
8.19.2005 3:47pm
Josh Jasper (mail):
I expect once we reach a significant majority of voters being OK with gay sex, same sex marriage will be inevitable.
8.19.2005 3:54pm
Duncan Frissell (mail):
There are three obviously striking items here: First, 55% of Americans still think homosexual sexual relations are always wrong.

This is striking only to those who are unaware that some 80% of the population are members of religious groups that hold that view (Conservative Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox Catholic, Othodox Jewish, Islamic).
8.19.2005 4:05pm
Christopher (mail):
Duncan, if that 80% are concerned about their faith's orthodoxy then why does that 55% shrink to the 28% that Gabrial quoted as disapproving of fornication? I was under the impression that fornication is not well looked upon by most religous groups. Do you think that it's possible people could be so hypocritical as to only agree with their church when their church condemns someone else?
8.19.2005 4:18pm
Eh Nonymous (mail) (www):
Duncan: Interesting factoid. Does that mean that 55% is a striking figure for the _opposite_ reason to the one EV implied?
8.19.2005 4:20pm
Noah Snyder (mail):
As I read Prof. Volokh's claim he's suggesting that: the sexual revolution is the driving force of changes in views of homosexuality to the exclusion of the gay rights movement. Am I mischaracterizing your claim?

There seem to be two powerful counterarguments thus far. First, Cal Lanier's clarification that: views on *morality* were changed more by the sexual revolution, but views on *acceptance* were changed more by the gay rights movement. Second, the more direct problem (raised by several commenters) of: Why is the younger cohort less likely to morally oppose homosexuality even as they get more traditional on some other sexual questions.

It seems that the synthesis of all this data is:
Coming out and the gay rights movement seems to increase acceptance of homosexuals among those who disapprove of it morally, and to decrease the number of youths that consider it immoral, *but* is completely useless in terms of changing the underlying moral views of grownups.

Does anyone disagree with this synthesis?
8.19.2005 4:39pm
Jim Anderson (mail) (www):
Thanks, Gabriel, for pointing to the exact wording of the question. I challenge anyone to explain why those numbers have gone up--why more youth think that adulterous sex is "always wrong." Given the supposed moral relativism and feels-good-do-it mythology of the free-love 60s and "The Ice Storm" 70s, these numbers are more than a little surprising.
8.19.2005 4:51pm
Jim Anderson: Children these days are more likely to have been involved in a divorce than those who were involved in the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s.
8.19.2005 4:55pm
I suspect billb answers Jim Anderson correctly, but it might be deeper. Is it a backlash against their own/peers unpleasant experience of divorce, or a recognition that being a cheat is wrong when divorce is a readily available option?
8.19.2005 5:13pm
Brett Bellmore (mail):
It could be both, you know.
8.19.2005 5:29pm
steveh2 (mail):
I'm curious as to the options other than "always wrong." Was there a "sometimes wrong" option? "OK if he buys dinner first" option?
8.19.2005 5:45pm
JoeSlater (mail):
Along the lines of steveh2's comment, what could it mean to think that gay/lesbian sex is "almost always wrong"? It's wrong, except in a small sliver of situations, which would be ...?
8.19.2005 6:20pm
Jerry (www):
In at least some form the Gay Rights movement also predated 1973. I'm reading a book called "The Gay Militants" by Donn Teal that was published in 1971; I'm only about fifty pages into it, but so far it contrasts the new Gay rights activists following Stonewall with the older, more conservative Gay rights activists who started in the fifties (such as the Mattachine Society).

It's a fascinating book if you can find it.

8.19.2005 7:48pm
Splunge (mail):
Mr. Volokh perhaps confuses correlation with causation, much like those who think adolescent girls become anorectic principally because Julia Roberts is rich and thin. It seems to me far more likely that both the "sexual revolution" and the gay rights movements are results of shifting attitudes between generations than the causes of them.

As for why the attitudes have shifted, aside from the truism that that's what new generations are for (there's an evolutionary advantage for children to deviate from parental patterns), I expect the origin is in the complex of poorly-understood environmental factors that mold personality during childhood.

Indeed, Mr. Volokh's first conclusion -- that there has been little change in people already adults when these two "movements" came along -- supports this interpretation, by suggesting that political movements have in the end only a modest affect on personal attitudes formed in childhood.
8.19.2005 8:15pm
chuck (mail):
Interesting observation that prompts the mind to wander...

The 45-59 y.o. set would have lived through the beginning of the gay rights movement in the 60s and 70s (to the extent that they may have been paying attention to it at all) when it was its most radical and, arguably, most unappealling.

People find gay marriage a radical proposal now, but in the 1970s gay activists routinely scorned the institution of marriage and mocked 'mainstream' values rather aggressively. Today's gays generally make much more palatable and less threatening claims, wouldn't you say, by arguing to be included and treated fairly?

I think coming out has a lot to do with it and meeting different kinds of openly gay people. I don't think my dad (who's in the 45-59 cohort) would be likely to recognize or even wonder if someone is gay if they didn't come out and say so explicitly. But I think I probably would.
8.19.2005 8:31pm
fling93 (www):
My wife points out that the gay rights movement started in earnest in 1969 with the Stonewall riots, and it became much more visible in the mid/late 70s.
8.19.2005 9:10pm
Bruce Wilder (www):
The Sexual Revolution was a real phenomenon, covering a period of a dozen years, centered on 1967. It is fascinating to me that the asymtote is just less than half the population, 48% who hold homosexuality to be "wrong." I wonder if this is a blue state / red state thing.
8.19.2005 9:11pm
Lynn Gazis-Sax (mail) (www):
Given that "extramarital sex" is both used to mean "adultery" and to mean "any sex whatsoever outside of marriage," I wouldn't trust shifts over time in answers to a question about approving "extramarital sex" to be all that meaningful. Reason being that a decrease in approval for "extramarital sex" could mean: a) more disapproval of adultery, b) more disapproval of all sex outside of marriage, or c) more people interpreting "extramarital sex" to mean "adultery" and fewer people interpreting the term to mean "fornication."
8.19.2005 10:10pm
Adam (mail) (www):
On the adultery thing among the young, remember that mine is a generation that has seen a large number of public figures and celebrities get into a boatload of trouble because of it. From Bill Clinton and Gary Hart to Brad Pitt and Fatal Attraction, that adultery is harmful has been a consistent cultural message.

And, as hinted above, it's the basic Dan Savage advice column: do what you want, but be honest about it with the people involved.
8.19.2005 10:18pm
Gabriel Rossman (www):

Read the preceding comments. Fornication and adultery are clearly distinguished in the survey questions. The trends are not caused by survey respondents conflating the two issues.
8.19.2005 10:27pm
Jim Lindgren (mail):
The question wording through the 2000 GSS is available at:

Click search and enter words (eg, "sexual") or variable names (eg, HOMOSEX).

Some of the questions people might want are:


Jim Lindgren
8.19.2005 11:48pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
I love the GSS variable names. My favorite is SEXSEX5.
8.20.2005 2:55am
Carol Anne:
Gabriel Rossman wrote (in part): Fornication and adultery are clearly distinguished in the survey questions. The trends are not caused by survey respondents conflating the two issues.

From a logical viewpoint, the first sentence is a fact. However, I don't believe the second is a warranted conclusion, unless you have data that shows that was tested.

In fact, people answer questions sequentially; the first appearance of a word can often be interpreted with a broader meaning than intended, until the survey-taker reads further down...and, by then, they may've forgotten their (likely unconscious) conflation.

It's just an artifact of surveys and tests. Did the questionnaire, for example, define all the terms before the first question, or were the distinctions discovered by participants as they proceeded through the form?
8.20.2005 12:00pm
Tarheelpoder (mail):
Unfortunately, this survey only goes up to 2002, so we can't be sure it reflects the current attitude on the morality of homosexuality. At any rate, more recent polls have shown a sudden upswing in support for gay marriage. The trend toward acceptance of homosexuality continues in the most recent polls.
8.20.2005 12:54pm

I think, but am not sure, that the GSS is a CATI (Computer-Assisted Telephone Interview) poll.

This means that order can be pretty easily accounted for across the sample by varying the order of the questions.
8.20.2005 2:14pm
Splunge (mail):
Interestingly, Planck's comment, adduced to the original post by Mr. Volokh, would be a particularly inappropriate way to characterize Planck himself. Indeed, it's a bit of a shame that Planck's good scientific name should be attached to a fairly unsophisticated and cynical observation on human nature. I am reminded of the unfortunate appropriation by many fads characterized by a goofy lack of self-discipline of one or more of Einstein's quotes on the occasional value of undisciplined thought. This mischaracterizes Einstein in much the way this quote could be used to mischaracterize Planck.

Max Planck was trained in classical, not to say Victorian, physics, and indeed his entire youth functioned to embed in his personality a singular conservatism and respect for orthodoxy. (He was later to reap personal tragedy from this, as he struggled during the war to reconcile his natural loyalty to his country with his disgust for the National Socialists. His son Erwin was suspected of involvement in the 1944 plot to assasinate Hitler and executed in 1945 by the Gestapo.)

Despite his youth and training, Planck not only recognized but himself proposed the earliest pieces of quantum mechanics, which radically overthrew existing physical theory. He did so with considerable personal reluctance, as some of his comments demonstrate, viz.:

I tried immediately to weld the elementary quantum of action somehow in the framework of classical theory. But in the face of all such attempts this constant showed itself to be obdurate ... My futile attempts to put the elementary quantum of action into the classical theory continued for a number of years and they cost me a great deal of effort...

...the whole procedure was an act of despair because a theoretical interpretation had to be found at any price, no matter how high that might be.

(Emphasis mine.) The price for Planck was indeed high. Arguably he went into thermodynamics research precisely because his love of orthodoxy and order resonated with the implacable Second Law as it was then known. In order to accept where experiment and his own remorseless logic led him, Max Planck at age 42 needed to set aside his own personal preferences, and much of the key scientific training (not to mention unconcious prejudice) he'd received in his youth, and reject the classical interpretation of the Second Law.

Planck contributed only the modest beginnings of quantum theory, and indeed it was left to a younger generation to build the complete edifice on his foundation. But it is certainly the case that Planck himself was an excellent counter-example to the philosophy of men expressed by this quote, an illustration of the fact that many men with intellectual integrity do exist, men who will discard error when the facts demand it, whatever the personal cost and however personally fond they may have been of the error.
8.20.2005 6:15pm
From Noah: "It seems that the synthesis of all this data is:
Coming out and the gay rights movement seems to increase acceptance of homosexuals among those who disapprove of it morally, and to decrease the number of youths that consider it immoral, *but* is completely useless in terms of changing the underlying moral views of grownups. "

I think this is absolutely correct.

I also think that 2002 isn't a recent enough date. The data in the last few years have been for gays dropped after Lawrence and Goodridge, but has now climbed in some polls to significantly higher levels.

Finally, I think moral views -- right and wrong -- are very interesting, but only one piece of the puzzle. Lots of people will say something is "always wrong" but will still oppose discrimination on that ground. To me, that seems inconsistent, but polls reveal it over and over again (gay marriage, abortion, even interracial marriage and interfaith marriage, practice of non-christian religions or of any particular religion within christianity....all these things may be considered "always wrong" by many people, but those people might also still support equal rights (or privacy rights)).
8.20.2005 8:38pm
Gabriel Rossman (www):
carol anne,

you're absolutely right that question order can skew responses. there's a notorious example of this in GSS in that one year self-reported happiness shot up for no apparent reason. they quickly deduced that this was a question order effect since they placed the "how happy are you w your marriage" question right before the "how happy are you" question and most married people tend to derive a lot of happiness from their respective marriages.

so it's possible that asking people about something particularly unsavory and vicious, like adultery, could prime them to be more prudish even on fairly acceptable acts, like fornication. however in the codebook the fornication question comes first so if, and this is a big if, the interview is in the same order, then adultery couldn't possibly prime prudish answers for fornication. however, gay sex comes after adultery in the codebook so this could prime lower tolerance for gay sex, again, assuming that the codebook order matches the interview order.
8.21.2005 12:06am