What Makes a Family? More Americans Say Gays Count

Photos: A Gay Family Album Joe Raedle

The idea that gay couples who are married or have children qualify as "families" has rapidly become the majority view in the U.S., and researchers credit public discussions about gay marriage—by supporters as well as vehement opponents—for the unexpectedly fast pace of change. That's the surprising conclusion of the Constructing the Family Surveys, which monitor Americans' opinions about what makes a family. The surveys were launched in 2003 by researchers at Indiana University; the University of California, Irvine; the University of Utah; and the University of South Carolina. A detailed analysis of the results are included in the new book Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family.

These results are particularly startling because of the widespread assumption that the passage of "defense of marriage" legislation in many states (and the federal Defense of Marriage Act) in recent years represented a growing backlash against gay marriage and gay families. But based on the new data, Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, says he has to conclude that any such backlash was short-lived. "Social change usually occurs at a glacial pace," he says. "What we're seeing is a very rapid shift in people's views of who they consider to be a family."

When the researchers reviewed the first round of survey results in 2003, they found that about 41 percent of the respondents supported gay marriage, yet 53.6 percent agreed that two men living with a child constituted a "family," and 55 percent said the same thing about two women living with a child. By 2010, not only did a majority (52 percent) say they were in favor of gay marriage, but the proportion who believed that gays living with kids are families had grown to 68 percent.

Powell says the team concluded that a variety of recent societal shifts were key to this accelerated rate of change, including the fact that homosexuals have become increasingly open with friends, family, and acquaintances about their sexual orientation. In 2003, 58 percent of the survey's respondents said they didn't have any family or friends who were gay. By 2010, that proportion had fallen by almost a third: only 40 percent said they didn't have any gay friends or relatives. Only 18 percent said they didn't know anyone who was gay.

While you might presume that those with a gay family member were the most open to gay marriage, Powell says that people with gay friends are more likely to be swayed. "Maybe that's because you choose your friends but only a few of your relatives," he says. Overall, in 2003 the researchers found that 20- to 29-year-olds were the most supportive of gay marriage; by 2010, that group had expanded upward to age 38. "That's a big jump in a short time," Powell says.

Researchers who did follow-up interviews with some respondents also noticed significant changes in the way people spoke about gay issues over the last seven years. When they talked to their first group in 2003, Powell says, "a lot of people would lower their voices before saying the word 'gay.' They didn't want to say it out loud." But starting the next year, as defense-of-marriage laws became a major political issue and there was much more public discourse about gay issues, people seemed to become more comfortable discussing the topic. Respondents began to mention, for example, "the impact of seeing Lynne Cheney talking about her daughter on TV," Powell says, and "people became much more likely just to say the word. The sheer fact of talking about it seems to make a difference. It brings it out of the shadows."

Celebrities who are open about their sexual orientation have also had an impact. "When Ellen DeGeneres had her own show on TV in 1997 and came out, there was an uproar," Powell says. "But since then we've certainly seen a large increase in the number of same-sex couples on TV. Look at the show Modern Family. If you had told people there would be a same-sex couple with a child on a mainstream TV show and that it would win an Emmy, no one would have believed that 10 years ago."

Over the last seven years, Powell says, the researchers were also able to document a "profound shift" in what the public considers to be the determinant of an individual's sexual orientation. "By 2010, the proportion who say homosexuality is the result of either 'genetics' or 'God's will' is over 60 percent, and those who say it's caused by bad parenting has gone way down. That means the number who think [sexual orientation] cannot be changed has gone up." Interestingly, the 15 to 20 percent who say homosexuality is the result of God's will also tend to be among the most open to gay rights, he says.

Finally, there's the effect of what Powell calls "the power of law." "In 2003, many people said gay couples didn't qualify as 'families' because they couldn't get married," he says, and only 26 percent of all respondents disagreed with that idea. "But once gays were allowed to be legally married, even in just a few states, more people (59 percent by 2010) were willing to describe a married gay couple without children as 'a family.' "

The trends Powell and his colleagues are documenting are similar to what sociologists found during the years when interracial marriage was becoming more common and legal, culminating with the U.S. Supreme Court's Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, which struck down Virginia's ban and made such marriages legal throughout the country. "Before the Loving case, Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to interracial marriage," Powell says. "But after Loving was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, views shifted. By 1972, only a third of whites were still opposed. There was a huge drop in resistance as a result of the legal shift."

What does all this portend for the near future? While those who strongly oppose gay marriage have been a powerful political bloc because they tend to be one-issue voters, Powell says his best guess is that their numbers will continue to shrink. Between 2003 and 2010, he says, the number of people who adamantly opposed gay marriage declined from 45 percent of the survey's respondents to 35 percent. "I suspect that this is changing more rapidly than most politicians realize," he says. That should be a lesson to politicians: don't assume you know what the voters think. They could be way ahead of you.