The Economist has an interesting analysis of the changing nature of the GLBT community in America. The subtitle says it all: “As tolerance spreads, gay life is becoming more suburban, contented and even dull.” Here are some highlights:
Perhaps it is no surprise that gays find a hip city like New York hospitable. But two sets of data suggest that America as a whole is becoming steadily more tolerant. First, opinion polls show that homophobia has receded almost as far as Homer Simpson’s hairline. As recently as 1982, only 34% of Americans thought homosexuality should be considered an acceptable alternative lifestyle. Now, 57% do. Since young Americans are far more relaxed about homosexuality than their elders—three-quarters of 18-34-year-olds think it is OK to be gay, whereas half of those over 55 think it is not—this trend is likely to continue. This year was also the first since Gallup started asking the question that a majority of Americans have not said that homosexual relations are morally wrong. And a hefty 89% think that gays should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities. If that strikes you as no big deal, recall that a total ban on gays working for the federal government was repealed only in 1975.
Second, and more subtly, one can look at demography. Gary Gates, a Californian academic, has been mining census data to determine where gays live in America. He observes several trends. First, the number of openly gay households is growing five times faster than the population as a whole. The last full census, in 2000, counted nearly 600,000 same-sex couples. Five years later, the American Community Survey (in which the Census Bureau quizzes a statistically representative sample of 1.4m households) estimated that that number had increased by 30%, to 777,000. Mr Gates reckons the bulk of the increase is because as tolerance spreads, more gay couples are willing to be counted.
The increase was most pronounced in the Midwest, with Wisconsin showing an 81% jump in the number of same-sex couples and Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, Iowa, Missouri and Indiana also among the ten fastest-growing states in this respect. What this means, perhaps, is that gay America is becoming more like Middle America. “Much of the stereotype around gays is a stereotype of urban white gay men,” says Mr Gates. “The gay community is becoming less like that, and more like the population in general.” Gay couples are still more likely than straight ones to live in cities, but the gap is smaller than popularly believed, and closing. In 1990, 92% of gay couples but only 77% of American households were in what the Census Bureau calls “urban clusters”. By 2000, the gay figure had fallen to 84% while the proportion for households in general had risen to 80%, a striking convergence.
The article then observes that the greater acceptance is leading many GLBT couples to move to the suburbs:
But if you want to settle down with a partner, the suburbs and the heartland beckon. Gays who have children—and a quarter of gay couples do—gravitate towards them for the same reasons that straight parents do: better schools, bigger gardens, peace and quiet. Mark Strasser, for example, lives with his male partner and their two children in Columbus, Ohio. He says they encounter no hostility eating out as a gay couple or picking up the children from their private school. He has to rack his memory for the last time anyone called him anything nasty for being gay. “That would have been in the late 1980s, I think,” he says. His employer, a private university, offers the same health insurance to employees’ gay partners as to spouses (as did most Fortune 500 companies, for the first time, last year).
Mr Strasser has worries, of course. Ohio is one of 26 states with a recent constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage. Mr Strasser wonders whether a public school would recognise that his children have two fathers, or if a hospital would allow both of them to visit if one of their children fell ill. This is a serious matter. Only Massachusetts allows same-sex marriage, although six other states have allowed civil unions that are marriages in all but name, and a law allowing full marriage rights passed through the lower house of New York’s state legislature on June 19th. Most Americans are still uncomfortable about letting gays tie the knot, but support for the idea has risen from 27% in 1996 to 46% this year.
Read it all here.
Attitudes are clearly changing and there may well be a “virtuous cycle”–as attitudes change, more GLBT people come out and there is a resulting improvement in the attitudes of friends and relatives. The Pew Research Center issued a study that found that 4 our of 10 Americans say they have a friend or relative who is gay or lesbian, and not surprisingly, this group has very different attitudes about issues such as gay marriage than those who claim to have no such friend or relative:
Overall, those who say they have a family member or close friend who is gay are more than twice as likely to support gay marriage as those who don’t — 55% to 25%. A similar relationship between knowing gays and favoring gay rights is evident when people are asked whether school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known homosexuals. That idea gains support from only 15% of those who have a close friend or family member who is gay. Almost four-in-ten (38%) of those who don’t have close friends or family members who are gay support the idea. In other words, those without close friends or family members who are gay are more than twice as likely to say schools should be able to fire gay teachers as are people who are close to gays. Overall, 28% of the public thinks school boards should be able to fire gay teachers.
Read the study here.