The Pew Research Center has released a new poll that seems to show a favorable shift in attitudes relating to the rights of gay people.

Marriage: Ten years ago there was little conversation about marriage equality and about two thirds of the public opposed providing equal marriage rights to gay people. Since then the public has had a great deal of exposure to the idea and the initial knee-jerk reaction has been modified by thoughtful debate. Consequently, attitudes changed to the point where in July 2003, only 53% of those polled opposed gay marriage while 38% favored marriage equality.

Then came the highly divisive 2004 Presidential elections in which one candidate made opposition to gay marriage one of his campaign issues and the other candidate tried to dance around the issue, ultimately opposing gay marriage in his own state. Public opposition grew to 63% and stayed in the high 50’s and low 60’s throughout 2004.

The most recent polling suggests that currently 51% of the populace opposes gay marriage while 39% favors equality.

Even more interesting is the reduction in the percentage of those who are “strongly opposed” to gay marriage from 42% in February 2004 to 28% at present. Every demographic polled (age, political party, and religious affiliation) showed a decrease in those strongly opposed and the only demographic group in which a majority remains strongly opposed is white evangelicals at 56%.

Up until very recently the marriage debate has been perceived as between religious people and gay people. While there has been support all along from justice-focused churches, it has only been in the past few months that religious leaders from mainline churches have become visible in taking a proactive stance in support for marriage equality.

I believe that as perception shifts away from religion v. gay, opposition to gay marriage will diminish further.

Adoption: In 1999, 57% opposed adoption by gay persons while only 38% were in favor. Currently, the numbers are statistically even (48% oppose, 46% favor).

Unlike marriage, which showed shifting attitudes among all demographics, adoption may prove to be more polarizing. Some groups that opposed gay adoption in 1999 – blacks, Republicans, white evangelicals – changed little while other demographics – Catholics, Democrats, Independents – shifted from slightly unfavorable to favorable. Those under the age of 30 are favorable by a margin of 58% to 38%.

Currently conservative Republicans oppose gay adoption by 77% and liberal Democrats favor it by 76% with moderates of both parties split on the issue.

Although the Catholic hierarchy has gone to the mat in some dioceses over this issue – in Massachusetts they decided to cease adoption services rather than give up discrimination against gays with taxpayer money – their parishioners seem to hold a different position. 55% of Catholics favor gay adoption while only 37% agree with the Pope.

While this issue was floated as this year’s “gay marriage” by anti-gay conservatives seeking to draw their base to the polls during an election year, it appears not to be showing much promise. Ironically, in many European states, rights for gay couples is a no-brainer while adoption is a much larger issue.

Military: In 1994 only half (52%) of the populace supporter open service by gay people in the military while 45% opposed open service. Currently the public favors open service by a 2 to 1 margin (60% to 32%).

Every demographic showed a shift towards acceptance with the largest being young people, southerners, Democrats, and white evangelicals. Currently the only demographics that are opposed to open service by gays are conservative Republicans who oppose open service 58% to 36% (moderate Republicans favor open service 62% to 29%) and evangelicals 47% to 43% (mainline Christians support open service 63% to 30% and Catholics 67% to 26%).

As Republicans are split on this issue 46% to 46%, open service can no longer be considered a partisan issue. The only politicians that need to fear reprisal for overturning Don’t Ask Don’t Tell are those whose constituency is predominantly conservative evangelicals. It seems likely that DADT’s days are numbered and in the near future it will be overturned.

Conclusion: Overall, this report is encouraging. It shows that Americans are starting to view gay people as individuals with the same goals, needs, and desires as themselves. But it also shows that the gay community has a long way to go before gay people receive equal treatment before the law.

And as equality and freedom come closer within reach we can anticipate that anti-gay forces will ratchet up their activism. I believe that much of the upcoming hostility will focus on ex-gay propaganda. Anti-gay forces seem to be clinging to the claim that gay people don’t exist as such, and their “proof” is the claims of ex-gay spokesmen.

Unfortunately, those who will most be fodder in the culture wars are those poor persons who wish to reorient their sexuality. With compassion and care taking a backseat to political agenda, it may be very difficult for them to find honest answers to questions about whether they can change, the meaning of “change”, possibilities of harm, and the likelihood of success.

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