Changes in Public Attitudes Towards Homosexuality

by Erik Voeten on May 18, 2012 · 4 comments

in Blogs

In yesterday’s post, I gave some comparative context for U.S. public opinion towards gay marriage. Today I want to do the same with temporal changes in acceptance of homosexuality. Since 1981, the World Values Survey has asked respondents in each of its waves to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 whether homosexuality is “justifiable,” where 1 means “never” and 10 “always.” If I had my choice of survey questions this would not be it. But it is what it is and this measure correlates quite well with others. For example, the Pearson correlation between country averages on this scale and support for marriage (from yesterday’s post) is .92.

Below is a graph of average country scores in the different waves. I included all European countries that were in the 1990 survey. In most countries acceptance is much higher in 2008 than it was in 1990 and 1981. The trend is not universal but the overall pattern is clear. What is especially noticeable is that the variation among countries has increased: most of the countries where public opinion was already reasonably favorable have become MUCH more accepting whereas most countries where the public was more skeptical have changed relatively little.

Change in the U.S. is pretty modest compared to most countries. Of course, as discussed yesterday, there are parts of the U.S. that look more like Sweden and parts that look more like Turkey.

The literature offers a couple of systemic determinants that explain cross-country variation, including economic development, religiosity but also income inequality (pdf, non-gated). That may be part of the story but I am not sure it offers good explanations for variation in the rates of change. So what is it that has made so many publics become more accepting of homosexuality at the same time even though other societies appear more immune to change? Thoughts?

{ 4 comments }

RobC May 18, 2012 at 9:47 am

What is it that has made so many publics become more accepting of homosexuality at the same time even though other societies appear more immune to change? The Biden theory, of course, is that it’s related to exposure to “Will and Grace.” In fairness to Biden, who often gets “a bit over his skis,” we should perhaps broaden this hypothesis to include exposure to gays and external characteristics that are associated with gays (but not necessarily attributable only to gays). These qualities are the basis for the popular Internet quiz “Gay or Eurotrash?

Eyeballing the European Values Study graph and applying to it a subjective assessment of the prevalence of Eurotrash in each of the countries, the hypothesis appears to have considerable explanatory power. Rephrase this in more scientific language and combine it with a multinational data collection program, and I smell N.S.F. grant!

Jana von Stein May 18, 2012 at 10:54 am

I think some of it has to do with domestic politics/cultural changes. Maybe the “Will & Grace” thing, but also, some of these countries have had quite a few openly gay MPs (Iceland even an openly gay Prime Minister). Which way the arrow runs is hard (probably both) but I sincerely think that a lot of this is about the extent to which political and cultural figures can convince ordinary people that it’s perfectly possible to be gay and ‘normal.’ (Sorry to use charged words … I personally see nothing abnormal about being gay anyhow).

Brian Schmidt May 18, 2012 at 12:30 pm

White Americans by ethnicity are a combination of Germans, Brits, Irish, and then alot of nations that come in low on that list. Maybe white ethnicity hasn’t completely disappeared as explaining American politics – it would predict the middle position that we’ve got in the list.

David Estrom May 19, 2012 at 2:45 am

According to your graph, the US was more hostile to homosexuality in 2008 than it was in 1999. I don’t believe that is in accord with any other US poll on this issue. See, e.g., Gallup’s regular poll on “homosexuality” as “morally acceptable.” The big reversal in Italy is also not in accord with the socio-political landscape of that country in 2008 vs 1999. And Ireland’s polling has uniformly shown an explosive growth in sympathetic views towards homosexuals beginning in the early 2000s, in contrast to the very modest sympathetic shift shown above. I am not sure whether the quirky wording in the Values Survey is throwing off unusual results or whether it is something else, but I find these results suspect.

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