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?

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