Should We Fear Opinion Backlash on Gay Marriage?

This is a guest post by Benjamin Bishin, Thomas Hayes, Matthew Incantalupo, and Charles Anthony Smith.


Recent speculation about the Supreme Court’s rulings on the gay rights cases Hollingsworth et al. v. Perry et al., and US v. Windsor et al., has led some to warn of backlash—whereby a favorable gay rights ruling might lead to a surge of anti-gay opinion, which would ultimately set back the march toward equality.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal stalwart, recently countenanced these views when discussing the fight over abortion.  Our research suggests that concerns about public opinion backlash on gay marriage are unfounded.

For decades, those invoking backlash have told traditionally disadvantaged groups that they should not press their claims.  Backlash is typically described as a reaction to threats or changes to the status quo by those seeking to maintain existing power arrangements.   A variety of scholars and pundits have considered backlash in the context of policies advancing the status of Latinos, women , and African Americans among others.   Even among those interested in gay rights, claims of backlash are not unique to the question of gay marriage.

With respect to gay rights, backlash might be precipitated by the policies produced by institutions like the legislature, or the Court, or by non-policy actions such as the election of members of a traditionally marginalized group.   To date, however, empirical evidence of opinion backlash in response to court cases, is anecdotal.  This leads to the question: Does opinion backlash occur?

We investigated this question by conducting on-line survey experiments in which people were asked to react to a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage.  The experiment was conducted just before the Supreme Court oral arguments in the Perry and Windsor cases.  We randomly assigned people to see vignettes containing a fictitious news story about gay marriage in Oregon being legalized by the state court, a story about gay marriage being legalized by the state legislature, a story about a gay pride parade, or a story about a unrelated issue (gun control policy).  After seeing one of these stories, people were asked to rate gays and lesbians on a “feeling thermometer” where 100 indicates very warm feelings and 0 very cool feelings.  If backlash occurs, we should see that opinions of gays become less favorable for each group that read about gay marriage or gay rights, relative to the group that read about gun control policy.  Backlash might be stronger among groups that past research suggests might be more likely to experience backlash—Evangelical Christians and those dissatisfied with the country’s direction.  Here are the changes in feelings toward gays for each version of the experiment (relative to those who saw the gun control story):


We find no evidence of backlash in any of the groups that saw a story related to gay marriage or gay rights (or in all of these groups combined).  This was true among all respondents, among evangelicals, and among those dissatisfied with the direction of the country.  Why did opinions change so little?  One possibility is that a policy made in Oregon, the setting for each of our vignettes, did not provide the degree of threat to the status quo necessary to create a backlash.

To address this possibility, we interviewed a separate sample of people after oral arguments in the Perry and Windsor cases, also having them read the gun control story so that they would be comparable to the group who read this story but were interviewed before the oral arguments.  By making the expansion of gay rights salient, the Court’s hearings may have provided a more significant threat to the status quo.  We estimated backlash by comparing thermometer ratings of gays among those interviewed before and after the hearings.  Backlash would be indicated by differences in Figure 2 that are large and negative.


Once again, our results are entirely inconsistent with the predictions of backlash.  In fact, contrary to theories of backlash, the public as a whole appears to have become more favorably disposed toward gays and lesbians.

These results appear to undermine a central argument made by those who suggest that advocates of gay rights should “go slow” in pushing for gay rights and especially marriage equality.  While there may be costs associated with pushing for equal rights for gays and lesbians, such as the creation of negative precedents that may result from court rulings that go against gay rights, those costs seem unlikely to come in the form of public opinion backlash.

It is ironic that almost exactly 50 years after Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail—a response to Alabama clergy who exhorted blacks to wait for the courts to grant them civil rights—some today suggest the courts themselves should take it slow.  While it is possible that other forms of backlash may occur, our evidence suggests that opinion backlash—the primary basis for many of these claims—is not a good reason to do so.

4 Responses to Should We Fear Opinion Backlash on Gay Marriage?

  1. Rob Robinson June 18, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    An interesting study.

    My question would be to what degree backlash comes from an unmediated response to news of the incident, and to what degree it must first be mediated by opinion elites who signal that X scenario (I’m think of an “activist courts blah blah blah” framing) in order to create backlash. I tend to side with the authors (and Keck’s writing) in this area, but I’m not sure to what degree the experiment recreates the actual process of how backlash would occur. Of course, I don’t have any top of the head suggestions how to implement this, and I could be wrong.

  2. Bill June 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm #

    I appreciate the concern for this issue and the effort to try to determine whether the backlash issue is real. That having been said, I don’t think this research is particularly helpful.

    First, the issue is not whether there would be a backlash against gays and lesbians in the form of reduced feelings of warmth and affinity, but rather whether there would be a backlash against marriage equality.

    Second, the most pertinent data on this topic already exist in the form of opinion polls on gay marriage in states and nations that have considered the issue (whether to legalize or ban it). We see a very consistent pattern not of backlash, but of frontlash. When the issue is joined in the political debate – when it moves from being a hypothetical question to a real prospect of policy change – there is a downtick in support. This reflects soft gay marriage opponents who previously identified as undecided or as supporters – now seeing their party stand in opposition – move to the opposition column. This opposition peaks during the debate and then promptly reverses after the debate subsides. We saw this in MA, CA, IA, NY, ME, WA, MD, and even recently in the UK and France. We also saw it in national polls in the US in 2004, when George W. Bush made the issue part of his re-election bid. The blip usually disappears within 6-12 months, and support resumes its relentless upward climb, regardless of whether the policy change was enacted and regardless of whether it was passed by a legislature or imposed by a court. It is the debate itself and party loyalty by soft opponents that cause the frontlash.

  3. Sam Maloney June 20, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    I think the current rise in homophobic crimes stems from the rhetoric of the opponents of marriage equality.

    When people as august as the last pope declare that gays are ‘undermining the very foundations of civilization’, it empowers the bullies and bigots to act: it not only justifies their actions, it sanctifies it as defense of the family and civilization itself.

    And because equal marriage is a world wide issue right now, it’s opponents are receiving a lot of headlines and TV time, allowing them to ‘get the word out’, even if the stories about them are largely negative: Everyone knows about the Westboro Baptist Church, even though they only have about 70 members.

    My guess then, is that a broad ruling by the Supremes would actually deprive the bigots of the spotlight, and incidents of anti LGBT hate crime would actually decrease.

  4. Gay Marriage June 21, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    I think anti LGBT hate crime will always be an issue as some people refuse to accept this way of life.