Should We Fear Opinion Backlash on Gay Marriage?

Jun 18 '13

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.