Just as Americans are growing more accepting of gay rights and same-sex marriage, a new study by Professor Brian Powell of Indiana University finds that “a majority of Americans now say their definition of family includes same-sex couples with children, as well as married gay and lesbian couples” — although they “do not consider unmarried cohabiting couples, either heterosexual or same-sex, to be a family unless they have children“:
“This is not because more people are gay now than in 2003,” he said. “This indicates a more open social environment in which individuals now feel more comfortable discussing and acknowledging sexuality. Ironically with all the antigay initiatives, all of a sudden people were saying the word ‘gay’ out loud. Just the discussion about it made people more comfortable.” [...]
“Neither the numbers from our data nor actual votes on initiatives are anywhere near the sufficient magnitude to support the idea that the public is ready to embrace same sex-couples with open arms,” the authors say. But, likening the resistance to laws and mores against interracial marriage, “we envisage a day in the near future when same-sex families also will gain acceptance by a large plurality of the public.”
In the midst of the Right’s attempts to whip its base into opposing gay rights in 2004 and the ongoing conservative effort against a slew of LGBT initiatives, these results are not only impressive, but also incredibly surprising. In fact, in an interview with me, Powell said that the conservative anti-gay campaigns actually increased the visibility of LGBT issues and made “a topic that seemed taboo a little bit less taboo.” “One of the fascinating things is that with all this discussion out there whether positive or negative, being able to say the words, just made people more comfortable,” he told me. “With all this discussion about same sex marriage…I think it made people more attuned to who there friends and relatives [are].”
“What did happen between 2003 and keeps coming up has been an increase in belief among Americans is that your sexuality is not really changeable,” he continued. “The idea that you can stop being gay just like you can stop being het is something that Americans are just increasingly not buying. And we found an increase in percentage of people who said sexuality is just genetics. There is also a good portion of people who say sexuality is God’s will…. [But] here, God’s will is used as a liberal response. Sexuality is just something not controlled by environment, it’s something that just happens. ”
Children are still central to the family equation, however. People think that “having a child is a signal that this relationship is at least intended to last,” Powell explained. “Several people said that even if two people break up years afterwards, there is a kid. It’s still always going to be a family.” “It signals, commitment, it signals responsibility, it signals some sort of guarantee.”
These findings are included in Powell’s new book “Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family,” to be published today by the Russell Sage Foundation.