UF Study: People More Ambivalent Than Pro- Or Con- About Gay Rights

Published: June 23rd, 2005

Category: Family, Gender, Politics, Research

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Portraying the gay rights conflict as a sharply divided battle between homosexuals and social conservatives ignores the ambivalent feelings held by the vast majority of people in the middle, a new University of Florida study finds.

Nearly three-quarters of Floridians surveyed said they are “of two minds” about one or more issues concerning gay rights, and the results suggest the ambivalence is tied in part to conflicting values, said Stephen Craig, a UF political science professor who led the research.

“The American public appears to be on average both supportive and hostile to homosexual and gay rights, depending on the specific question being asked,” said Craig, whose research was published in the March issue of Political Research Quarterly. “Someone might think that homosexuals should not be discriminated against in the workplace because of their sexual orientation but at the same time express the opinion they don’t want gays or lesbians teaching impressionable young kids in the schools.”

The lesson for politicians and policymakers is they can’t gauge public opinion about gay rights solely from the pro- and con- questions in traditional surveys. They must dig deeper to capture the full complexity of attitudes people have on the issue, he said.

Craig, UF political science professor Michael Martinez, UF political science graduate student Jason Gainous and Jim Kane, of the Florida Voter survey organization, surveyed 601 Florida voters by telephone in June 2002.

They asked respondents to rate on a scale of one to four how positively and then how negatively they felt about eight statements concerning the rights of homosexuals. These were: homosexuals should be allowed to teach in schools; same-sex marriages should be recognized as legal; homosexuals should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military; homosexuals should be permitted to adopt children; what homosexuals do in the privacy of their own homes is nobody else’s business; there should be laws to protect homosexuals against discrimination in their jobs; homosexuals should be allowed to join the Boy Scouts and other youth organizations; and homosexual couples should be able to obtain family health insurance coverage, the same way other people do.

Nearly three-fourths (74 percent) of the Floridians surveyed were ambivalent about at least one of the eight statements, and roughly one-third (31 percent) were ambivalent on seven of the eight items.

The results showed that people’s level of ambivalence about gay rights depended on whether the specific issue concerned adult roles — such as serving in the military or being protected against job discrimination — or related to family and children, such as teaching in schools or joining the Boy Scouts, Craig said.

People who were ambivalent about gay rights issues were to some extent torn between egalitarian values versus support for traditional marriage roles, where the man earns a living and the woman stays home and takes care of the children, he said.

Surveys show that Americans have come to think more favorably of homosexuality and gay rights, perhaps because of shifts in values, Craig said.

“A portion of this change undoubtedly reflects individuals moving from one side of the issue to the other, mostly negative to positive, and from undecided to mostly positive,” he said. “Yet it is possible that another portion stems from people who were once anti-gay becoming not so much positive but rather ambivalent.

“As Americans have grown more tolerant of homosexuality, some have adopted a supportive stance toward gay rights, while others have moderated their previously anti-gay views but remain uncertain and conflicted on the subject,” he said.

Craig said previous studies have shown public opinion about gay rights to vary with civil liberties or family-related issues, but his research found a couple exceptions, he said.

“The prospect of homosexuals becoming teachers was not perceived in civil liberties terms so much as it was a family matter, given the frequent interaction that takes place between teachers and their students,” he said.

In contrast, the question about gay couples being able to obtain family health insurance was seen more as having to do with civil liberties than as a family-related issue, he said.

Howard Lavine, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, said Craig’s work has contributed to an “important shift in scholars’ understanding of the nature and functioning of public opinion.” “What he finds is that rather than wholly endorsing one side of the political debate and refuting the other, individuals often embrace central elements of both sides,” he said.


Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, (352) 392-0186
Stephen Craig, scraig@polisci.ufl.edu, (352) 392-0262

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