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Do You Favor Same-Sex Marriage? Do You Know Any Gay People?

Jeff and Justin found, based on survey data from 1994-2008, that gay marriage is most popular among the under-30s and least popular among the over 65’s, and it’s a big gap: the difference in support for gay rights is about 35 percentage points more among the young than the old.

To explore these age patterns some more, Daniel Lee and I did some simple analyses of attitudes on gays from three questions on the 2004 Annenberg survey, which had a large enough sample size that we could pretty much plot the raw numbers by age.

First, do you favor a state law allowing same sex marriage? As expected from Jeff and Justin’s analysis, the younger you are, the more likely you are to support same-sex marriage:

How do we understand this? Perhaps younger Americans are more likely to know someone gay, thus making them more tolerant of alternative lifestyles.

It’s not so simple.

Let’s look at the response to the question, Do you know any gay people. As of 2004, a bit over half the people under 55 reported knowing someone gay; from there on, it drops off a cliff. Only about 15% of 80-year-olds know any gay people. (The data are a little noisy at the very end, where sample sizes become smaller.)

This isn’t what I was expecting. I thought that people under 30 would be much more likely to say they know a gay person. But the probability actually goes up slightly from ages 18 to 45. I guess this makes sense: during those years, you meet more people, some of whom might be gay.

I showed this graph to a student in our department, and she was surprised that the percentages were so low: less than 60% of any age group reports knowing a gay person. A quick calculation: suppose you know 100 people well enough to know their sexual orientation, and suppose 3% of people are openly gay; then on average, people will know 3 gay people. (I think we actually asked a “How many gay people do you know?” question on one of our surveys, so we could look this up.) Given that there’s overdispersion–some people have more friends than others, and gay people are not randomly distributed in the population–it doesn’t seem unreasonable for about half the respondents to not know any gays.

Finally, who supports a Federal Marriage Ammendment (this one is an anti-gay position)? As of 2004, most people opposed such a constitutional amendment:

Opposition was slightly stronger among the young, but not nearly as much as you might expect given the attitudes on state gay marriage laws (as shown in the top graph above). Of the 20-year-olds, 50% supported a state law making gay marriage legal, 35% supported a federal law making gay marriage illegal, with only 15% supporting the status quo. Among 80-year-olds, however, 15% supported a state gay marriage law, 40% favor the federal anti-gay-marriage amendment, and a whopping 45% are happy with the existing laws. (I’m assuming that nobody out there is supporting the anti-gay marriage amendment and also state gay marriage laws, but I guess we can check this.)

Finally, from the Annenberg 2000 survey, here’s the percentage of people, by age, who supported employment nondiscrimination laws. This one shows the expected pattern of the under-30s being different from everybody else:

Exact question wording is here (scroll down to the end). Daniel mostly coded nonresponses as No’s, which isn’t quite how I’d do it (I’d usually exclude nonrespondents from the averages), but I doubt this makes much of a difference. We can check.