Over the past decade, the gay rights movement has had a lot to celebrate. Within a single generation, a politically divided country appeared to reach a consensus in support of same-sex marriage and acceptance of gay and lesbian people. Today, two-thirds of Americans support allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, nearly the mirror opposite of where things stood in 1996, the first year Gallup polled on the question.
But the rapid rise in support and the corresponding changes in American culture have led to a growing disconnect between public perceptions and the actual experiences of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the U.S.
Perceptions of discrimination against gay and lesbian people have plummeted over the past few years, particularly among young people. Only 55 percent of Americans believe that gay and lesbian people face a lot of discrimination in the U.S., down from 68 percent in 2013. Among young adults, historically some of the strongest supporters of gay rights, perceptions of discrimination against gay and lesbian people dropped by 16 points. What’s more, a Pew Research Center study suggests that Americans surveyed by phone may be overstating the extent to which they believe gay and lesbian people face discrimination. A 2014 report found that Americans were 14 points less likely to say gays and lesbians experience a lot of discrimination when responding to an online survey than when a pollster called them.
The drop in perceptions of discrimination against gay and lesbian people has not coincided with a broader shift in the public’s thinking about discrimination in society. Over the same time period, Americans have not become notably less inclined to say Muslims, women, Jews or blacks are facing less discrimination. In fact, Americans are somewhat more likely to say black people are experiencing a lot of discrimination than they were in the past.1
Mounting evidence suggests that around half of Americans believe the fight for gay rights is increasingly unnecessary. A 2019 Gallup survey found that a majority (54 percent) of the public feel satisfied with the level of acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the country. In a Gallup survey conducted a couple years earlier, just under half (46 percent) of the public said new laws are not necessary to reduce discrimination against gay and lesbian people. This is largely consistent with a more recent PRRI survey, which found that nearly half (49 percent) of Americans — including 81 percent of Republicans — believe the country has made the changes needed to give gay and lesbian people equal rights.
Gay rights has never been the most important issue for the average voter. Even during the intense debate over same-sex marriage, few ranked it as a critical concern. And now, gay rights has largely fallen off the public radar. On a list of 16 issues, a Pew poll found that the treatment of LGBT people ranked dead last in the percentage of people who said it was important to their vote in the 2018 election.
This stands starkly at odds with the actual experiences of LGBT people. A 2017 Harvard study found that a majority of self-identified LGBT people reported facing slurs or offensive comments. Experiences of being threatened and subjected to sexual harassment were also widely reported in the study. The results of the Harvard study are remarkably similar to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey that found a nearly identical number (58 percent) of LGBT people who said they had been subjected to slurs or jokes based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
These findings suggest that the pervasiveness of discrimination experienced by LGBT people is, at best, largely unchanged over the past few years, and government data shows violence against LGBT people is increasing.
How has this happened? It’s difficult to point to any definite cause, but there are a few potential explanations. One is the high-profile accomplishments of the LGBT fight for equality. The movement’s milestones and accomplishments were meticulously documented and dramatized in real time. Media outlets have eagerly covered each historic step and shift in public opinion, which may have left an increasing number of Americans with the impression that the public has reached a comfortable consensus on the issue of gay rights.
Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy at Freedom for All Americans, says winning on same-sex marriage came with a cost. “[It] may have led some Americans to believe that LGBTQ Americans now have all the protections they need. Some people I meet out on the campaign trail are really surprised to learn how much discrimination LGBTQ Americans still face.”
Another possible explanation may be that despite the increasing visibility of the lives, experiences and perspectives of gay and lesbian people, Americans are receiving a picture of LGBT life that doesn’t always match reality. Gay, lesbian and transgender characters are featured widely in television shows, and the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity have become common themes in many of these programs. But although a number of gay and lesbian actors and entertainers have achieved national popularity, the experiences of LGBT people vary widely depending on where they live. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, “There is no such thing as LGBT life in America.”
Simply having a gay or lesbian friend may not change those misconceptions either. Seventy percent of Americans report having a close friend or family member who is gay or lesbian, but this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans are getting an honest accounting of what life is like for gay and lesbian people. A 2017 survey of LGBT people found that nearly one-third avoided talking about LGBT issues in social situations to avoid facing possible discrimination.
Perhaps the sustained focus by activists and the media on same-sex marriage — both the legal fight and the shifting public support — overly simplified the more complex and nuanced public views Americans have about LGBT issues. For years, support for same-sex marriage served as a proxy for the views about how gay and lesbian people should be treated in society. But it is unclear how committed Americans will remain to the entire set of issues that fall under the umbrella of LGBT equality. Polling on transgender issues shows a far more divided public, for example.
Lastly, public perceptions about LGBT rights in the U.S. may be affected by the decreasing prominence of critical opinions in the media. Opposition to gay rights remains entrenched in two important institutions — the Republican Party and many churches — but these perspectives are increasingly absent from popular culture.
Only one of the country’s two major political parties — the Democratic Party — currently affirms that gay and lesbian people have a right to marry. The Republican Party remains steadfast in its opposition to same-sex marriage. The 2016 Republican platform offered an emphatic denunciation of the recently-enshrined right, which had been ushered in at the federal level by a court ruling the year before. “We … condemn the Supreme Court’s lawless ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which in the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, was a ‘judicial Putsch’ — full of ‘silly extravagances.’” Given how important conservative religious voters are in Republican politics, this state affairs is not likely to change in the near term.
Meanwhile, many of country’s largest religious denominations still prohibit same-sex marriage. The issue of homosexuality still appears in Sunday sermons around the country. Forty-two percent of Americans who regularly attend religious services report that their clergy discusses the issue. And the messages are usually critical, according to those who have heard them. Today, nearly one in three Americans believe that gay and lesbian relations are morally wrong.
The social media sphere was set atwitter after it was reported thatKaren Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, would teach at a Christian school that bans gay and lesbian students and teachers. But this practice is not uncommon at many Christian secondary schools, where openly gay and lesbian teachers face disciplinary actions and can be fired.
The truth is that a large number of Americans express a deeply-felt discomfort with gay and lesbian people, but it’s becoming less likely that their perspectives will show up on “House Hunters,” in your Facebook feed or at your office happy hour. They do show up in state party platforms, in laws governing child welfare agencies and even in trade deals. They are held by a substantial number of Americans.
The challenge for the gay rights movement is convincing Americans that while the legalization of same-sex marriage was a major accomplishment, it’s not the only metric that matters.