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What Do Americans Think About Gay Rights and Discrimination?

It appears to be gay rights week here on 538, so I thought I’d do my part and post something that I wrote with my Columbia colleagues Jeff Lax and Justin Phillips on public opinion and policy on gay rights:

In his address at the Democratic convention, Barack Obama said, “surely we can agree that our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters deserve to visit the person they love in the hospital and to live lives free of discrimination.”

What was he thinking, saying this to the nation? California was on the way to a contentious battle over same-sex marriage and the issue has arisen in other states as well. Isn’t gay rights a wedge issue that Democrats should try to avoid?

Yes, Americans are conflicted about same-sex marriage, but one thing they mostly agree on is support for antidiscrimination laws.

In surveys, 72% of Americans support laws prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. An even greater number answer yes when asked, “Do you think homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?” This consensus is remarkably widespread: in all states a majority support antidiscrimination laws protecting gays and lesbians, and in all but 10 states this support is 70% or higher.

But people do not uniformly support gay rights. When asked whether gays should be allowed to work as elementary school teachers, 48% of Americans say no. We could easily understand a consistent pro-gay or anti-gay position. But what explains this seeming contradiction within public opinion so that gays should be legally protected against discrimination but at the same time not be allowed to be teachers?

If anything, we could imagine people holding an opposite constellation of views, saying that gays should not be forbidden to be public school teachers but still allowing private citizens to discriminate against gays. A libertarian, for example, might take that position, but it does not appear to be popular among Americans.

We understand the contradictory attitude on gay rights in terms of framing.

Our hypothesis goes as follows: when survey respondents are asked about antidiscrimination laws, they consider the widely-held American view that discrimination is a bad thing, so there should be a law against it. They are unlikely to put themselves in the position of an employer who might want to discriminate, and so are not likely to oppose an anti-discrimination law. But when asked about gay teachers, they identify with parents and students, and might feel that having a gay teacher is a risk they’d rather not take.

Thus, we hypothesize that survey respondents answering this question, in contrast to the antidiscrimination question, think in terms of values and outcomes rather than rights. When viewed in terms of rights alone, public opinion is incoherent: it’s hard to see how it makes sense to allow the government the right to discriminate against gays in hiring teachers while prohibiting private organizations from discriminating. It is coherent if framing matters.

The apparent contradiction in public opinion might suggest why, even though anti-discrimination laws have broad support, only 20 states have adopted such laws. And it might suggest why the national Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect gays and lesbians from discrimination at work, not been more enthusiastically supported in Congress. (It was passed by the House of Representatives in 2007 but did not come to a vote in the Senate and would have faced a likely veto from President Bush in any case.) The problem is that it would be difficult to write legislation that incorporates these contradictory stances.

This also suggests that the presidential candidates could take any view on ENDA while still claiming to have majority support–by stressing the rights frame or the values frame.

John McCain came out in opposition to ENDA and Barack Obama is on record as supporting it. Although gay issues are often thought of as politically risky, the poll results suggest that support of gay rights can be unequivocally popular in almost every state—as long as it is framed in terms of values such as non-discrimination (which is presumably one reason why the Employment Non-Discrimination Act was given this name in the first place).


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