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Aug. 20 2009 - 2:59 pm | 388 views | 2 recommendations | 22 comments

The Gay Gap

Lesbian Wedding 1

Image by Patrick Doheny via Flickr

As contentious as the debate over gay marriage can get sometimes, I’ve always taken comfort in one simple fact: This is a generational battle, and that means the younger generation wins… eventually.

We all know there’s a gap between how old folks feel about same-sex marriage and how young folks feel. What you might not quite grasp is just how tremendous that gap is. A new paper (“Gay Rights in the States: Public Opinion and Policy Responsiveness” [PDF]) by Jefferey Lax and Justin Phillips puts it in a bit of perspective.

Just how big is the gay marriage age gap? Between the under-30 crowd and the over-65 crowd: 35 percentage points.

Or, try this on for size, at the state level: If people over 65 in each state made the laws, 0 states would have gay marriage; if people under 30 made the laws, 38 states would have gay marriage.

That’s from Texas down on the chart below:


Young folks are the red squares, old folks are the blue diamonds (sorry, no pink hearts, orange stars, or yellow moons). Here in New York, for instance, support for a state same-sex marriage law is at around 70% among the young, just over 50% overall — the holdouts are, of course, the old folks at around 32% support.

What does it mean? Well, it means the overwhelming majority of states are likely to have gay marriage laws in most of our lifetimes. But what does it mean more specifically? Is the state-by-state, federalist approach the right one? How is opinion likely to evolve in the future?

On the federalism question, the paper is relatively clear: “National policy has indeed been more resistant to pro-gay opinion than state-set policy.” And the federal government is, indeed, far behind many states on most gay-rights policy questions — and on some questions the federal government is merely silent (is that so terrible? things are often so much better when the feds keep silent).

On the state level, government policy has been much more in line (or, as the paper puts it, congruent) with pro-gay sentiment. Though, even there it’s hardly perfect:

Interestingly, most non-congruence is in the conservative direction. Majority will is not trumped by pro-gay elites—rather, opinion and policy are disconnected in a way that works against the interests of gays and lesbians. In other words, we do not find any evidence suggesting a consistent pro-gay bias in policymaking, as is often argued by opponents of gay rights. Nor is there evidence that governmental elites override conservative opinion majorities.

It is also notable that the preferences of religious conservatives are “over-represented.”  Their share of the population shapes policy even beyond directly affecting public opinion and the composition of state governments. Powerful conservative religious interest groups also strongly affect gay rights policy at the expense of majoritarian congruence.”

That’s right: The Christian Right can shove it (for oh-so-many reasons). While state policy is better at keeping up with pro-gay public opinion, it still lags (see: New York) — and religious conservatives, far from being “silenced” by an all-powerful gay Left, have a much bigger megaphone than they deserve.

As for where opinion will go from here — well, I think that’s a fool’s errand. The great question is whether the young people who support gay marriage now will come to oppose it when they’re the 65 year olds. But there’s no reason to think opinion on gay marriage would follow the trajectory of opinion on things like drugs and abortion.

For one thing, most obviously, young people now live knowing lots of gay people whereas old folks say they don’t know any gay people. Check out the charts below (source: here):



While there’s more contour to this, dropping off at about age 55, people say they know no gay people — and, surprise, they also oppose gay marriage. Young people know a lot of gay people, they support gay marriage.

Unless all of our gay friends are going somewhere between now and when we get to our 60s — aliens? a very angry Jesus? — I don’t think many people my age are going to go backward on this issue. Indeed, I think we’re moving forward.

HT: The Monkey Cage


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  1. collapse expand

    Ryan: The GAY GAP you reference is not about “left or “right,” it is simply about RELIGIOUS BELIEF.

    Religion defined homosexuals as “wrong, sinful and deviant.” This created the beliefs about gays and lead to most of the pain, suffering and inequality. It’s not Republicans or conservatives or even bigots – it’s the BELIEFS. The RELIGIOUS beliefs.

    Gallup has done some great research on the “non-religious” and their thoughts about homosexuals.

    LGBT people will NEVER obtain equality until the undo the definition religion branded us with. We must fight those beliefs.

    We need to learn to put Equality BEFORE Religion or we’ll never be the “same” as everyone else. We’ll never be “equal” as long as we are deviant and defective.

    That’s the battle that needs to be fought – now, not later. Sure, religion will probably be thrown in the historical junkyard of “silly ideas,” like Greek Mythology, sometime in the next 50-60 years, but we must end the religious lies about homosexuals NOW.

    People are ready, especially young people.

    • collapse expand


      The religion factor is certainly important. But the age issue is essentially a straight-line correlation — and it’s not just because young people are more secular.

      Combating religion is important for a whole host of reasons. But I know young Christians who are entirely fine with gay marriage. See it as a non-issue.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Yep. You could execute an “Order 66” on every homo alive right now, and in 20 years or so, there would be a whole fresh crop of us!

    But who’s to say every queer wants there to be ‘gay marriage’? That’s just the name of another hetero institution; like many other institutions we’ve been forced to accept, that have proven to disappoint on so many levels.

    Many of us (older ones) never had the faintest idea of an acceptable role model growing up (ok kids try to imagine no internet), or someone who could give us a ‘birds and the bees’ talk (in way that really made sense anyway).

    The strength of developing within that – what could I call it – existential poverty of sexual self discovery (?) is that many of us had to form an Identity and sense of self love, completely de novo, borrowing concepts from others but ultimately constructing a “Life” on our own.

    Then there’s the lucky percentage of us that have normal, long term partnerships of mutual social, economic and every other type of support that any happy straight couple enjoys. You don’t see them as much; they’re more likely working on the house than marching in a parade in a onesy – but they’re there!

    So what do you call that? Marriage? It’s just a little more precious to me than that. A little more *sacred* to me than that institution I’ve seen so many straight couples take for granted. It took a little more work than even that ancient institution that the religious right seems convinced we’re just not meant to enter.

    No, we don’t need Marriage. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Obama for that matter – you can all fucking keep marriage. We just need respect and equality; so when there are estate and hospital issues that hatred and misunderstanding don’t get in the way of what really should be done.

    Those are some hopeful statistics; thanks Ryan.

    • collapse expand

      Andy – I’m with you. Obviously I support gay marriage (being under 65 and all), but I’m skeptical of the rush to conform to heterosexual norms. Didn’t we once call that heterosexism?

      I guess a lot of people want to be the same as everybody else instead of being different. But I think the gay rights movement could have achieved something better than marriage – kind of like the hippies could have achieved real justice in society. I’d like to have a heterosexual civil union, but it’s not possible in California. And I’m not a huge fan of marriage…Maybe I’ll get a civil union in another state.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    It does seem likely such a generational change in attitudes will occur, but perhaps the difference is due to a difference in values between parents (who are likely to be older) and non-parents (likely to be younger). I cannot seem to find any surveys comparing the acceptance of same-sex marriage by parents and non-parents. More importantly though, I would ask why this possibility did not occur to you (and many others) before reading this comment.

    - wideworldreport.org

  4. collapse expand

    Ryan while I can take comfort in the fact that history is on my side I am not willing to wait for the over 65 set to die off before I have full equal protection under the law as is every American’s right.

  5. collapse expand

    I note that every one of the states below the 18-29 50% line (excluding those that were not yet states in 1861) was a member of the Confederacy.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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