The state of New York began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples earlier this week. New York's decision to expand the definition of marriage to include gay couples, which affects the third-largest state population in the U.S., is seen by many as an important symbolic victory in the fights over gay rights and marriage.
In the days leading up to the new legislation, proponents of gay marriage said that traditional marriage advocates would find themselves on the wrong side of history. A long-running beliefs poll indicates a dramatic shift in views of homosexuality in recent years: What was once widely believed to be wrong is now considered morally acceptable by a majority of Americans.
From 1973 to 2010, the General Social Survey (GSS) has asked Americans if they think sexual relations between same-sex couples are wrong. Up until 2008, a majority of Americans have answered that such behavior is 'always wrong.' But the latest GSS, conducted in 2010, finds that only 46 percent of Americans hold this position.
The GSS, a federally-funded survey, is considered the gold standard for polling on social behaviors, attitudes, and values and has asked the same question on homosexual behavior since its inception: "Are sexual relations between two adults of the same sex always, almost always, sometimes, or never wrong?" Until the 1990s, opposition to homosexuality ran high. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans said same-sex sexual relations were always wrong.
But the early 90s saw a dramatic change in views toward homosexuality.
In 1991, three-in-four Americans said homosexual relations are always wrong. By the end of the decade, this dropped to just six-in-ten. The survey indicates a rise in acceptance of homosexuality during the following ten years, culminating in 2010 when only 46 percent of Americans said same-sex relations are ‘always wrong'.
This is the first time in the 37 years of polling that those in opposition to same sex relations represented a minority. Most people who do not consider same-sex sexual relations ‘always wrong' say that such behavior is ‘never wrong.' In the 1970s, only 11 to 15 percent of the public said same-sex relations never wrong. Today, 43 percent hold this view, a near- statistical tie for the percentage who say it is always wrong.
Not surprisingly, beliefs about sexual morality dovetail with views on same-sex marriage. In 1988, the GSS first asked if people supported gay marriage. Only 12 percent indicated support, the same percentage that said same-sex sexual relations were never wrong. Jump to 2004, when the GSS next asked about gay marriage: three-in-ten supported same-sex marriage and said homosexuality was never wrong.
As views of sexual morality have shifted, so have views of same-sex marriage. According to many recent surveys, about half of Americans support gay marriage (though it depends on how you ask the question).
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