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Americans are much divided on issues of gay rights

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: December 11, 2003

More than a quarter of American adults say they would vote against political candidates who publicly acknowledge being gay or lesbian, a new poll has found.

A majority of Americans say they oppose allowing homosexuals to legally marry. But adults are much more divided over whether to permit legally recognized gay unions, according to a survey of 1,054 adults conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Gay politicians and political activists are divided over whether there has been anti-homosexual fallout following recent court rulings and legislative proposals to grant legal recognition to gay couples.

"There definitely has been a bit of a backlash, more than I originally would have thought," said Mark Mead, spokesman for Log Cabin Republicans, a group advocating gay rights within the GOP. "Clearly, there are soccer moms who are with us on the issues of equality but who really think the word 'marriage' belongs only to them. And they want to keep it that way."

Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat and the first openly gay member of Congress to be re-elected, disagrees.

"When I acknowledged being gay in 1987, we asked people if this would make them less likely to vote for me. The number then was about 22 percent," Frank said. "That was a higher percentage than this poll is showing in the Northeast now."

Nationally, the poll found that 27 percent said they would be likely to vote against "a candidate for Congress who publicly said he is gay." Three percent said his sexual orientation would make them more likely to support the candidate, 67 percent said it would make no difference and 3 percent were undecided.

The findings varied dramatically by region. Nineteen percent of residents from the Northeast said they would vote against gay candidates, compared to 32 percent in the South.

The survey found nearly identical results for a female congressional candidate who acknowledged being a lesbian.

How Americans react to homosexuality sharply divides along many political and social lines, the survey found.

Americans who would support gay politicians or would grant legal recognition to gay couples tend to be young, single, childless, liberal, oriented toward the Democratic Party, urban or suburban, and not intensely involved in organized religion.

Self-described strong conservatives and Republicans tend to be at least three times more likely to oppose gay politicians as are strong liberals and Democrats.

"The people who are opposed tend to be very conservative _ most of them, but not all _ and would be inclined to vote against a gay candidate because of his or her political positions, I would think," said Frank.

The survey found 42 percent were "strongly opposed" when asked: "Recently, there has been talk about allowing gays and lesbians to marry a partner of the same sex. What do you think about same-sex marriage?" Ten percent were "somewhat opposed," 27 percent were either strongly or mildly in favor.

But 36 percent said they support "a law that would allow gay or lesbian couples to legally form civil unions, giving them some of the legal rights of married couples." The poll found 44 percent opposed such unions and 20 percent were uncertain.

"This is a matter for the American people to decide. Traditional marriage is under attack by judicial activists," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. Sessions, angered last month by a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling that gays have a right to legally sanctioned unions, introduced a constitutional amendment stating that "marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."

Sessions said his amendment would not prevent state legislatures from creating legally recognized civil unions. And, when told of the survey findings, he said the politics of homosexuality is becoming complex.

"A number (of gay candidates) have been successful," Sessions said. "People maybe are willing to dismiss that in favor of other qualities a candidate may have. A candidate just has to state his case to the people."

Mead agreed: "Most gay candidates who are successful aren't elected because they are gay, but because they are good candidates."

The poll found that incumbent members of Congress, generally speaking, are not helping their re-election chances by either permitting homosexual marriage or same-sex civil unions.

Adults in the survey were about four times more likely to say they would vote against an incumbent who supports either proposal than to say they would be more likely to support the incumbent. Nearly half said the issue would "make no difference" to them.

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 20 through Nov. 4 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

Further details of the poll and the operations of the Scripps Survey Research Center can be found at www.newspolls.org.