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George Vlahakis
IU Media Relations

Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2003

Professor finds that public opinions of single-sex marriage not as polarized as many people think

EDITORS: Powell is available for interviews. Call George Vlahakis at IU Media Relations at 812-855-0846 (office) or 888-514-3889 (pager) to arrange for an interview.

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In light of the Nov. 18 court decision in Massachusetts on the rights of same-sex couples to marry, an Indiana University professor has released preliminary results of a national, non-partisan study of public attitudes on the issue.

In many instances, people's views on the issue were affected by whether children were part of the equation. While younger people tended to be more accepting of single-sex marriages, an important subset of older respondents consistently were more favorable to them. Also, women generally were more in favor of single-sex marriages than men.

"The survey indicated there are three real clusters out there on gay issues: those who are strongly in favor of gay rights, those who are strongly opposed and then this block in the middle. The block in the middle is grappling to come up with some sense of where they want to be on the issue," said Brian Powell, the Allen D. and Polly S. Grimshaw Professor of sociology. "It's 'yes,' 'no' and this big 'maybe.'"

How people define families

Respondents were asked about kinds of living arrangements and whether they constituted a family unit. While people were in complete agreement about the traditional family unit consisting of a husband, wife and children, opinions about other living arrangements were affected by the presence of children in these relationships.

Eighty-one percent of respondents nationwide said they believed that an unmarried man and woman with children constituted a family. This number dropped to 54 percent when people were asked about two lesbians living together as a couple with children and to 52 percent when two gay men were a couple with at least one child.

However, when children were not a factor, approval for less-traditional living arrangements dropped considerably. Acceptance of an unmarried man and woman as a family unit fell to 31 percent; two gay men without children, to 27 percent; and two gay women without children, to 28 percent. Interestingly, only 93 percent of respondents said they viewed a traditional married couple as a family when there were no children involved. With children, this statistic was 100 percent.

"Clearly, having children becomes a very critical component," Powell said. "The thing that surprised me was that if you look at the questions with children/without children, there's some kind of interaction effect. When there are no children, people don't tend to differentiate as much between cohabiting couples and gay couples. But when there are children, they do."

Opinions change with age, except among baby boomers

If one compares the responses of people between ages 18 and 29 to those over age 65, twice as many younger people are more likely to accept single-sex relationships. There also is a middle group of people ages 45 to 54 who are more likely to recognize gay couples as families.

On the question of whether two women living as a couple with children were a family, 73 percent of people ages 18-24 and 68 percent of those ages 25 to 29 accepted the arrangement. This statistic dropped to 49 percent among those between ages 30 and 44, but then rose to 59 percent among those between ages 45 and 54. Acceptance dropped to 40 percent and below among older people. The pattern was the same when the question was about two gay men with children.

"People who were coming of age in the late 1960s tend to be a little more liberal than you would expect from the straight linear decline. There is this baby boom blip," Powell said. "Certain attitudes about the world are crystalized when people are young adults, and one needs to look at what was happening to people when they were young. People ages 45 to 54 were reaching adulthood in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in a period of time that was very different in terms of issues from 10 years earlier and 10 years later.

"Women are going to have a more inclusive definition of family than men, but interestingly, the difference is not as big as the difference by age. Age trumps gender. It trumps education and income. Age is the biggest factor," Powell said.

Gender differences on the issue

In the survey, women consistently were more accepting of different kinds of human relationships.

-- Eighty-one percent of women said an unmarried heterosexual couple with a child was a family, compared to 77 percent of men.
-- Fifty-nine percent of women accepted two women as a couple with a child, compared to 49 percent of men.
-- Fifty-eight percent of women accepted two gay men with a child, compared to 46 percent of men.
-- Unmarried heterosexual couples without children were accepted by 36 percent of women, compared to 25 percent of men.
-- Two lesbians without a child were accepted by 31 percent of women and by 21 percent of men.
-- Two gay men without a child were accepted by 30 percent of women and by 21 percent of men.

"Very few people distinguished between gay couples and lesbian couples for these answers, but when they did, men were more likely than women to do that," Powell said.

"The gender differences are based in part on what people are focusing on in their definition of family," he added. "Women were more likely than men to really talk about some kind of affectional ties. They're more likely to talk about whether there is love, care and emotion. If that's what people are really focusing on, then who's doing it is less important."

Questions about civil rights

The debate over single-sex marriages has focused on whether gay couples enjoy the same economic and legal rights as heterosexual couples. The survey found there was little support for single-sex couples on questions relating to adoption, the filing of joint tax returns, domestic partner benefits and inheritance rights.

"The only point that people actually said 'yes' to was hospital visitation rights," Powell said. "Economic rights issues for gay couples without children are not something that our sample was supportive of. This is interesting because when people talk about gay marriage, they discuss certain rights and obligations that gay couples don't have as a function of not being married. I'm not sure that's a big selling point, based on these interviews."

Due to the length of the survey, similar questions about these economic issues were not asked concerning gay couples with children.

Are unrelated roommates seen as family?

One interesting finding resulted from questions about living arrangements involving unrelated roommates that were not involved romantically. Nearly twice as many people ages 65 and older (17 percent) indicated that housemates could constitute a family unit than did college-aged people (10 percent). It was even lower for every other age group.

"I call this the 'Golden Girls' effect," Powell said. "People at retirement, on one hand, tend to be very traditional about issues of sexuality, but in terms of what they count as family, they are more likely to accept housemates as a sort of family unit." Their views may be affected by major changes in life, such a move to a retirement home or a loss of a spouse.

Survey findings came from a combined, random phone survey of 712 Americans, conducted by the Center for Survey Research at IU. Interviews were conducted in mid-summer at about the same time as the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas. Powell said the results of the court's decision -- which struck down a Texas sodomy statute -- did not affect his results. His research will appear at a later date in journal articles.