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Americans are expanding their definitions of 'family' to include same-sex couples and their children

Over time, 'holidays' have practically become synonymous with 'family' for sentimental, religious, and of course, commercial reasons. More recently, a new family portrait has emerged as a majority of Americans now include same-sex couples and their children in their definitions of family.

This growing acceptance in recent years has come at a surprisingly quick pace, says Indiana University sociologist Brian Powell, who notes that social change in the U.S. usually occurs at glacial speeds. It comes in the midst of a flurry of legal, legislative and political activity both in support of and in opposition to same-sex marriage and civil unions.

Is Leave it to Beaver being replaced with Modern Family, the popular family comedy that includes a gay couple with a daughter?

As the cultural and political battles wage on, with both sides claiming victories and suffering defeats, American public opinion, according to Powell's nationally representative surveys, appears to be moving steadily toward acceptance -- although far from a warm embrace -- of both same-sex unions and the notion that same-sex couples with or without children are a family unit.

Kids are kids are kids

Children, according to the surveys, can make all the difference when it comes to same-sex couples and cohabitating heterosexual couples. His surveys indicate that around two-thirds of Americans agree that gay couples with kids count as a family. However, less than half of this group feels the same about same-sex couples who do not have children. Eighty-one percent of Americans considered cohabitating heterosexual couples with children a family while only half of respondents felt the same about similar couples who do not have children.

Alternative Family

"For many people children convey the notion of commitment. It signals being there for the long haul," Powell said. "Children mean that you have some type of responsibilities. It's something that can't easily be severed."

Here are some more findings from Powell's 2003 and 2006 national surveys, written about in Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family, (Russell Sage Foundation, 2010), and a third survey conducted earlier this year.

  • In 2003, around 41 percent of the respondents supported gay marriage, yet 53.6 percent agreed that two men living with a child constituted a "family," and 55 percent said the same thing about two women living with a child. By 2010, 52 percent said they were in favor of gay marriage and 68 percent said they believed that gays living with kids are families.
  • Between 2003 and 2010, the number of people who adamantly opposed gay marriage declined from 45 percent of the surveys' respondents to 35 percent. Powell said they still represent a powerful political bloc because this issue is especially important to them .
  • More acceptance for same-sex couples as families was found along the East and West coasts. Respondents in the Midwest were mixed. Respondents in the South were more resistant to the idea with the most resistance found in the Deep South.
  • 30 percent of respondents considered pets as family but not gay couples as family.
  • In 2003 the researchers found that 20- to 29-year-olds were the most supportive of gay marriage; by 2010, that group had expanded upward to age 38. The age group least supportive of gay marriage was 65 and older in both surveys but the younger and more supportive group did not appear to become more conservative about the issue as it aged.
  • In 2003, 58 percent of respondents said they didn't have any family or friends who were gay. By 2010, only 40 percent said they didn't have any gay friends or relatives. Only 18 percent said they didn't know anyone who was gay.

"Four out of five people said they know someone who's gay. It's an amazing figure," Powell said. "It's about people being more open about themselves or people being more aware or attuned. There's a notion of familiarity. You look at the TV shows; many reality shows have gay characters -- Big Brother, Amazing Race, Top Chef. Major TV shows such as The Good Wife, Glee and Modern Family have gay characters. There's an increase in the visibility of characters."

Powell's book and research findings received a tremendous amount of media interest this fall, with reports appearing in national media outlets including the New York Times and ABC Evening News. He took calls from 'America' when he appeared on CSPAN's show The Washington Journal. In a segment titled "Guess Who's Coming to (Thanksgiving) Dinner?" Powell discussed his findings and related issues on the NPR show Tell Me More. In early December, opinion pieces penned by Powell appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.

A novel question: What makes a family?

For 30 years, Powell, James H. Rudy Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been examining issues involving family and education, such as the role family plays in children's educational success and how advantages or disadvantages are passed between generations. Some of his studies have involved biracial families, adoptive families and families often considered non-traditional -- which raised the question of what people really mean when they talk about "family."

"It's fascinating that this hasn't already been looked at," Powell said. "Academics might assume it's already been studied. The notion of family is just assumed when people write or talk about 'our families.'

Powell has received funding from the National Science Foundation, National Center for Family and Marriage Research and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning & Evaluation in the Department of Health and Human Services to continue the research. He said it could not have gotten to this point without the Sociological Research Practicum, which gives undergraduate and graduate students experience collecting data and managing research projects -- seeing what Powell described as the "messiness" that's hidden from view when they read research articles in journals or analyze data that was collected by other researchers.

The students spent on average around 45 minutes on each telephone interview with adults of all ages and backgrounds from across the country.

"The students' reaction mostly was surprise," Powell said. "Their reference group seemed to be less their family or hometown than their college peers. Some students were surprised by the number of very traditional positions out there. Some students were surprised to learn during pretraining that at times they would need to explain words such as 'heterosexual,' 'feminism' and 'civil union.'"

More than 1,500 people were surveyed for the book and more than 800 people participated in the 2010 survey. The surveys were conducted under the supervision of Powell and the Center for Survey Research at IU. The coauthors of the book are Catherine Bolzendahl, former student now on the faculty at the University of California-Irvine; Claudia Geist, former student now on the faculty at University of Utah; and Lala Carr Steelman, a longtime collaborator of Powell's on the faculty at the University of South Carolina.

To read more articles from the Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, visit