Do gay Americans support same-sex marriage? It depends on what you mean by “gay”

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Here’s some data that shows the complexity of sexuality and politics. Support for same-sex marriage depends much more on sexual identity than on sexual history.

Most adults who have had sex with someone of the same gender do not identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. As I noted in a previous post, only two percent of Americans identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  But there is another group between four and five percent of Americans who say that they are “straight” or “heterosexual” even though they have had homosexual sex. It turns out that these two groups differ on the question of same-sex marriage. Those who identify as gay are very supportive of same-sex marriage, but those who have had gay sex but don’t identify as such are closer to straight people. This is particularly true among those who are at least minimally religious.

These results are based on the General Social Survey (GSS). Since 2008, the GSS has asked people about same-sex marriage, their sexual identity, and their sexual history. Based on these questions, we can compare how people identify themselves (straight, gay, lesbian, or bisexual) and their sexual history, which may include homosexual experiences. There are three categories that we can put people:

  • Straight:  Identify as straight or heterosexual and who have never had homosexual sex.
  • Closeted: Identify as straight or heterosexual but who have had sex with someone of the same gender.
  • Openly gay: Identify as gay, lesbian, homosexual, or bisexual.

The term “closeted” here simply means that their identity doesn’t match their sexual experience. Some of them may not be willing to say to a survey researcher that they are gay. Others may view their past experiences as unrelated to their current sexual identity. They may even see their sexual experiences as sinful or deviant. Some may be in denial, or as a colleague remarked to me: people who are so far into the closet that the light from the room doesn’t even reach them.

The graph shows the percent who agree that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.” This data is based on over 7,000 people interviewed asked about same-sex marriage and sexuality in the past four GSS (2008, 2010, 2012, and  2014). “Closeted” Americans hold opinions on same-sex marriage that are closer to those who are straight than of those openly gay.

I divided the survey between those who are religious and those who are not. The “religious” are those with a minimal level of religiosity: they identify with a religion and they attend religious services at least a few times a year. Among these with a minimal level of religiosity, the difference between open and closeted becomes more stark. Around half of those in the closet support same-sex marriage, which is closer to the support among straight religious people (37%) than openly gay religious people (80%). Among those with no religion, there is less of a difference: straight (58%), closeted (70%), open (85%).

Read more about gays & lesbians in American religion — three charts on the surprising data

There are many different interpretations for why “closeted” are closer to straight Americans. Here are a few possibilities:

  • By identifying as straight, they do not see same-sex marriage as an issue that affects their lives.
  • They do not want to support same-sex marriage because it might reveal something (to themselves or others) about their sexuality.
  • They reject their past experiences as deviant or sinful.
  • They live in a heterosexist context where others view homosexuality as deviant or sinful.

These are some conjectures; they are not mutually exclusive; and there are certainly more explanations (feel free to add some in the comments). Whatever the reasons, the results are noteworthy. On the major question of LGBT rights and of family relationships, sexual identity is more important than sexual experience.

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  • Diogenes

    As an adolescent in the 1970’s struggling with emerging biological maturity, I like many such youngsters yearned for physical intimacy and affirmation. Pretty much a failure in my relationships with the opposite sex ( whom I have adored from a very precocious age) I was ‘groomed’ by some close acquaintances to embrace homosexuality. I had a brief relationship with a fellow who was about 24, I was a very green 18. However much on the surface hormones and intimacy were satisfied, in sum it was a totally unsatisfying experience, which I fled. But both the experience and my subsequent education in worldly things, plus my conversion to Christianity has convinced my that in most instances, if not all, a predilection for same sex attraction is a matter of nurture not nature; a reflective choice. It’s not particularly easy to share this story, but spiritual conviction requires it.

  • Diogenes

    ‘me,’ not ‘my;’ 3rd line from the bottom.

  • ben in oakland

    No, the only thing that is required is honesty. Have you been searching for an honest man, Diogenes?

    First, you weren’t being “groomed”. You’ve read too many t-right wing websites. Someone who saw in you what was obviously there, asked you, and you said yes.

    Second, So you’re bisexual, but mostly hetero. Lots of people make the same discovery. They also make the reverse discovery. It doesn’t say anything about nature versus nurture. you just found it wasn’t for you. I tried heterosexuality very briefly some 40 years ago. I found it wasn’t for me.

    I knew I was gay when I was THREE. I didn’t know what to call it, but I KNEW. I know many people with exactly the same experience. I’ve also known man people who were heterosexual for most of their lives, even though they knew it really wasn’t for them. They came out later in life, and agreed that they were much happier for it.

    It’s very easy for me to share this story because spiritual conviction requires it.

  • Diogenes

    Ben, you cannot speak to my experience, or my assessment of it. You weren’t there, you aren’t me. I reiterate, I was an impressionable adolescent who was emotionally vulnerable…such people are often preyed upon. I do not claim to have been preyed upon. My eyes were wide open, but I did not then understand clearly what I was seeing. Homosexuals are free to live whatever life they desire sexually; my contention is that they cannot do so and at the same time affirm that they are living their lives consistently with the precepts of Christianity. If they choose to reject to reject the clear stipulations of the Bible ( Please no revisionist arguments; I’ve heard them all; they don’t hold water) that also is their free choice. Active homosexuality and the Christian life are mutually exclusive, painful as that is to those who would argue otherwise.