Legalizing Gay Marriage Reduced Homophobia

A new study finds that state laws sent a strong message about how norms were changing—and homophobia declined as a result.

Amy Klein-Matheny and her wife Jennifer are married by Reverend Peg Esperanza in the Polk County Administration Building on April 27th, 2009, in Des Moines, Iowa, on the first day gay couples were allowed to marry in the state following a ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court.

The fact that Democratic presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg’s homosexuality has been largely seen as a non-issue is evidence of a startling societal shift. How did America get so accepting of same-sex relationships in so short a time?

New research suggests that one catalyst was the state-level legalization of gay marriage.

“While anti-gay bias has been decreasing over time,” writes a research team led by McGill University psychologist Eugene Ofosu, it did so “at roughly double the rate” after a given state legalized same-sex nuptials.

This acceleration indicates that “government legislation can inform attitudes, even on religiously and politically entrenched positions,” the researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To measure popular attitudes toward same-sex relationships, the researchers analyzed two large data sets. The first featured about one million people who logged onto the Project Implicit website between 2006 and 2016. The site allows visitors to state their conscious feelings on hot-topic issues, and measures their unconscious feelings toward the same subjects using specially designed tests.

In addition, the team analyzed data on more than 10,000 participants in the American National Elections Studies, which asked people to indicate the level of warmth they felt toward gays and lesbians. The surveys were taken in 2008, 2012, and 2016, meaning “they were collected across all 50 states before, during, and after same-sex marriage legislation” went into effect.

They found that, consistently, the passage of such laws significantly influenced attitudes in favor of acceptance.

“We find both implicit and explicit anti-gay bias was decreasing or stable over time before same-sex marriage legislation,” the researchers report. “However, following the passing of legislation perceived as supportive of this marginalized population, on average, anti-gay bias declined at a steeper rate.”

Further analysis suggested “attitudes and legislation may be mutually reinforcing,” the researchers say: “Evolving attitudes toward same-sex marriage may have served as an impetus and momentum for both state and federal legislation.” These new laws “in turn strengthened and consolidated favorable attitudes toward lesbians and gay men.”

The researchers point to one exception to this trend: States that had not legalized gay marriage, but were forced to do so after the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, experienced “increased anti-gay bias over time.” This “backlash” effect apparently reflects the “sense of symbolic threat” to people’s lifestyles and values in these socially conservative states.

Nevertheless, the overall effect of state-level laws was positive (if not huge) and persistent, suggesting that “government legislation can cause changes in the attitudes of its citizens regarding minority groups.”

There is a caveat to this good-news story. There already is a lot of evidence that President Donald Trump, through his rhetoric, is normalizing racism and xenophobia. This latest research suggests that, if some of those anti-immigrant sentiments are codified into state-level law, it could accelerate that trend.

Clearly, Americans look to our elected leaders for guidance on what is acceptable and what is not. That’s not as comforting a thought as it was a couple of years ago.
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