College Freshmen Increasingly Progay

College freshmen continued their decade-long upward trend of support for gay marriage in fall 2007, according to a mammoth annual survey of more than 270,000 freshmen at 356 colleges and universities just released by the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at the University of California, Los Angeles.

One year earlier, in fall 2006, 61.2 percent of college freshmen supported “legal marital status” for gay and lesbian couples. By fall 2007, that percentage had risen by 2.3 percentage points to 63.5 percent.

When the question first was asked in 1997, just 50.9 percent of freshmen supported “legal marital status” for gays.

Except for a downward blip in 2004 prompted in part by President George W. Bush’s advocacy of a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage, the percentage of support has risen at an average rate of slightly more than 1 percentage point per year.

The language “legal marital status” was chosen to refer only to civil unions or civil marriage, and avoid the issue of whether churches should offer religious marriage ceremonies.

The survey also asked whether “it is important to have laws prohibiting homosexual relationships.” Support for such laws fell from 25.6 percent in fall 2006 to 24.3 percent in fall 2007, a drop of 1.3 percentage points.

When that question first was asked in 1976, freshman support for such laws stood at 43.6 percent, so antigay attitudes have fallen nearly 20 points in 30 years. Support for antigay laws rose briefly during the peak years of the AIDS crisis in 1986 and 1987, but as public anxiety subsided, support resumed a steady decline.

The phrase “laws prohibiting homosexual relationships” is ambiguous, however.

In 1976, it clearly referred to sodomy laws, because legal gay marriage was not a public issue. But now that gay marriage is an issue, some students may take the term to refer to “defense of marriage” laws limiting marriage to a man and a woman. If so, the continued decline in support for such laws is especially welcome news.

As in past years, women were far more gay-supportive than men. More than seven out of ten freshman women (70.3 percent) thought that gays should have the right to legal marital status. Among freshman men, a smaller 55.3 percent thought gays should have that right.

Similarly, only 18.1 percent of freshman women—fewer than one out of five—approved of laws prohibiting homosexual behavior, while 31.8 percent of freshman men approved of such laws. Still, this was the first year that support among men fell below one-third.

People have speculated about the reason for male/female differences in attitudes. But two possibilities stand out.

One possibility is that when the term “homosexual” is used, most people probably think of male homosexuals. Most heterosexual men are offended by femininity in other men, so to the extent that gay men still are perceived to be feminine, heterosexual men tend to be antigay. By contrast, most heterosexual women do not seem to be bothered by male femininity.

The other possibility is that attitudes toward gay men are influenced by focusing on their sexual behavior, so what has been called the “yuck factor” affecting many male heterosexuals when they think of gay sex comes into play, and contaminates their public policy views.

The only obvious way to counter both is for more heterosexuals to get to know gays as individuals, which would reduce their tendency to think of behavior of gays in the abstract.

The freshman survey is designed primarily to elicit information about the freshmen’s family and academic background, along with college and career plans. But it does contain a small unit asking freshmen whether they agree or disagree with statements about more than a dozen public issues, of which the questions about gay marriage and sodomy laws are a part.

On other issues of potential interest, 56.9 percent support legal abortion; 35.1 percent oppose capital punishment; decriminalized marijuana drew 38.2 percent approval; 25.8 percent supported raising taxes to reduce the federal deficit; only 31.4 percent think military spending should be increased; and 66.2 percent think that the US military should remain all volunteer.

In addition, 32 percent of the freshmen described themselves as “liberal” or “far left,” an increase over last year of 1 point, while the percentage describing themselves as “conservative” or “far right” fell by a similar 1 point to 24.6 percent. The rest described themselves as “middle of the road.” No option was offered for “libertarian” (socially liberal, free-market advocate).

Finally, exactly 25 percent described themselves as “Born-Again Christian” and 9.8 percent as “Evangelical.” But more than one-fifth (21.4 percent) described themselves as having “no religious preference,” an all-time high for that category. No option was offered for “atheist” or “agnostic.”

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