Do people oppose gay marriage because they dislike gay people, or because they’re in favour of marriages with traditional sex roles for blushing brides and chivalrous grooms? Richard Thompson Ford wrote a piece for Slate last week suggesting that the latter is more important than people think and that opposition to gay marriage doesn’t necessarily stem from homophobia. My colleague John Sides has taken a quick look at the survey results on this – I append his findings below the line. Short version: Ford is likely right that attitudes to traditional sex roles help explain attitudes to gay marriage, but it’s a much less important explanatory factor than basic like/dislike of gay people.
Richard Ford, a law professor at Stanford, authored a recent piece in Slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2145620/nav/tap2/) in which he argues that argues that opposition to gay marriage may not reflect only anti-gay attitudes but also support for traditional gender roles:
“If I’m right, there are two reasons someone might oppose same sex-marriage: anti-gay animus or a desire to protect traditional sex roles.”
This can be tested in a superficial, but nevertheless informative, way using the 2004 American National Election Study (which is perhaps the gold standard of surveys about American politics in political science). This survey contains defensible measures of the three key variables:
1) Attitude toward gay marriage:
The question is worded: “Should same-sex couples be allowed to marry, or do you think they should not be allowed to marry?”
This creates a simple binary support/oppose measure. (Note: the “civil union” option was not a response option, though a small number of people volunteered this as a response. I ignore them for the present purposes.)
2) Feelings towards gays and lesbians
This is measured with a “feeling thermometer,” which asks respondents how warmly or coolly they feel towards a particular group on a 0-100 scale. The instructions for survey respondents said:
“Ratings between 50 degrees and 100 degrees mean that you feel favorable and warm toward the group. Ratings between 0 degrees and 50 degrees mean that you don’t feel favorable toward the group and that you don’t care too much for that group. You would rate the person at the 50 degree mark if you don’t feel particularly warm or cold toward the group.”
This provides a simple but serviceable measure of people’s feelings towards gay men and women.
3) Support for traditional gender roles
“Recently there has been a lot of talk about women’s rights. Some people feel that women should have an equal role with men in running business, industry, and government. (Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1.) Others feel that a woman’s place is in the home. (Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7.) And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6.”
This creates a seven-point scale where one end-point indicates strong support for equality in gender roles and the other end-point indicates strong opposition to equality and support for traditional gender roles.
Then, we can estimate a simple statistical model (a logit model, for any stats geeks out there), where the probability of supporting gay marriage is a function of feelings towards gays and support for traditional gender roles. (The model also includes education, frequency of church attendance, and party identification as control factors.)
What are the results? The results suggest that both attributes have a significant effect on attitudes towards gay marriage. So Ford is right, up to a point. HOWEVER, feelings towards gays have a much stronger effect on attitudes toward gay marriage.
When one shifts from strongly opposing equality for women to strongly supporting equality (i.e., the maximum possible shift on this scale), the probability of support for gay marriage increases by about .26. That is to say, the change that one will support gay marriage increases by 26%.
When one shifts from strong aversion to gays/lesbians to strong affinity for gays/lesbians (i.e., the maximum possible shift on this scale), the probability of support for gay marriage increases by about .74.
Thus the effect of feelings towards gays/lesbians is almost three times as large as that of support for traditional gender roles.
This analysis suggests that attitudes towards gay marriage depend far more on attitudes towards gays themselves than on beliefs about gender roles. Ford’s thesis is less persuasive than it might otherwise be.