Support For Gay And Lesbian Equality On The Rise, NGLTF Policy Institute Study Shows

December 08, 1999

70 percent support right to serve in military; half of Republicans, 74 percent of Democrats back anti-discrimination laws

Roberta Sklar, Director of Communications

The U.S. public overwhelmingly supports equal rights and anti-discrimination protections for lesbians and gay men, and this support has increased markedly during the 1990s, according to a new report on trends in public opinion released by the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. The Policy Institute of the NGLTF is a think-tank dedicated to research, policy analysis, strategy development and coalition building to advance the equality and understanding of GLBT people.

According to polling data from 1999, 70 percent of Americans support the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, up from 55 percent in 1992. Surprisingly, while all the Republican presidential candidates oppose anti-discrimination laws, half of Republican voters support such laws, as do 65 percent of Independents and 74 percent of Democrats.

From Wrongs to Rights: Public Opinion on Gay and Lesbian Americans Moves Toward Equality 1973-1999, authored by Columbia University political scientist Alan Yang, reveals that American public opinion is more supportive of gays and lesbians than are most lawmakers and politicians. The report further reveals that this support for equal rights has grown despite a context of heightened anti-gay activism as well as increased organizing by gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) activists to pass pro-GLBT civil rights and hate crime laws. The report tracks trends in public opinion as measured by questions and polls that ask the same question over time to national, random samples of the U.S. public.

"Presidential candidates opposing anti-discrimination protections are out of touch not only with the American electorate, but with the rank and file of their own party," said Urvashi Vaid, Director of the Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "The overwhelming trend in American public opinion reveals that we have more allies than foes in our struggle for basic equal rights."

Over the past two decades the GLBT community has evolved into a valued and measurable political constituency, with 5 percent of the national electorate identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual (GLB) in national exit polls taken during the 1996 presidential election, and 4.2 percent identifying as GLB in the national exit polls taken during the mid-term election of 1998. Public opinion polls do not yet provide data on public attitudes towards bisexuals and transgender people, and national exit polls have asked voters to self-identify as "gay, lesbian or bisexual."

To date, 235 cities and counties and 28 states have enacted have enacted either civil rights laws or hate crimes laws that include GLBT people. Yet there are no federal laws outlawing discrimination based upon sexual orientation in employment or other categories.

From Wrongs to Rights 1973-1999 documents increased support for gay and lesbian equality in several areas:

  • Today, 83 percent support equal rights in employment and 75 percent support equal rights in housing.

  • In 1996, 68 percent of women and 72 percent of African-Americans supported anti-discrimination laws for gay men and lesbians. Data reveal that women are consistently more supportive of anti-discrimination laws than men (an average of 65 percent of women supported anti-discrimination laws in four surveys from 1988 to 1996, versus 55 percent of men), and African-Americans are consistently more supportive of equal employment rights than white Americans (an average of 68 percent of blacks vs. 60 percent of whites in four surveys from 1988 to 1996).

  • In 1998, 55 percent of those surveyed reported having a gay friend or acquaintance, up from 43 percent in 1994 and 24 percent in 1983. Such data correlates with increasing support for GLBT rights, supporting the conclusion that greater knowledge of openly gay or lesbian people fosters greater tolerance and support for equal rights laws.

  • As familiarity with openly gay and lesbian people has increased, disapproval of same-sex relations has consistently declined since the early 1990s. Gallup reports a drop in disapproval from 57 percent in 1992 to 46 percent in 1999. The National Opinion Research Center tracks a decline in disapproval from 73 percent in 1990 to 58 percent in 1998.

  • 61 percent of Americans supported the hiring of gay and lesbian high school teachers in 1999, up from 27 percent in 1977. In 1997, 63 percent said school boards shouldn't be able to fire a teacher because he or she is gay.

  • 75 percent support the hiring of gay and lesbian doctors in 1999, up from 53 percent in 1992 and 44 percent in 1977.

  • 57 percent of self-described conservatives supported the right of gays and lesbians to serve in the military, as did 70 percent of moderates and 91 percent of liberals, according to a 1996 National Election Study. In 1999 70 percent of all respondents told Gallup that they supported gays and lesbians serving in the armed forces, up from 55 percent in a National Election Study poll in 1992. This sharp increase in support occurred against the backdrop of increased purges of homosexual servicemembers since the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy was adopted in 1993. Discharges for homosexuality increased 86 percent from 1993 to 1998, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

  • Solid majorities support Social Security benefits for the same-sex partners of gay and lesbian people, as well as inheritance rights for same-sex spouses.

The Yang study also documents lower levels of support for the rights of gay and lesbian couples to marry and adopt children. Less than one-third of respondents support the right to civil marriage for same-sex couples, according to two 1998 polls (29 percent and 33 percent). And only 36 percent support the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. Put into context, Vaid noted, these results are not that surprising. "Same-sex marriage and same-sex couples adopting children are issues new to the public¼s consciousness, just as openly gay people teaching or being doctors were new concepts 20 years ago. Over time, there is every reason to believe that this trend will change and that support for gay adoptive parents and for the rights of same-sex couples will continue to increase."

Vaid cited the fact that same-sex unions are allowed by several European countries as a sign that governments internationally are changing their policies. "The marriage issue is one that will be with us into the next century and one that is of critical importance to many GLBT people," Vaid said. "We believe that public opinion will change as the debate continues."

Copies of the report are available on the NGLTF web site at or may be purchased for $10 by calling 202-332-6483.


The mission of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force is to build the political power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community from the ground up. We do this by training activists, organizing broad-based campaigns to defeat anti-LGBT referenda and advance pro-LGBT legislation, and by building the organizational capacity of our movement. Our Policy Institute, the movementís premier think tank, provides research and policy analysis to support the struggle for complete equality and to counter right-wing lies. As part of a broader social justice movement, we work to create a nation that respects the diversity of human expression and identity and creates opportunity for all. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., we also have offices in New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis and Cambridge.