Click here to see statistics from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life relating to changing attitudes on gay marriage.
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While President Obama described his opinion on gay marriage as “evolving,” America's attitude on the controversial topic has been gradually shifting toward approval.
Now Obama officially is for legalizing same-sex marriage. And so, if you believe the polls, are about half of Americans, a decade after only one of every three people supported it.
The support is strongest among young people: Nearly two-thirds of adults born in 1981 or later favor same-sex marriage, according to a survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“Folks of that generation know more lesbian and gay individuals, because people feel more comfortable coming out,” said Jay Irwin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “That exposure to individuals has helped to normalize them ... and remove some of the mystery.”
To be sure, the country as a whole is still deeply divided on the issue. The latest Pew poll shows that 47 percent approve of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, and 43 percent disapprove. Gallup's most recent survey showed 50 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed. That's pretty much a dead heat.
Look what happened this week: North Carolina voters rejected gay marriage, and then the next day, an American president came out in support of it, although Obama said the issue should be up to the states.
And for many who disapprove, their opinions are strongly rooted in religious views and other deeply held values, and unlikely to change. Those include Catholics, evangelical Christians and members of other religious groups who remain adamantly opposed to gay marriage.
Still, the numbers show that Americans' view is changing. Only a decade ago, in 2001, 57 percent disapproved of legalizing same-sex marriage. Only 35 percent approved.
“Every year it gets a little bit closer to going over to majority support,” Irwin said. “It looks like it's trending similarly to how (opinion shifted) on interracial marriages over two decades.”
The level of support has grown across all age groups, although a large majority of baby boomers and those older oppose it.
Heterosexuals' growing personal familiarity with gays and lesbians isn't limited to young people, of course. Irwin noted that openly homosexual people have been more common in the media, especially on television shows such as “Will & Grace,” “Glee” and “Modern Family.”
To Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa professor of political science, public opinion appears to be tracking toward eventual mainstream support for legalizing same-sex marriage.
Asked whether the country has hit a point of being evenly divided and will stay there, or if majority approval is inevitable, Hagle said: “My best guess is that there is an inevitability to it, in large part because you haven't seen large problems in any state where they've legalized same-sex marriage.”
An active Republican, Hagle noted that many people ascribe political motives to Obama's Wednesday declaration.
It has been reported that big-money donors who are gay have been pressuring Obama. And Obama faces an “enthusiasm gap” among a voting bloc that's very important to his re-election chances: college-age voters, Hagle said, noting that Obama recently made a series of visits to campuses in swing states.
The polls on how younger people feel about same-sex marriage can't be lost on the Democratic president, Hagle said. At his university, the College Republicans polled their members on the issue. It came out about evenly split.
In Omaha, Irwin, who teaches courses in sexuality, said it appears that beyond the effects of familiarity and media exposure, people — especially younger generations — also increasingly question why gays and lesbians shouldn't have the same rights as others.
Irwin couldn't point to research supporting the view, but he opined that “people are getting a message that this isn't just about relationships. It's about equal rights.”
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